Marriage Is Declining Rapidly! Does It Matter?

© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

I read this week that there has been a significant decline in marriage rates, especially in the past two years. 57% of adults got married ten years ago, but only 51% are getting married now. Last year, only 9% of 18-to-24 year olds in the U.S. were married, compared to 45% in 1960. And the Pew Research Center reports that from 2009 to 2010, 13 percent fewer people in this age group got married. (Christian Science Monitor, January 2 & 9, 2012) We are seeing a rapid decline.

In 2011, The Economist (June 23rd issue) reported that only 45% of all households include a married couple, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So what’s the big deal, you say? Couples are just living together instead of getting married. Hey, I’m no prude. I did that myself before I got married. But the studies show that the problem is the big impact on the kids – and on long-term economics.

The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey reported in 2005 (USA Today, July 18, 2005) that cohabiting couples break up at twice the rate of married couples in the U.S. and that 40% of cohabiting couples have children – who get to share these more rapid breakups. In Europe, cohabitation rates are even higher, although divorce rates are lower and more children grow up with both parents – even when they’re not married.

When I started practicing family law in 1993, the average age of a child when parents divorced was about 8 years old. The average age of a child when unmarried parents split was about 4 years old. As high-conflict divorce appears to be increasing, the age of children growing up in conflicted arrangements also appears to be getting younger and younger.

So what are the implications of all of this? Children have less stability and more exposure to parents in conflict or loss of contact with one parent. It’s not surprising that the research on the development of personality disorders suggests that each younger generation has a higher incidence of these disorders. In our book “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” Randi Kreger and I explained that about ten percent of the U.S. population has a borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, but about 15% of young adults age 20 to 29 have one of these disorders. One of the causes is instability in early childhood. You need stability to develop confidence, relationship skills and the ability to cope throughout your life.

The other major implication – for adults as well as children – is that unmarried folks are poorer. Researchers indicate that at least half of income inequality in the U.S. is due to this changing pattern. Households with only one parent (who mostly have only a high school education) are getting poorer and married household (mostly with college education and two incomes) are growing more well-to-do, according to The Economist (June 23, 2011).

In the 1960’s, 76% of college graduates were married and 72% of high school graduates got married. Nowadays, the census shows that woman who get married are much more likely to have a college degree than just fifteen years ago. For women with college education, only 6% of babies have unmarried mothers, whereas 44% of babies of high school graduates have unmarried mothers. (The Economist, above)

For society, the message seems to be that marriage does matter – economically and to the well-being of children. If we care about our collective future, we need to care about the stability of family life – including making relationship skills an important part of education. For individuals, the message seems to be that you should seriously plan on getting married someday, for your own economic good as well as your child. And if no reasonable prospects are handy, it may be a good time to start taking some college classes – that is, if our nation’s economic priorities will make it affordable.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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