Is marriage becoming obsolete?

Dec 14, 2011

Only 51 percent of all adults who are 18 and older are married, according to a new analysis of U.S. census data, a record low for the institution. The research indicates that 44 percent of millennials -- people born after 1980 -- believe marriage is becoming obsolete.

What do you think: Is marriage now passe? What's the state of marriage in the U.S.?

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield will discuss this topic and other questions or ideas you submit in today's chat about ethical issues in the news.

Read More:

Married couples at a record low

The Buzz: Is marriage passe?

Number of long-lasting marriages in U.S. has risen

Polling by Pew suggests that we are about to cross a threshhold in this country -- for the first time that we know of, almost as many American adults will be unmarried as married.  Is that a big deal, and if so, why?

Is Marriage really becoming obsolete, or simply being redefined?  What makes some thing a marriage anyway -- the genders of the partners?  their commitment to each other?  that it is legally or religiously recognized by a third party? 

I don't think marriage is going away, though what it looks like may become as unrecognizable to some of us as today's marriages would be to many of our ancestors.

To what do you attribute this new attitude towards marriage?

like any significan trend, there are many things shaping this -- many of which we probably do not even realize.  frankly, all of us need keep that in mind.  even the best analysis usually misses important issues which can not ne immediately appreciated.

that said, i think three things are pushing this trend:

1. we are just coming into an era when the economic necessity of marriage is largley obsolete.  we are not there yet, and pay for women lags behind that of men, but we don't need marriage and family to sustain economically as we did for a very long time.

2. people are making lasting realtionships w/o being able to legally marry.  while there is a real fight about this, the fact is that what "counts" as a marriage is being renegotiated and until that shakes out, the count will be off.

3. the momst troubling reason is that there is shrinking expectation for and reliance on the durability of most realtionships, and when that is combined with a sense that to divorce is to have failed, more and more people give up on marriage. 

I am not and have not been married. I am in my early 30's and find that while I love my SO of 3 years I don't feel the need to get married. When I was in my 20's I was heartbroken that my long-term boyfriend didn't pop the question. I dreamed about changing my last name to his, having babies, etc. Now - no thank you. The thought of changing my last name and having a wedding no longer have much appeal. Anyway, that's just my perspective. I also think if you love someone making it legal doesn't mean much these days anyway.

thanks for your candor.  it's hard not to imagine that your having been so deeply hurt has not re-framed your expectations and your dreams.  while that is certainly both reasonable and rational, love is not always either of those things.  and while you did not ask, i am giving my advice -- try and fing a way to embrace not only the intellectual lessons of past heartbreaks, but the enormous wonder and joy that comes by taking certain leaps and entering into certain relationships.

you are certaily right that "making it legal" doesn't seem to mean much these days, but i wonder if that isn't a problem.  why don't we seek validation from outside institutions, of the most important things in our lives?  It might be the gov't, a religious community, or a formalized circle of friends, but we all need community, and relationships ARE materially different when connected to community.  We can call that marriage or something else, but losing that element is a loss not only for society, but for the partners in the realtionship.

I have read studies that suggest that young children in daycare where there is a lot of staff turnover have trouble forming long-term attachments. Do you think this could be behind the apparent disposable nature of today's marriages?

it's an intersting theory, especially because your were careful NOT to take a swipe at daycare, but at those settings in which constant turnover makes it harder for kids to develop attachments to their caregivers.  generally speaking, the early attachments we make are critical factors in our future lives, including how we make relationships.

interestingly, if people thought of marriage as truly disposable, they would still be marrying in large numbers and then divorcing in even largernumbers.  that's not what's we are seeing!

i think this is about people who want marriages that are durable and not sure how to build the durable relationships they seek.  as a result, they create structures from which they can depart, when unhappy, with what they expect is greater ease and less sense of loss.

Ironically, gays are trying to get married and straights are shunning marriage. It just seems we are in a time of flux, when many of the old rules are being challenged or rethought and the states quo is being questioned -- not only with marriage but with many social institutions. is this good or bad, who knows?

GREAT observation re gay and lesbian marriages.  while i apprecioate that it is disturbing for some people, who is fighting harder for marriage than gay and lesbian couples who want to be married.  is some of that about fighting for legal recognition and not "really" about wanting to be married?  i am sure some of it is, but NOT all of it!  there are MUCH easier ways to gain full legal equality than by fighting for the right to be married.

