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Recent trends in marriage, mainly in the U.S.

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See also an essay on changes, including re-definitions, of marriages since before biblical times

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Recent trends in marriages:

The institution of marriage is in a continuous state of flux. Recent major changes include:

  • Same-sex marriages (SSM): The Netherlands became the first country in recent history to have legalized same-sex marriages. Since 2000-DEC-19, Dutch same-sex couples have been permitted to marry and adopt children, with the full privileges enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. Belgium was the next country to follow suit in 2003-JAN. A number of provinces and one territory in Canada gradually legalized same-sex marriage, starting in 2003-JUN. On 2004-MAY, the state of Massachusetts followed suit. During 2005-JUL, same-sex marriage was legalized across all of Canada and Spain. Next were South Africa and Israel. This trend continues as a majority of citizens in diverse countries and states approve of SSM, and their governments respond to public opinion by legalizing them. More details.

  • Covenant marriages: These are like regular marriages, except that they are more difficult to get into, and out of. They are only available in a few states, and form an option to "normal" marriage. Covenanting couples must first attend a pre-marital counseling course, and agree to seek counseling if their marriage later goes on the rocks. No-fault divorce is not available to them. They have to prove adultery or abuse or remain separated for a specified time interval before they are eligible to apply for a divorce.

    Covenant marriages do not appear to have been particularly successful. They appear to be considered too restrictive. Only a few percentage of marrying couples take advantage of them in the few states where they are available.

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2002: National Marriage Project report:

The State of our Unions report for the year 2002, produced by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, contains a great deal of information about trends in marriage, including:
  • Age at first marriage: The median age of men getting married for the first time had risen to 27. This is the highest age in the history of the U.S. Co-author Dr. David Popenoe speculates that this delay is mainly caused by two factors:

    • Pre-marital sex is now generally accessible to youths and young adults.

    • Couples typically live together for some time before deciding to marry.

  • Divorce: In about the year 1980, the annual rate of divorces reached a peak at 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women age 15 and over. It has steadily dropped for each five year interval since. As of the year 2000, it was 18.9. Surprisingly, the divorce rate among religious conservatives is much higher than among religious liberals and secularists.

  • Unmarried Cohabitation (a.k.a. "living together"): Most heterosexual couples now "spend some time living together outside of marriage." The total number of unmarried, cohabiting opposite-sex couples increased by over ten times from 1960 to 2000: from 439,000 to 4.7 million couples. Among high school students 65.7% of men and 59.1% of women "agreed" or "mostly agreed" that "It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along."

  • Having babies: The number of births per 1000 women, aged 15 to 44 has been dropping steadily, from 118 in 1960, to 67.5 in 2000. The "total fertility rate" for women is now 2.13 children. A rate of 2.11 is needed to maintain a constant population, assuming no immigration, no emigration, and the current mortality rates and life expectancies.

  • Single-parent families: The percentage of children under 18 years of age who live with a single parent has trebled since 1960: from 9% in 1960 to 27% in 2000. Most Black children (53%) currently live with a single parent.

  • Births to unmarried women: The percentage of births by unmarried women rose by more than six times since 1960: from 5.3% in 1960 to 33.2% in 2000. Among Black women, more than two thirds (68.5%) of mothers are unmarried. These data include single women, women living with a man, single lesbians, and lesbians in committed relationships. 1,2

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2011: Pew Research Center's report:

Their report covers Americans aged 18 years and older from 1960 to 2010. Data is derived from Census Bureau reports. Their conclusions show a very rapid change in the nature of marriage in the U.S.:

  • Only 51% of adults are currently married -- an all-time low. In 1960, two generations ago, 72% of adults were married.

    • 55% of Whites are currently married, compared to 74% in 1960.
    • 48% of Hispanics are currently married, compared to 72% in 1960.
    • 31% of Blacks are currently married, compared to 61% in 1960.

  • Currently 72% of adults have been married either now or at sometime during their life. This percentage was 85% in 1960.

  • Compensating for the drop in marriage, rates of cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood have all increased.

  • The median age at first marriage was 26.5 for brides and 28.7 for grooms in 2010 -- an all-time high. These represent an increase of about 6 years since 1960!

