Is Marriage Really Declining?

Yes, But How Much May Depend on How You Define It

I’ve been brushing up on my marriage and family research recently because I’m considering writing a book (*gasp* no I won’t tell you what it’s about), and found myself very frustrated by literature about the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). So here I’m going to make a brief, data-free discussion of what I see as a major problem in discussions of marriage and demographics.

In the 1950s, marriage rates were high. Many people got married after very short courtship periods at a young age with very little sexual or other life experience. Combined with rapidly changing gender norms, and then changing laws about divorce, many of these marriages ended in divorce, giving escalating divorce rates until the 1980s. Today, marriage rates have fallen as marriage is postponed.

That’s the conventional story. Add in delayed childbearing and you’ve got the “Second Demographic Transition.”

But… that’s not quite what really happens. The reality is that Marriage + Cohabitation has fallen less than Marriage alone. Many marriages have been replaced by cohabitation arrangements, or other enduring intimate family-like ties.

I know multiple couples who have kids, own a house together, and have been together for several years, but refuse to identify as “married.” Marriage is too much commitment, or they dislike the legal structure of it, or they are “opposed to the institution,” or whatever.

So let’s say you’re that cohabitor. You’re not married, so you say. So when a surveyor shows up at your door and asks you, “Are you married?” you say “No.” “Do you have kids?” “Yes.” Bam! Out of wedlock births! Out of wedlock birth is skyrocketing!

But, hello, you have kids and own a home together. You are already married in all but name. In many countries and states, you really are legally married under a common law marriage, even if you assert that you’re not married.

Meanwhile, the Indian immigrant couple who met on their wedding day, live in a parent’s house, and have no kids yet say they are married, despite demonstrably having fewer social, economic, and legal ties binding them together (I’m assuming our cohabitors live in a common-law marriage locality).

My point here is that, for statistical purposes of family structure, “marriage” is becoming less meaningful. What we really want to know is, “Do you reside in a stable intimate relationship that has endured at least X years?” This would exclude new marriages (that are prone to divorce!) but include enduring “non-marriage” relationships. My guess is that while these enduring intimate relationships may have declined, they haven’t declined nearly as much as marriage per se.

Without knowing this data (and if somebody knows a survey, especially with time series, that tracks this or something like it, let me know), it’s hard to say whether de facto marriage has really declined that much. All we really know is that peoples’ attitudes and values towards the word “marriage” have changed.

And even then, one has to wonder how these statistics would look restricted to the heterosexual population, as we’ve had compositional changes in the self-identification of sexuality in the population, and in access to formal “marriage” for homosexual couples. Again, my suspicion is that the “enduring relationship” rate among self-identifying heterosexuals has declined less than the headline rate. In which case a large part of the SDT is really just a break in the time series as a formerly overwhelmingly heteronormative population becomes less so. If indeed the self-identifying heterosexual population has declined from, say, 98% in the 1950s to 94% today, that may boost the “enduring relationship” rate if those 4% are less likely to be married in either the 1950s or today (as seems plausible). Given that the self-identifying homosexual population is higher in younger cohorts where the SDT is felt most strongly, this effect may be large.

My point in all this is to say that because of how blunt the tools are that I’ve seen most cited, I’m not sure we really know as much as we think about how American family structure is changing. If much of what we’re really seeing is more non-heteronormative self-identification and refusal to identify as “married”, this could dramatically reduce the measured decline in marriage rates.

Just thinking out loud here. I invite criticism.


PS- As a Christian, I do of course care about marriage per se. However, I have several thoughts about this. First, even many de jure marriages may be suspect to many Christian denominations due to prior divorce, so the “raw marriage rate” isn’t an indicator of “Christian marriage” to begin with. Second, “Christian marriage” implies religious marriage, and many marriages that may abide by Christian views of what marriage is (i.e. non incestual, non-serial) may not be religious, i.e. may be by a court official. Certainly Christian churches regard these marriages as valid (indeed church marriage arrives rather late in Christian practice), but nonetheless, again, the headline marriage rate simply is not analogous to “Christian marriage.” Third, some Christian traditions believe that de facto marriages (or even just casual sex) are themselves actual sacramentalized marriages; that is, sex itself creates a marriage, in which case my “de facto marriage” calculation would be a more accurate view of Christian marriage. Fourth, some Christians get married in the church, but do not become legally married. Presumably they would tell a survey-taker that they’re married, but maybe not! Again, the measured marriage rate may not have any close correspondence to “Christian marriage.”

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

If you like this post and want to see more research like it, I’d love for you to share it on Twitter or Facebook. Or, just as valuable for me, you can click the recommend button at the bottom of the page. Thanks!

Follow me on Twitter to keep up with what I’m writing and reading. Follow my Medium Collection at In a State of Migration if you want updates when I write new posts. And if you’re writing about migration too, feel free to submit a post to the collection!

I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.