Marriage in America

Air Date: 
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Tom Shipka

When Marriage Disappears is the title of a recent study on the status of marriage in America. (1) According to the study, marriage is "stable" in only one segment of our society - the highly-educated - which comprises about 30% of the population. (p. ix) (2) In the rest of society, marriage is on life support - the divorce rate is high, the number of unwed mothers continues to grow, cohabitation has skyrocketed, fewer children live with both of their parents, and satisfaction with marriage is declining. (p. 14) Let's focus on each.

Divorce: Over the past fifty years, the rate of divorce has nearly doubled. In 1960, the number of divorces per 1,000 married women was 9.2; today it is 16.4. (p. 69) Given the steady increase in divorces over this period, the percentage of divorced persons in society has also increased. In fact, it has quadrupled. (p. 71) In 1960, the percentage of divorced men in society was 1.8; today it is 8.5. In 1960, the percentage of divorced women in society was 2.5; today it is 10.8. (p. 70) (3) Those who marry today for the first time face a probability of divorce or separation between 40 and 50 percent. (p. 71)

Unwed Mothers: Since 1960, the percentage of births overall to never-married women in America jumped from one in twenty births (5.3%) to eight in twenty births (40.6%). (p. 91) Since 1982, taking race into account, the percentage of births to never-married least-educated white women increased from 21% to 43% and the percentage of births to never-married least-educated black women increased from 77% to 96%. At the same time, the percentage of births to never-married moderately-educated white women rose from 5% to 34% and the percentage of births to never-married moderately-educated black women rose from 48% to 75%. (p. 56)

Cohabitation: In 1960, less than half a million unmarried couples cohabited; today around seven million couples do. (p. 75) Also, about 40% of these cohabiting couples today are raising one or more children. (p. 92) Further, since 1988, the percentage of unmarried couples who cohabit has gone from 51% to 75% among the least-educated; from 39% to 68% among the moderately-educated; and from 35% to 50% among the highly-educated. (p. 22)

One Parent Households: Over the past half century, the percentage of children living with a single parent has risen 17%. (p. 89) Today, 20% of white children and 51% of black children live with a single parent. (p. 89)

Declining Satisfaction: Since 1973, satisfaction with marriage among married couples has declined about 7%. (p. 65) In a recent survey, in response to the statement, "Marriage hasn't worked out for most people that I know," 53% of the least-educated, 43% of the moderately-educated, and 17% of the highly-educated, agreed.

(p. 40) Also, since 1976, approval by high school seniors of childbearing outside of marriage and cohabitation before marriage has increased significantly. (p. 102) (4)

As if to add insult to injury for supporters of traditional marriage, the study concludes on a pessimistic note, saying that there are no signs yet of a cultural shift that could lead to a "reversal of the nation's recent retreat from marriage." (p. 106)


  1. Published in 2010, it is a collaboration of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute of American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. ISBN 978-1-931764-22-3. The study reports data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau and the General Social Survey as well as dozens of other researchers.
  2. The study defines the affluent or highly-educated as those with college degrees, the moderately-educated as those with high school degrees but not four-year college degrees, and the least-educated as high school dropouts.
  3. Another way to see the decline of marriage through the increase in divorce, the increase in cohabitation, and the deferral of marriage, is to look at the trend in the percentage of adults in intact first marriages. Over the past forty years, the percentage of adults in intact first marriages declined precipitously. Among the highly-educated, it dropped 17 points (from 73% to 56%); among the moderately-educated, it dropped 28 points (from 73% to 45%); and among the least-educated it dropped 28 points (from 67% to 39%). (p. 21)
  4. From 1976 to today, approval of childbearing without marriage rose among senior boys from 41.2% to 55.9% and among senior girls from 33.3% to 55.8%, (p. 102) and approval of cohabitation before marriage rose among senior boys from 44.9% to 68.8% and among senior girls from 32.3% to 63%. (p. 103)

© 2011 Tom Shipka