Social institutions ARE changing, and there is is much we do not know, but there is much that we do.  maintaining durable, loving, monogamous relationships, which are rooted in institutions and traditions beyond the personal lives of the partners is a good thing.  who the partners are, whether it is relgious and/or civil institutions, etc. seems not to matter so much.  I would love to see a "defense of marriage act" that was animated by those facts and not simply by one side's version of history and religion, but hey, that's just me!

The previous article spoke about how people were not getting married. The irony was when teenagers, young adults were asked about weddings they attended, many had not attended ANY weddings. Weddings have become an "affair/event" versus the family celebration that with the $$$$ cost couples no longer allow children to weddings. Weddings have become an all adult event with no children. Children imitate. Our daughter sees our wedding pictures and we had her late in life so many friends and family are either already married or firmly single. I believe she has been to ONE or TWO weddings in 17 years. My experience was serving food, cutting cakes, helping with the wedding, setting up tables, cleaning in the kitchen, etc. So as a young person, I was "unhired" help and went to numerous weddings. Marriage may be out of fashion because no one sees it, except for the royals, Kardashians, Chelsea Clinton.

very interesting!  there is no doubt that what makes a marriage is NOT the wedding, and the sooner we all remembere that, the better we will all be for it. 

You are certainly correct that weddings are about publicly celebrating with those we love.  i have no objection to lavish weddings, and i don't see them as "unpsiritual" or "missing the point", but if the wedding you plan puts stuff ahead of people, not only are you doing it wrong, you are setting yourself up for an unhappy marriage where there will always be "stuff" about which to fight.  when it bceomes more important that the people in the relationship -- look out!

and you are certainly right about the importance of what we do in public and who sees it.  we can tell our kids all we want to about marriage or anything else, but they are smart and what they see better match what they hear or they know what's really up.

Given that most couples getting married have no idea what happens financially at the time of divorce, I have to think that requiring them to agree to a binding financial settlement before marriage would a) give many couples pause about whether to get married or not, and b) tend to reduce the number of divorces as couples would from the inception of the marriage know what would happen if the marriage fails. Your thoughts???

you are correct that divorce is typcially very costly, but i don't think that binding settlements is the way to go.  i DO that education about the financial implications of getting married is important, especially as more couples report fighting about money than about anything else, even sex.

A statement from Twitter user @ManWifeDog (Charli Penn ):

Many people think marriage is a joke is because they believe it should be like a fairytale then are surprised it isn't.

the fact that it isn't always (ever?) perfect, does not mean that it isn't good.  that's true for pretty much everything in life, and perhaps nothing as much as marriage.  We need to provide images and experiences of loving, durable, meaningful, wonderful realtionships -- including the inevitable bumps.

i had a teacher who often remarked that every relationship that fell apart could have been saved 10 different ways, and that everyone which lasted could have come apart ten different ways.  while i think that "every" is a stretch, and that sometimes ending it is actually the most loving and healthy thing to do, my teacher had a point.

"it's hard not to imagine that your having been so deeply hurt has not re-framed your expectations and your dreams. " I saw this very differently. When she was younger she thought getting the ring was the end-all, be-all. As she got older she realized it just wasn't that important. I feel the same about a whole lot of things that mattered tremendously to me when I was younger, but as I got older, my priorities changed significantly. It's called maturity.

for me, maturity would lie in appreciating that nothing is the "end-all, be-all" as you put it, without thinking that something "wasn't all that important" as you also put it.  it has to do with imaginging that things can be VERY important and truly worth investing ourselves in AND knowing that with all of that importance, they are not the ultimate.


From Twitter user @Tubarus:

Marriage is now business arrangement, a process by which spouses promote agendas for monetary or social gain.


actually, it is much less that now, that it was for centuries and i think that is why there is downward pressure against marriage.  we are not sure why to do it and are in the phase or figuring that out all over again.  we have done it before -- think the shift from polygamous to monogamous marriage, for example.


We need to learn how to combime falling in love and sustaining relationship when the first remains vital and the second needs new support.  it's actually an opportunity to upgrade what marriage is all about.

Isn't it a possibility with marriage privileges being extended to include gays, that there is that much less reason to bother with an institution that is obviously being changed from that which we knew, being made into something that is becoming irrelevant?

i really don't think that gay relationships are numerous enough to skew these figures, and the fact that the privelges of marriage are being extended to a variety of alternative arrangements simply means that we will now find out if people can begin to appreciate marriage as more than a benefits advantage.  frankly, if that is all that it is, even i would find it hard to bemoan diminishing rates of marraige.

