The survey forms part of the annual report on the social health of marriage in America, The State of our Unions 2004 (1), published by the National Marriage Project, a non-partisan, non-sectarian initiative at Rutgers University. The report, released earlier this year, was written by academics David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

When they wrote their first report in 1999, the authors observed "we hear little about the state of marriage". Things have changed, with marriage now on America's political agenda, at federal and state levels. Marriage-strengthening initiatives are underway in local communities, and a grassroots marriage movement, dedicated to helping people acquire the knowledge and skills for long-lasting marriages, is gaining support. And after neglecting the subject for decades, scholars are now showing renewed interest in research on marriage.

The report notes that the young husband has virtually disappeared as a cultural figure or a social type. Yet contrary to the popular idea, the typical thirty-something American male is married. In the survey, the overwhelming majority of married men (94 per cent) say they are happier being married than being single. And they are optimistic about the institution of marriage.

However, not all young men are seeking a wife. Some are seeking short term relationships, or cohabiting. The authors say this diversity in the goals and background of men can make marital matching more difficult, prolonged, confusing and "potentially less successful for both men and women, but especially for marriage-minded women".

Growth of cohabitation

The report's finding on marital health indicates that Americans are less likely to marry. Part of this is caused by the delaying of marriage to older ages, part by the growth of unmarried cohabitation.

"Most people now live together before they marry for the first time. And a growing number of persons, both young and old, are living together with no plans for eventual marriage".

Divorce rates are high, say the authors. The probability of divorce or separation is close to 50 per cent for a couple marrying in recent years. But when looked at in detail, for many couples the real chance of divorce is much lower. Statistical analysis shows that divorce is much more likely for those on low incomes, who marry young, and are less well educated.

Unmarried cohabitation has increased dramatically over the last four decades, say the authors, and the increase is continuing.(See Figure 1). Over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared with virtually none 50 years ago. Cohabitation, like divorce, is also more prevalent among those with lower incomes, the less-educated, and those who have experienced parental divorce or fatherlessness. Nearly 40 per cent of cohabitating households contain children.

The authors note that there is a widespread belief that living together before marriage is a useful way "to find out whether you really get along", thus avoiding a bad marriage and an eventual divorce. They say the available data on the effects of cohabitation fail to confirm this belief.

More fragile families

Widespread cohabitation is one factor leading to the number of children living in fragile families, which the report says has grown enormously in four decades. The other factors are divorce, and out-of-wedlock births.

Stable and satisfactory marriages are important, say the authors, for the proper socialization and overall wellbeing of children. Raising the next generation needs the responsible, long term involvement of both biological parents.

Within the fragile family category, the trend towards single parent families is probably the most important. The report says children in these families have negative life outcomes at two or three times the rate for children in married, two-parent families. Most of these families are headed by the mother, with around 18 per cent headed by the father.

The higher rate of divorce and cohabitation amongst poorer and less-educated people is a matter of concern. And the children of these unions have a greater likelihood of replicating this behaviour than children from stable marriages. These indicate worrying long term trends. On the positive side, the report observes that Americans are now becoming aware of these problems, and trying at various levels, to do something about them.

Drawing on sociological research, the authors point out how marriage is beneficial for men. "One key reason is wives". Married women encourage positive health habits in their husbands, including seeking medical treatment when necessary. They encourage stable lives and better workforce attachment.

Another reason is that the institution of marriage has built-in expectations for men. Married men are expected to be altruistic. "While it is acceptable for single men to be self-indulgent and carefree, it is not so for married men. Once married, men are supposed to work and care for others. They are expected to voluntarily donate their time and money to their wives and children and also, to a lesser degree, to kin who may need their help".

 

Social Action is a Melbourne magazine of social affairs and commentary.

(1) Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America 2004, National Marriage Project.