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The Marriage Paradox

Half of young people think matrimony is becoming "obsolete." So why do we still want to do it so badly?

On TV, in film, and in "Save the Date" cards tacked to fridges everywhere, we are steeped in the cultural white noise of wedding voyeurism and schadenfreude. A new study threatens to change the conversation: The number of married Americans is at a record low. The Pew Research Center has crunched the Census data and discovered that only 51 percent of adults are married. That number plunges to 20 percent for 18-to-29-year-olds. In 2010, weddings dropped by 5 percent from the previous year.

This study is just the latest one to track a broadening of relationship choices for the youngest generation. Cohabitation is on the rise. Last year's Pew research on marriage unearths the ambivalence behind the numbers: 44 percent of Millennials feel that marriage is "becoming obsolete." So is marriage on its way out?

Hardly. Scholars and sociologists say that younger generations are probably delaying marriage, but that doesn't mean we won't eventually tie the knot. "The age of marriage has reached an all-time high," says the Council on Contemporary Families' director of research, Stephanie Coontz—26.5 for brides, 28.7 for grooms. Some people may stay single forever. But Coontz warns that the number won't be as dramatic as we might think. "My guess would be that a slightly lower, but still fairly high amount of people will get married in their lifetimes—say, 84 percent as opposed to 90 percent a few years ago, or the 95 percent abberration in the 1950s."

Indeed, a majority of singles are hoping to walk down an aisle one day—even those in cohabiting couples—regardless of marriage's obsolescence. Therein lies the paradox: Why do we want to join an institution that, according to us, is passing its expiration date? Privately, we're choosing to live in sin or by our lonesomes. But publicly, we profess our interest in joining the oldest of romantic institutions. Or is it the other way around?

Here's one possibility: The word "marriage" means different things in different contexts. On a societal level, marriage dredges up images of antiquated gender roles, social pressures, and institutional control. But individually, we see the opportunity to mold the institution to fit our own values—even more now that it's not obligatory.

"As marriage has become less necessary to support yourself, to gain respectability, to have a rewarding life and a successful life, we've raised our expectations of what kind of a relationship we want," says Coontz. "Because it's not essential, we're no longer willing to enter a marriage that we don't see as being really, really good."

That logic may mean that our generation waits to get hitched for the "right" reasons—love, compatibility, financial stability (which, given the state of the economy, is inevitably delayed). That explains the rise of cohabitation as much as it does the fall of marriage. Most of us who choose to live together see it as a test drive for marriage, not a real alternative. But because we recognize that we do have options, marriage seems more "ours."

By agreeing that marriage is "obsolete," we're saying good riddance to our parents' idea of what the word means. But so many of us feel this way that we have created a new social compact around the institution's redefinition. We're signing the certificates on the premise that we're ambivalent about marriage but too chicken to start from scratch. Pretty soon our friends will pair up and fall in line. And so it begins again.

Photo via (cc) by Flickr user Shelley Panzarella.

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