Divorce Rates Are Dropping. But Are We Saving Marriage?

Will the least religious generation in decades also have the country’s most stable marriages?

Defenders of marriage, rejoice: Divorce is on the decline. On Monday, The New York Times reported that divorce rates are the lowest they’ve been since the early 1980s. Millennial marriages, it seems, are particularly strong. The Times cites University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers to note that if trends continue, only a third of current marriages will end in divorce.

That’s a marked change from the fearsome 50% divorce rate often brandished as evidence of the nation’s moral decline. Prophets of the Focus on the Family inclination have long foreseen the death of marriage, with homosexuality largely to blame. Heterosexual unions, specifically those of young adults who practiced abstinence, are upheld as the ideal that will save marriage.

But marriage is not dead, and could be experiencing something of a renaissance. So what’s behind it?

As with all demographic shifts, a number of factors are in play. The Times notes that lower divorce rates still don’t correspond to a higher number of marriages. Fewer people are getting married, a fact that’s long been a source of ire for marriage-minded Christians. But those that do are still finding themselves in more stable unions, and as the Times indicates, that’s because people are marrying later than ever before.

The idea that later marriage can contribute to the institution’s stability is rather at odds with conservative rhetoric on the subject. In the Atlantic last year, evangelical writer Karen Swallow Prior wrote that “prolonged singledom has become a rolling stone, gathering up debt and offspring that, we can imagine, will manifest themselves in years to come in more broken, or never-realized, marriages.”

Prior, who repeatedly drew on the controversial work of evangelical sociologist Mark Regnerus to make her points, argued that marriage should be the “capstone” of young adulthood, and attributed her own professional success to her decision to marry at the age of 19.

Likewise, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in 2010 that, “The delay of marriage is a huge problem, and Christians should be in the forefront of seeing and understanding the problem — and countering the arguments against early marriage.”

“Churches and parents need to ask why we are not getting young adults ready for marriage,” he added. “Abdication to the ‘hooking up’ culture of young adulthood is just not an option.”

But further research suggests that Prior’s successful early marriage is an outlier, and that Mohler’s defense of the practice is likely misplaced. The University of Illinois-Chicago’s Evelyn Lehrer noted in 2009 that although individuals marrying in their late twenties and thirties had historically been most likely to divorce, that’s no longer true. Now, marriages conducted at these ages can be the most durable. That also happens to be when most Millennials choose to marry.

Religious commitment doesn’t necessarily improve an early marriage’s chances, either. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin and the University of Iowa found that conservative Protestants are the religious demographic most likely to divorce, even when compared to their non-religious peers. Early marriage and a refusal to use contraception are cited as the two primary factors behind that figure. “Thus the common conservative argument that strong religion leads to strong families does not hold up,” they concluded.

That result is particularly intriguing given that Millennials are abandoning religious institutions at an unprecedented rate. The least religious generation in American history may also have the country’s most stable marriages in over two decades.

This may surprise Prior, Mohler, and their peers. It doesn’t surprise me. As a graduate of a conservative Christian college, I’m well acquainted with evangelicalism’s marriage obsession, and with its potentially self-defeating properties.

A few short weeks into my undergraduate career, I found myself listening to a chapel speaker compare our campus to a bagel shop, with the women as bagels. “Take a good look, men,” he crowed, “You’ll never have a selection like this again. Don’t leave a good bagel lying on the shelf!”

I decided I’d rather be left on the shelf than wooed by a man who’d compare me to baked goods.

But my alma mater couldn’t let the matter be, and I learned to live with the slow cramping frustration of being defined primarily by my relationship status. Marriage — both the threats to it and the process of attaining it — saturated campus life. There were chapel messages, student organizations, small groups, and constant events organized on the subject. The school paired units in its men’s and women’s dorms together and encouraged them to go on double dates.

“Ring by spring” might as well have been the official motto for how often it was uttered on campus. As I entered my upperclassmen years, I learned that not only did we have married housing for undergraduates, but also that there was a waiting list to get it.

Rumored among students, but never confirmed by data: These marriages often didn’t last. The small and self-contained campus culture that subjected young dating couples to such intense and righteous scrutiny didn’t reliably produce healthy unions.

Now, there’s evidence those rumors were right.

I have my own theories about evangelicalism’s inability to control the marriage narrative. Here’s one: the rigid relationship template it foists on its youth emphasizes the creation of a unit, but not the development of individuals.

Although I graduated without a ring on my finger, I am aware that marriages, like all relationships, consist of people. People don’t spring into the world already in units; we learn who we are, and then we learn we who are with others. It’s a messy and complicated process. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and you’ll find someone to process it with. Other times, you’ll understand that it’s an endeavor best undertaken alone, and that does not make you a failure.

I didn’t see that reality reflected by my college culture, or before then, either, in my conservative youth groups. I don’t see it in evangelical rhetoric now. I do see it, however, reflected in the cold, hard facts. We are leaving traditional religion, we are abandoning or delaying its relationship principles, and on average, our marriages are now more likely to last than to end.

