Demographic Subplots

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First-time timing: Ages at first marriage range widely around the world. In India the median age at first marriage for brides is just under 19 and for grooms just over 23; in Jamaica, it is much higher for both men and women, at 31. In the United States, for 25 years in the middle of the twentieth century, the median age of first-time brides never reached 21, dipping from 20.5 in 1947 to the all-time low of 20.1 in 1956, then creeping toward 20.9 in 1972. After reaching 21 in 1973, however, women's median age at first marriage jumped from 22 to 23 (1979 to 1984) and 24 to 25 (1991 to 1997), where it still hovered in 2002. The median age of first-time grooms has tagged after brides, dipping during the 1950s and '60s to a low of 22.5 in 1956 and 1959, then leap-frogging to a median age of 26.9 in 2002.

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The Future of Marriage

Meanwhile, as the marriage age fell and then rose, the gap between the median ages of first-time brides and grooms kept shrinking. In the 1890s and 1900s, American husbands-to-be were four years older than wives-to-be, and before and during World War II they were still three years older. But since 1948, the bride-groom age difference has slowly shrunk from 2.9 years to the merest 1.6 in 2002.


Postmarriage culture: Trends toward high divorce (U.S. rates are the highest in the industrialized world), later (or no) marriage, cohabitation, and more children born to unmarried and single parents — all huddle under the umbrella of what some sociologists term a "postmarriage" or "divorce culture" that would have bewildered early-twentieth-century Americans.

From 1920 to 1935 there were only 1.5 to 1.7 divorces for every 1,000 people — men, women, and children. The rate jumped to 3.5 in 1945 (perhaps as a result of postwar trauma), then dipped below 3.0 again during the baby boom, dropping back to 2.1 in 1958. But by 1970 the rate had reached 3.5 again and kept climbing — fueled in part by the demise of Ozzie-and-Harriet marriages. In 1981 it peaked at the all-time high of 5.3 per 1,000. The divorce rate has since leveled off and then declined; provisional 2004 data show 3.7 divorces per 1,000 Americans, down from 4.0 in 2002. (By comparison, current rates in Canada and Western European countries are 2.0 per 1,000, although Spain has a low 0.6.) Some attribute this downturn to older marrying ages and a renewed commitment to making marriage work, while others point to increasing cohabitation and fewer marriages.


"Shotgun" cohabitation: The number of U.S. couples living together without a license shot up 1100 percent between 1960 and 2002, and more than half of first marriages begin with "trial marriages," according to the Rutgers National Marriage Project. In the 1950s, 95 percent of adults were husbands and wives, but in the early 1970s, only three-quarters were and in 2002, just over half. Unwed parenthood is one side-effect. In 1950 only 4 percent of all U.S. births were to unmarried women; by 1970 that more than doubled to 11 percent, which tripled again to 33 percent in 2001 (U.S. Census Bureau). In the early 1970s, half of premarital pregnancies led to "shotgun marriages," but less than a quarter did in the 1990s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). But unwed motherhood doesn't necessarily mean going it alone; nearly 40 percent of today's nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples.

Cohabitation may be popular, but it's still less secure than marriage. Unmarried couples face a break-up probability of 49 percent within five years and 62 percent after 10 years, but first-marriage divorce probabilities are about half that, at 20 percent within five years and 33 percent after 10 (NCHS). Despite better odds, however, 25-year-olds marrying for the first time still face a 52.5 percent chance overall that their marriage will end in divorce.


Serial monogamy: As professor of law Janet Halley points out, "We don't know what the 'correct' rate of divorce is. We don't know whether the right couples divorce. We think that women who are being beaten up by their husbands should surely divorce, but people who have just developed a seven-year itch ought to 'stick it out.' We don't have a good baseline. If half the people in the seventeenth century were dead by the time they were 45, we don't know what they would have done if they had...still [been] living with the same person at 65. It's an ideological event to say, 'The divorce rate is high.'"

And higher divorce rates have created a new ideology — of remarriage and serial monogamy. "One of the most interesting statistics is that people who get divorced tend to get remarried — they keep trying!" reports Harvey Cox, Hollis professor of divinity. Nearly half of the 2.34 million annual nuptials in the United States involve second-, third-, or fourth-time brides or grooms. With 75 percent of divorcés and divorcées marrying again — 50 percent within three years — "starter marriages" quickly morph into "encore marriages." As Cox observes, marriage is "a very sturdy institution. It's taken a lot of hits, but people still find it a very attractive option. I'm impressed with just how robust the idea of marriage seems to be, in spite of everything."      

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