The Way We Never Were


Stephanie Coontz is the author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."

People have been predicting the death of marriage for almost a century. In 1928, John Watson, the most famous child psychologist of that era, predicted that marriage would be dead by 1977. In 1977, sociologist Amatai Etzioni declared that if current trends continued, by the 1990s “not one American family will be left.” In 1999, the National Marriage Project announced breathlessly that the marriage rate had fallen by 43 percent since 1960. And in 2010, a Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of Americans said marriage was “becoming obsolete.”

The marriage rate is calculated on the basis of how many single women 18 years and older get married each year. In 1960, half of all women were already married before they turned 21. Today, the average age of marriage for women is 27, so it’s no surprise that the percentage of women over 18 who are married is much lower.

But most people eventually marry. In 1960, only 2.8 percent of women and 3.5 percent of men married in their forties and fifties. Today, sociologists project that almost a quarter of women still single at age 40 will wed in the next ten years, and that 85 percent of women will have married by the time they reach age 85. As for the 40 percent of Americans who told pollsters in 2010 that marriage was “becoming obsolete,” most of them simply meant that marriage is no longer an institution you have to enter in order to have a respectable or satisfying life. Because we live so much of our adult lives as singles, it no longer makes sense to assume that marriage is the only way people will organize their obligations and commitments.

In 1992, I published The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trapa search for the supposed “golden age” of family values in the twentieth century: I found that the male breadwinner family of the 1950s was a very recent, short-lived invention and that during its heyday, rates of poverty, child abuse, marital unhappiness, and domestic violence were actually higher than in the more diverse 1990s.

Much has changed for American families in the 25 years since the book first appeared. The most dramatic transformation has been the cultural and legal about-face regarding same-sex marriage. The prospect of legalized same-sex marriages seemed far off even when the second edition was published in 2000. As late as 2004, 60 percent of Americans still opposed granting gays and lesbians the right to marry, and in 2013, 35 states had laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. Yet by 2014, 138 polls by 21 different polling organizations all found majorities supporting marriage equality. Then on June 28, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that marriage was a fundamental right and could not be denied to gays and lesbians. Hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian couples across the country, many raising children, can now enjoy full marital and parental rights. ...

Read entire article at The New Republic

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