Conservative Christians have long feared the prospect of rethinking marriage. But resetting marriage for our time might be the only thing that saves the institution.

Image via Thomas Leuthard.

The opinions in this article belong to the author.

Sarah Jones
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  • RoverSerton

    Excellent analysis IMO. The only thing I would quibble with is the last sentence: “But resetting marriage for our time might be the only thing that saves the institution.”. With marriage doing better than a very long time, I don’t see that saving it is a problem. Keeping a religious aspect to it might be if ministers do as they threaten and stop doing the state part of the ceremony and only do the church part. Although the pictures are better in the church, the state part is the one that gets your license. The church part is further hurt by denying SSM’s to occur in them and the perceived discrimination but that will only reduce the church weddings, not the total number of people choosing to get the license.

  • Carstonio

    It’s not surprising that a religious faction that compares women to baked goods would also have a high divorce rate. Jones could have further explored the concept of male headship, and how the stability of such marriages rests on the wife being obedient and sacrificing her self-determination. And not surprising that millennials are leaving relgion while having more stable marriages. Probably they’ve learned that marriage should be a partnership between equals and not a gender hierarchy, with the women refusing to put up with men who expect obedience.

  • Matthew Kilburn

    No, we are not “saving marriage”. Marriage is occurring later and less often than ever before. It is less likely to produce children, likely to produce fewer children, and likely to produce those children much later than ever before. It continues to end in divorce at a higher rate than virtually any time before in known human history, save the last two or three decades. The very small improvement that we can point to – fewer divorces – has come at the huge expense of lower marriage rates overall. By what disturbing standard is this progress? We have transformed into a society that doesn’t even reproduce at a rate sufficient to keep the population stable, and half of the children who are born are born outside the confines of a marital union – even decades after the availability of contraception and abortion became widespread.

    This article find the fault to be with the Christian marriage culture. But Christian marriage culture served humanity well for many hundreds of years, and far longer if you expand the label to Judeo-Christian marriage. It provided for the physical and financial security of both sexes, ensured reproduction at rates sufficient for social and economic growth, and provided a sound environment in which the children could be raised. The real problem, highlighted in the article, is when the (now minority) Christian marriage culture must survive within the dominant, secular gratification-divorce culture. Ultimately, as long as divorce continues to be freely available for any reason, or no reason, and as long as current application of divorce law provides a significant financial incentive for some to dissolve their unions, its unlikely we’re going to see any major recovery in terms of marriage.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

      Hi Matthew! Your comment’s particularly interesting given that a refusal to use contraception is also linked to marriage failure. You’re upset that fewer marriages are happening, but do you really think that everyone *ought* to get married? It’s evident that people feel less pressure to marry and therefore aren’t rushing into it and are making better, healthier relationship traditions. It’s very strange to me that you view this as a failure.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      I would take exception with some of what you are saying Matthew. Marriage, defined as the joining of a man and a woman because of love and a desire to live together for the rest of their lives, is only a rather recent cultural phenomena. Going back to the 1700s and earlier, marriage was more arranged to benefit families than a symbol of love. And of course if you want to go back to pre-Christian times and even early Christian times, one man often times had multiple wives.

      Marriages in other parts of the world (outside of Europe and America) were as various and diverse as the cultures in which they took place. Some include prepubescent, arranged marriage while others allowed only landowners to marry. A universal view of what marriage is and was does not exist.

      For most of human history, a common element to marriage that hopefully is on its way out, is male domination. Muslims continue this ancient and onerous tradition but to a lesser extent, so do Christians. Marriage in the US is moving toward a partnership among equals and so if it takes a little longer to find the right person at the expense of trying out the wrong person several times, isn’t that really a good thing?

    • christianpundit

      The Christian marriage culture excludes or marginalizes anyone who cannot or does not marry or procreate. Contra to Christ’s teachings in Matthew 10: 37,38, Christians have put marriage and the Nuclear Family on to a pedestal and worship it. This also goes against Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 7 that singleness is preferable in some ways to marriage and that marriage is difficult (the idea being that people really should consider staying single).

      There are Christians such as me who had wanted to marry, but we never came across “Mr. Right.” I am now over 40 years of age. Most content and ministry by conservative Christians, especially Baptist, evangelical, and Reformed, is directed at marriage and parenting.

      We older singles also get subjected to negative stereotypes. It’s assumed there is something wrong with us, that we are not as mature as our married counterparts, that we are sexually active to the hilt, etc. We single ladies are browbeat by conservative Christians in that they assume most of us deliberately chose to stay single (I for one did not), and they go on rudely assuming we put career before marriage.

