“In our day, marriage and the family are in crisis. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings.”— Pope Francis, Nov. 17, Vatican Radio
“Marriage today is being abandoned wholesale. Passion and pleasure in all things, especially sex, is the goal of the age and most people are convinced that marriage just cannot provide it.”— Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Oct. 15, New York Observer
I’ve quoted these two religious leaders not because they’re saying anything terribly shocking or upsetting, but because the sentiments they expressed are quite common. Single people are used to being told their lives are shallow, just as married people are accustomed to being held up as the moral ideal.
But in decades past, single people weren’t particularly threatening—they were seen as a marginal group of weirdos and losers.
Today, however, half of U.S. adults are unmarried. This is due in part to the fact that some people are choosing not to marry. But the more common reason is that most of us are marrying much later in life than our parents and grandparents did—the median age of first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, compared with the 1950s when it was 20 and 23 respectively.
The fact that many of us now spend a substantial portion of our adult life as single people has many commentators convinced that marriage is in crisis and that society in general is in decline—increasingly dominated by loose morals, lack of commitment, etc.
As I have written many times before, I reject the notion that being single is an indication of poor character. But regardless of one’s opinion on that point, the marriage advocates neglect an important fact: The divorce rate is declining, and has been for thirty years.
As University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers recently wrote in The New York Times, the percent of married couples filing for divorce peaked in 1979 and has fallen steadily ever since.
You know that statistic about half of all marriages ending in divorce? It’s the gold standard for op-eds and news stories bemoaning society’s moral decay. The problem is, it’s no longer true—and hasn’t been for decades.
Why? Economists point to three causes. First, birth control has reduced the number of shotgun weddings—and thus the number of unhappy couples bound together by obligation rather than love. The fact that Americans marry later in life is also key–research has found that the older you are on your wedding day, the lower your risk of divorce. Finally, we now marry for love.
In the past, staying single past age 30 would make you an outcast. If you were a woman, it could also make you destitute. Today we enjoy the wonderful luxury to wait until we’ve found the right match. This has not harmed marriage. To the contrary, it has made it stronger than it has been in decades.
Single people are not the enemies of marriage—most of them intend to marry someday. But the days of shaming singles to the altar are over. And that’s a very good thing for marriage.
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