  • The number of new marriages declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010, perhaps caused by a combination of the slow decline of marriage generally, the bad economy, and high unemployment rate.

  • 39% of American adults believe that marriage is becoming obsolete.

  • 61% of those who have never been married would like to do so sometime in the future. However only 26% of adults who are not currently married but have been married in the past want to get married again in the future. 3,4

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Is the drop in marriages being caused by the availability of same-sex marriage:

We expect that many individuals and agencies who are opposed to same-sex marriage will conclude that the sudden drop in the number of marriages in the U.S. has been caused by the introduction of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia and, as of early 2012, six states. Many religious and social conservatives view SSM as a threat to opposite-sex marriage. However, a close look at the trend in current marital status indicates that this is improbable:

Current marital status 1960-2010 4

  • The percentage of married adults dropped steadily from 1960 to 1990, long before SSM became an issue.
  • The percentage remained very stable during the 1990s.
  • The percentage started to decline steadily during the 2000s.
  • The latter decline started four years before the first state legalized same-sex marriage.

In addition, Massachusetts remains the state with the lowest divorce rate in the nation, even as it was the first state to legalize SSM. That happened in 2004.

Finally, Pew Research noted that a UN report concluded that for:

"... the share of women ever married by ages 45-49, there were declines in all developed nations between the 1990s and the 2000s. According to the U.N. report, this was 'due in part to an increasing acceptance of consensual [cohabiting] unions as a replacement for marital unions'." 4,5

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Why is same-sex marriage a hot topic now?

There are may probable reasons why same-sex marriages/civil unions have emerged as an major development in recent years:

bullet Perhaps the main reason is our growing acceptance of homosexuality. In the past, sexually active homosexuals were thrown in jail wherever they were detected. Until the first significant scientific study of homosexuality in the 1950's, it was regarded as a mental illness. More recent research into human sexuality has convinced most therapists and human sexuality researchers that sexual orientation is fixed in adulthood and is caused by an interaction of genetic and environmental factors outside a person's control. The North American public has increasingly accepted that heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality are simply three different, natural, normal, unchangeable sexual orientations that are discovered, not chosen.

bullet Recognition of same-sex relationships is built upon a foundation of hundreds of other Federal, State/Province, County, City and company victories for equal rights, engineered by thousands of gay and lesbian activists, and made possible by millions of gays, lesbians and bisexuals who have individually come out of the closet.

bullet Christian beliefs and attitudes towards homosexuality are now split. Liberal/progressive denominations now giving gays and lesbians full access to church membership and ordination. Conservative denominations retain historical exclusion of sexual minorities. Many mainline denominations are suffering intense internal struggle over the issue.

bullet The culture's view of marriage has rapidly changed. A century ago, marriage was for life: only a very small percentage of people divorced. Authority over the woman was formally transferred from the father of the bride to the new husband at time of the marriage ceremony. Rigid gender roles limited women's freedoms. Few women worked outside the home.

Now, most committed couples in North America live together before marriage. Divorce ends almost 50% of all marriages. Many women are deciding to have children outside of marriage. Large numbers of heterosexual couples are living together without being married. Some couples have decided to pursue two careers and to have no children. Surrogate motherhood is increasing. So are inter-faith and inter-racial marriages. All of these trends are causing people to alter their perception of marriage, and broaden their definition of the term. The concept of same-sex marriages now seems to many people to be simply one more variation.

bullet Once same-sex marriage became available in Massachusetts, Canada and multiple countries in Europe, many people began to look at the topic seriously. Many people, particularly youth and young adults, view marriage as a basic human right for all loving, committed couples -- whether they be of the same gender or opposite gender.

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  1. Barbara Whitehead, David Popenoe, "The state of our unions: The social health of marriage in America: 2002," at:
  2. The National Marriage Project has a home page at:
  3. Stephanie Hallett, "Marriage Rate In America Drops Drastically," Huffington Post, 2011-DEC-14, at:
  4. D’Vera Cohn, et al., "Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low," Pew Research Center, 2011-DEC-14, at:
  5. "World Fertility Report 2009," United Nations, issued 2011, at: This is a PDF file.

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Copyright 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-NOV-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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