Articles like this one remind me of the Post article a few years ago entitled, "Is marriage for white people?" Based on today's data, this question appears to have transcended ethnic groups and is becoming more general in nature with its "obsolete" framing.


The question I really have is: "Is marriage declining because the younger generation 'sees' marriage for what it is and what it is not?" I always notice the "children of divorce" tag in similar articles and readings. The problems that can happen within a marriage did not just start in the 1970's. They have always been there.


My 'grandmother' had to (for various reasons) STAY with my 'grandfather.' However, my mother DIVORCED my father for her situation, a generation later, was vastly different and improved. Ironically, my grandmother felt that my mother had 'given up' and 'quit too easy' on her marriage and didn't persevere. My mother felt she would not be treated with dishonor and disrespect for the rest of her life to understand 'perseverance.'


That leaves me, married and in my 40's, evaluating marriages from 2 previous generations, my marriage, and the potential marriage of my kids with great uncertainty in my own answer to "is marriage becoming obsolete?"

sounds like you are asking all the right questions -- appreciating that staying because one is trapped by either economic or social necessity IS tragic, and so is a divorce (in most circumstances), even when it leaves one better off in myriad ways.  The factor you don;t mention, and the one which i think guides us between the other situations is love.  where does love, not perfection, but giving and getting love, fit into the context of a relationship.  when you get a handle on that, the rest tends to get much more clear.

I think the parents of those of this generation just did not provide the role model of a good marriage to their children. Marriage is really about love, respect, compromise and understanding - all this can make a person grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, and if I may add: marriage is the most important relationship a person can have. It is the foundation for all other relationships, whether with their children, society, neighbors, co-workers, etc...Seeing a married couple who has stayed together and learned together is a joy to watch.

i agree.  the "rub" is that we exist as part of larger cultures which can undermine the examples you point out.  that means it's not just about seeing those examples, but of experiencing them, being part of communities which celebrate them, etc. 

the fancy term for all that is "plausability structures".  it means that until there is a rich network of experiences and institutions which make our claimed values real, it's hard for even us to trust them, let alone for others to do so.

From Twitter user @CDandridge1914(Chris Dandridge):

People married in the past out of necessity. I need you to keep the home and u need me to build it.


a touch reductionist, but not incorrect, and a view i have already espoused. It's just not the only reason why people married and now we need to figure out how, in the absence of certain ecnomic "glue", we can make relationships that stick.  why?  because "sticky" relationships have tremndous value independant of their economic value.


Twitter user @thesubtlemaura (Maura Williams) says: 

Weddings might be passé but commitment isn't


actually that isn't at all clear.  not to mention that living together to "practice" or "try it out" doesn't make any subsequent marriage more likely to make it.  in fact, there is plenty of evidence in the reverse.

it may be that mariage isn' the issue at all, but committment is.  how to create it and sustain it are very much a question for our age.

Do you think marriage could evolve to include term limits, possibly with a renewal clause?

cute...and wise.  especially as we live longer, i think those are real questions.  it might be that we end up sustaining marriage by moving to expecting to have more than one, but that each would be long.  i don't expect this for myself (hope you read this, honey!), but there is no question that increased life expectancy and increased opportunities over that longer life will have an impact on who might be right for us, when.

My wife and I have been married almost 42 years. During that time we have entered into hundreds of legal obligations- contracts, mortgages, loans, insurance policies, wills, and so on, made legal and medical decisions affecting each other, been given access to personal, medical, legal, and financial information on each other, and at no time did anyone ever ask for proof that we were indeed legally married. In 42 years no one has questioned our unsupported word. I find that odd. I wonder if others have had the same experience.

there are so many more great questions and comments, but this will have to be our last one for this week.


the romantic in me wants to say that they just saw it in your eyes.  the cynic says, they must have assumed that if you were still willing to claim being married, then you "deserve" what you get.

Personally, i think that we want to believe in marriage, both those of us who are and those of us who are not -- about that there is no shift in the numbers.  i think that we want o sustain relationships, and want to do so with all of the baggage that brings.  you were living proof that it was possible.  why should anyone question that!


talk with you all next week!

In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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