The Changing Face of Marriage in America

March 23, 2023 | Richard V. Reeves
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While there is no doubt that marriage rates have been declining in the U.S. for the past few decades, these statistics alone do not tell the whole story, argues Richard V. Reeves. A closer look at the data shows that marriage patterns are changing based on what Reeves understands as a shift in underlying attitudes and expectations:

For a woman, the traditional model of marriage was an economic necessity, particularly if she was planning to have children—to be with a man who would be the provider. Obviously, that has changed today. Women account for 40 percent of sole or primary breadwinners in U.S. households. For a man, marriage was a way to attach himself to children. If he was going to have children, he had to do that with a woman who would raise those children, and so he had to provide for them. So, there was a complementarity inherent in the traditional view of marriage, but which, of course, was founded on a very deep economic inequality between men and women.

Today, the very institution of marriage, which is central to human societies, has been fundamentally transformed. It’s an institution that is now entered into on the basis of egalitarian principles. Women have huge exit power—they are twice as likely as men to file for divorce. As a result, women are no longer stuck in bad marriages, which is a huge achievement for humanity. But for men, of course, the old role of providing while their wives raise the children has largely gone out of the window, too.

You also see a big class gap opening up: fewer working-class and lower-income Americans are opting into the institution. What we now have is what my colleague Isabel Sawhill describes as “a new fault line in the American class structure.” No one expected that Americans with the most choice and the most economic power—and especially American women with the most choice and economic power—would be the ones who were continuing to get married and stay married.

But while we have created models of the family that are more equal and fair, they are often not such stable unions. . . . If marriage is to survive, it will be in this new model founded on shared parenting, not as a restoration of the old one based on economic inequality.

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