Marriage: IN or OUT?
Is marriage headed the way of the Dodo bird and the polar bear? Will children read about marriage in history books in 20 years and scoff, “Wait, couples signed on to be together legally FOREVER?!” You might think so if you have seen the latest study by the Pew Research Center in 2011, stating that barely half of U.S. adults are married–the lowest percentage ever.* It turns out that a whopping 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think marriage is becoming obsolete, according to the Pew Research Center.
The topic is being discussed all over the media, from The New York Times and CBS News to Good Morning America and NPR. In November 2011, the cover story of The Atlantic magazine was called “What, Me Marry?” and contributor Kate Bolick pointed out that a smaller proportion of American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since the 1950s.** Is it time to say, “Sayonara” to Bridezilla jokes and the $40 billion bridal industry?
I’m not so sure. From 2007 through 2009, I interviewed single women around the country for Seeking Happily Ever After, my feature-length documentary and book about why there are more single women in their 30s than ever before. I’d been noticing headlines starting in 2007 about the number of single women rising, with the media blaming women for being too career-obsessed and/or picky (imagine being picky about a life partner!) I wondered, do women even want marriage? So, my producer Kerry David and I decided to travel around the country to find out. The answer is: for the most part, yes. Women are still interested in getting hitched. Granted, a handful of women told me they couldn’t care less about the institution, finding it unnecessary and irrelevant. However, the majority of the 200 or more women I heard from said they still long for a partner “until death do we part.”
The real news is that more women than ever are financially independent and don’t need to marry a man in order to pay their bills and buy their groceries. Women are, after all, now more highly educated than men (in 2010, 55 percent of college graduates age 25 to 29 were women***), and there is plenty of talk that women will soon out-earn men. If women don’t need men financially, that means they can afford to take their time and make sure they select the right partner. They don’t have to settle for someone “good enough,” as women did for ages, and are prepared to wait it out—in spite of any external pressures. Most of the women I interviewed said they would prefer to marry, but would rather stay single than risk being stuck with the wrong guy.
I also learned during my research that Jewish women, more than any other group, are delaying the age of marriage. Are we a group that is “waiting for Mr. Right,” or are we rejecting marriage? I decided to look at what JWomen had to say about marriage becoming obsolete in the most recent issue of 614, an online magazine I edit for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Of course there are many who insist we should marry other Jews to ensure the survival of our people. However, there are also a range of opinions: I ran an article from a woman who said she had no interest in marriage and lamented that she couldn’t find other Jewish women who felt the same. Another woman wrote that Jews need to marry because the institution reminds us in an ongoing way that living only for one’s self is too limiting. Yet another young woman wrote that maybe part of the reason marriage is on the decline is because TV shows do such a good job of showing Jewish women as socially lame (Think Rachel from Glee, Jenny from the L Word…) There is clearly no one Jewish opinion—as if that were possible—on how we feel about the necessity of marriage.
As for myself, I married in my thirties (thanks to JDate) and never looked back. I wanted to go through life and raise a child with a committed partner and was willing to take the gamble. I believe I raised my odds by taking time to figure out who I am and what kind of man would be the right partner. Certainly, I have heard plenty of friends question whether monogamy is a “natural way to live”— and if it is, why do we need legal documents to enforce it? They have a point. Really…we all have a point. The choice to marry is a supremely personal one that should not be a societal command; the idea of saying a lifestyle (ideally lifelong) is right or wrong for an entire group of people is ridiculous. I don’t think we should decry the potential loss of marriage; I think we should celebrate the choice for individuals to figure out what will ultimately fulfill them.