      I had only one marriage proposal in my life, but Christians assume every woman gets one billion marriage proposals from lots of good looking, financially stable men by the time she reaches 25 or 30 years of age – FALSE. But they take that assumption to say, “If you are still single at 35 or older, it’s all your fault for being too picky and turning down all one million marriage proposals you got when you were 25.” (I didn’t get my first boyfriend til I was around 27.)

      You have this entire segment of Christian single women who WANT to get married, but they cannot find suitable single, age appropriate Christian men anywhere. The ones who identify as Christians on dating sites are often perverts (their dating profiles are loaded with vulgar sexually explicit jokes, etc)

      More evidence that some Christians de-value singleness and idolize marriage:

      Christian sociologist Mark Regnerus recently suggested that single Christian women should consider marrying regular pornography users. Seriously. This guy would rather see marriage happen at any cost than women choose wisely who they marry.

      There was a Christian guy who wrote into Christian TV host Pat Robertson over a year ago to ask if one has to be married to enter heaven, as his church or Christian articles he read said or implied that un-married cannot receive salvation.

      There are other examples out there of that kind of thing.

      As I say often on my blog, Jesus no where taught that marriage and natalism are cures for sin, or to save a culture.

      Jesus actually de-emphasized the importance of family of origin, marriage, and procreation. Jesus was no where as near “focused on the family” as most evangelicals are in America today. Jesus taught allegiance to him was to out weight spouse, children, grandparents, and parents.

      I see evangelicals today putting family and marriage on about the same level as Jesus himself. But evangelicals continue to either ignore this or pay lip service to it, but hype marriage and as a result, they marginalize and shame single adults, widowers, the childless, child free, and the divorced.

    • bakabomb

      “outside the confines of a marital union”

      Tell ya what, that noun “confines” pretty much says it all, albeit probably in an unintended way. Marriage was never intended to be “confinement”. And taking the orthodox view, that makes it a life sentence. Whoops, nice Freudian slip.

  • http://CalvinistJaneway.wordpress.com Calvinist Janeway

    I’m not surprised. The entire reason I parody Christian culture (despite loving Jesus and the word of God deeply) is their one-size-fits-all mentality, regarding things that have *nothing* to do with the Bible! Abraham and Sarah sure waited a while to have children, by God’s decree. Paul never married. People are individuals, with individual needs and callings. People have the right to make choices. Very, very good article.

  • Scott Barkley

    It just doesn’t seem the central thesis to this article is provable. If Millenials are getting married later, how old can the older Millennial marriages be at this point? Posting as someone married for 17 years, there are a lot more storms to weather than they’ve yet faced, storms my faith played a huge part for my wife and I to work through. I note the “if trends continue” in the first paragraph, but that’s a big “if.” We have a long way to go before declaring a generation in its 20s and 30s have more stable marriages.

  • bakabomb

    It stands to reason that as social pressure to marry young, or to stay out of intimate relationships until married, continues to decrease — there will be a concomitant decrease in the marriage rate coupled with an increase in the longevity of marriages. In a nutshell, lacking that extrinsic pressure, people will only marry if and when they themselves feel it’s their time. That is, people will be marrying for the right reasons. Seems to me that will strengthen the institution, not weaken it.

    • geoffrobinson

      Or, on the flip side, people who just shack up and then break up don’t count towards divorce statistics. Not to mention, I would like to dig into the survey and see the standard they use for “evangelical.”

      • bakabomb

        The survey does indeed say that fewer people are getting married, and the “shack ups” you mention could very well explain that. But they don’t factor into the lower divorce rate for people who do get married. Do any parallel studies exist on whether “shack up” relationships are more or less common now, lasting longer or shorter, breaking up more or less frequently, etc? Do these “trial marriages” help avoid couples jumping into real marriages that end in divorce, or do they predispose people to treat all relationships — even marriage — as transitory? Interesting questions.

  • mikehorn

    Millennials saw all the mistakes of their parents, who had seen the mistakes of theirs. Evangelicals are preaching the perceived, rosy-altered values of great grandparents, values not linked to reality. Millennials want what works. They realize that permanent decisions are not usually made well by 18 year olds, and even less so when those decisions are made by others on behalf of 18 year olds (shotgun marriages, hormone-driven marriage). Millennials learned that the worst possible reason to get married is to have sex. This leads to marriages founded on crushes, lust, blind hormonal urges rather than friendships, relationships, communication, a sense of shared duty. In many ways a good marriage has sex as a secondary consideration: there are 24 hours in a day, and great sex doesn’t put food on the table or get chores done, or guarantee a happy evening, or encourage profound mutual understanding (though it certainly helps!). Further, exploring sex inside marriage and finding out the sex needs and wants are not compatible, yet that was one of the main reasons for getting married… No wonder they fail.

    In short, conservative Christians are emphasizing the wrong things with youth, virginity, and sex-only-in-marriage. The values taught encourage shallow marriages entered into through pubescent reasons and short sighted needs. I’d rather kids have sex with one or two people, figure out a few things, then find someone they can spend long amounts of time with.