SBC Life Articles

The State Of Our Unions

The following excerpts from The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America demonstrate the critical status of the institution of marriage in the U.S. today.

Key Findings

Marriage trends in the United States over the past four decades indicate that Americans have become less likely to marry, and that fewer of those who do marry have marriages they consider to be "very happy."

The annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women declined more than one third from 1970 to 1996.

The percentage of adults in the population at any one time who are married has also diminished due not only to the decline of marriages but to the high divorce rate. Since 1960, the decline among all persons age 15 and older has been more than 10 percentage points.

It has been estimated that after ten years only about 25 percent of first marriages are successful, that is, both still intact and reportedly happy; this represents a substantial decline from earlier decades.

The American divorce rate today is more than twice that of 1960, but has declined slightly since hitting the highest point in our history in the early 1980s.

The divorce rate was level for about two decades after World War II during the period known as the baby boom. By the middle of the 1960s, however, divorce started to increase and it more than doubled over the next fifteen years to reach an historical high point in the early 1980s. Since, the divorce rate has modestly declined, a trend described by many experts as "leveling off at a high level."

The percentage of all adults who are currently divorced more than quadrupled from 1960 to 1998.

Overall, the chances remain very high — close to 50 percent — that a marriage started today will end in either divorce or permanent separation.

The number of unmarried couples has increased dramatically over the past four decades. Most younger Americans now spend some time living together outside of marriage.

Between 1960 and 1998, the number of unmarried couples in America increased by close to 1000 percent.

Unmarried cohabitation is particularly common among the young. It is estimated that about a quarter of unmarried women age 25-39 are currently living with a partner and about half have lived at some time with an unmarried partner.

Over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none earlier in the century.

The percentage of children who grow up in fragile — typically fatherless — families has grown enormously over the past four decades. This is mainly due to increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and unmarried cohabitation.

There is ample evidence that stable and satisfactory marriages are crucial for the well being of adults. Yet such marriages are even more important for the proper socialization and overall well being of children. A central purpose of the institution of marriage is to ensure the responsible and long-term involvement of both biological parents in the difficult and time-consuming task of raising the next generation.

The trend toward single-parent families is probably the most important of the recent family trends that have affected children and adolescents. This is because the children in such families have negative life outcomes at two to three times the rate of children in married, two-parent families. While in 1960 only 9 percent of all children lived in single-parent families, a figure that had changed little over the course of the 20th century, by 1998 the percentage had jumped to 28 percent.

The percentage of children who live apart from their biological fathers has more than doubled since 1960, from 17 percent to more than 35 percent.

Surveys of teen attitudes over the past few decades point up a growing disparity. The desire of teenagers for a long-term marriage is greater than ever, but girls have become more pessimistic about ever being able to have such a marriage and both boys and girls have become much more accepting of the alternatives to marriage.

The acceptance of non-marital lifestyles by young people has increased enormously over the decades.

More than 50 percent of teenagers now accept out-of-wedlock childbearing as a "worthwhile lifestyle."

Today well over half of all teenagers accept living together before marriage. Some of the growing acceptance is undoubtedly related to the belief that premarital cohabitation will actually strengthen marriage.

Most teenagers still seem to prefer a rather traditional family life for themselves, and the importance they place on a good marriage has actually increased slightly in recent years. But girls are becoming more pessimistic about their marital futures and both boys and girls, in ever-growing numbers, do not seem to care if others choose less traditional lifestyles.


When men and women marry today, they are entering a union that looks very different from the one that their parents or grandparents entered.

As a rite of passage, marriage is losing much of its social importance and ritual significance. It is no longer the standard pathway from adolescence to adulthood for young adults today. It is far less likely to be closely associated with the timing of first sexual intercourse for young women and less likely to be the first living together union for young couples than in the past.

As an adult stage in the life course, marriage is shrinking. Americans are living longer, marrying later, exiting marriage more quickly, and choosing to live together before marriage, after marriage, in-between marriages, and as an alternative to marriage. A small but growing percentage of American adults will never marry. As a consequence, marriage is surrounded by longer periods of partnered or unpartnered singlehood over the course of a lifetime.

As an institution, marriage has lost much of its legal, religious, and social meaning and authority. It has dwindled to a "couples relationship," mainly designed for the sexual and emotional gratification of each adult. Marriage is also quietly losing its place in the language. With the growing plurality of intimate relationships, people now tend to speak inclusively about "relationships" and "intimate partners," burying marriage within this general category. Moreover, some elites seem to believe that support for marriage is synonymous with far-right political or religious views, discrimination against single parents, and tolerance of domestic violence.

At the national policy level, marriage has received remarkably little bipartisan study or attention. During a four-decade period of dramatic historic change in marriage, no national studies, government commissions, or task forces have been set up to examine the status of marriage or to propose measures to strengthen it. Indeed, the United States lags well behind England, Australia, and Canada in the level and seriousness of governmental response to the widespread evidence of the weakening of marriage.

Statistical Tables

Percentage of Children Under Age 18 Living with a Single Parent














Percentage of Children Under Age 18 Living with Two Parents














Percentage of Live Births that Were to Unmarried Women

 Year Total

















Number of Cohabiting, Unmarried, Adult Couples of the Opposite Sex Living with One Child or More Under Age 15


 In Millions












Number of Cohabiting, Unmarried, Adult Couples of the Opposite Sex


In Millions












Percentage of High School Seniors Who "Agreed" or "Mostly Agreed" With the Statement That "It Is Usually a Good Idea for a Couple to Live Together Before Getting Married in Order to Find Out Whether They Really Get Along"




















From The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, June 1999, and The State of Our Unions 2000: The Social Health of Marriage in America by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, sponsored by The National Marriage Project at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, http://marriage.rutgers.edu.

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