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How Americans view and approach relationships is evolving

With celebrity divorces packing the news cycle, Scripps News digs into America's changing perspective on marriage and partnership.
How Americans view and approach relationships is evolving
Posted at 4:44 PM, Oct 08, 2023

2023 is proving to be hard on the heart.

Couples unlucky in love have been dominating the celebrity news cycle in the U.S. From Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas to Ricky Martin, Hugh Jackman, Kevin Costner, and Britney Spears, the list goes on and on. The splits have left many of us wondering, "Where do Americans stand on marriage?" And more importantly, how has our perspective on relationships evolved?

"So, in the U.S., we still have this really strong attachment to marriage. Most people still aspire to marry at some point in their lives," Christine Percheski, a demographer and Associate Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, said.

Americans are still very interested in marriage, but who is, and when it happens, has been changing.

"Across industrialized countries, we've seen this move to a later age at marriage, and we've seen that in the U.S., too. And we've seen marriage become more optional. So, people wait longer in life to marry, and they don't marry until they're ready to marry," Percheski said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the median age of Americans marrying for the first time has been climbing for decades.

As of 2022, the age is roughly 30 years old for men and 28 years old for women. But Percheski says age isn't the only thing that's been changing.

"We've also seen this big switch in the social class gradient of who gets married and when. So that increasingly, marriage looks like it's for the well-off, or at least solidly middle class." "It's not because poorer, working-class Americans don't aspire to get married. It's because they perceive they don't have the economic security to have a successful marriage," Percheski said.

SEE MORE: How people are cutting wedding costs amid economic fluctuations

Historically, marriage has been seen as a pathway to financial stability. But more Americans are now opting to hold off on marriage until they are financially stable, which, depending on your line of work and circumstances, could take awhile.

"It's this combination of increasing economic inequality, increasing home costs, and increasing job instability, coupled with cultural changes that say people do not need to get married to be full-fledged adults and that couples can live together while unmarried," Percheski said.

According to 2019 data collected by the Pew Research Center, "young adults are particularly accepting of cohabitation; 78% of those ages 18 to 29 say it's acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together, even if they don't plan to get married."

"People who are unmarried don't have any special social stigma. Now, we still have some suspicion of some of our elected leaders, depending on their marital status and partnership history. But in general, you know, we don't view people who've been divorced with the same stigma we used to or people who've never married with the same stigma we used to," Percheski said.

Speaking of divorce, there's now a new trend.

"So, one of the newer things we've seen in the past, it just maybe two decades or so, is the rise of gray divorce, that is, divorce among older people, and also the decline of second marriages among people who get divorced at older ages. And instead, we've seen more people who are previously married living with a partner without remarry," Percheski said.

Overall, Percheski says keeping track of marriage and partnership rates is incredibly important as the U.S. looks ahead to the future.

"From the perspective of people thinking about housing stock, what kind of housing do people need? Do they need housing for couples, or for single people, or for couples with kids, or single parents with kids? From an economic policy perspective, you know, should we be giving tax incentives to get married, or stay married, or not?" Percheski said.

And as for the future of marriage? 

"I don't think marriage is going away. I think people still very, very much value the institution of marriage, even if it's for a lot of couples; it's not a religious institution anymore," Percheski said.

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