Married Life: The New I Do
Between celeb nuptials that last a nanosecond and reality shows featuring 20 women eager to humiliate themselves for one Flavor Flav, it's easy to think that the state of marriage is imploding faster than a Mentos in Diet Coke. But when you dig into the research, it turns out our culture isn't as commitment-phobic as it seems. "Marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the previous 3,000," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor at the Evergreen State College and author ofMarriage, A History.And these changes are actually for the better. Whether you're tying the knot now or planning to someday, it's time to make sense of all this matrimonial madness so you're guaranteed to live happily ever after.
We're too busy to be brides.
25MEDIAN AGE AT WHICH WOMEN GET MARRIED TODAY
21MEDIAN AGE AT WHICH WOMEN DID 30 YEARS AGO
Around the time you were born, most women were walking down the aisle at the same age you drank your first legal beer and went through yourDevil Wears Pradaphase. Today, the median age of first marriage is more like 25; 27 if you've gone to college. Getting a law degree or an MBA? Plan to hit the big 3-0 before you get hitched. But we're not stretching out the single life because we're procrastinating or waiting for the perfect guy to come along. Even after college, we pack way more into our 20s than our mothers did (or had the opportunity to) -- getting an advanced degree, renting our first place, lining up thankless internships to pave the way to promising careers. "Young women are postponing marriage because they'rebusy," says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Detroit and the project director of the Early Years of Marriage study at the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center. "The past decade has been a whirlwind of personal growth for me," says recently married Heather Harding, 31, of Toronto. "All of which I needed to experience before getting married. I went to grad school, I lived abroad, I tried on a couple of careers. Tying the knot just wasn't on my priority list in my early 20s."
Good news: Research shows that taking the time to score some goals before you settle down makes long-term happiness more likely. And, according to statistics, marrying young (before your 25th b-day) bumps up your risk of divorce by 24 percent. Some experts -- and probably your mom -- claim that with a quarter of a decade under our belts, we know ourselves better and so can choose a wiser match.
We try before we buy.
62PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN WHO LIVE WITH A BOYFRIEND BEFORE GETTING MARRIED
40PERCENTAGE WHO SHACKED UP BEFORE SEALING THE DEAL 30 YEARS AGO
Nowadays you're a rebel if you don't swap keys before swapping rings. Mekayla Beaver, 27, of Somerville, Massachusetts, has been living with her boyfriend, Greg, for almost a year. "I expect to marry him someday," she says. "But neither of us was ready to take that step when we first moved in together." Within a few months, though, Beaver had relinquished any lingering doubts that he's the one. "It's just a matter of time before one of us proposes," she says. For most of us, living together is a dress rehearsal -- 55 percent of cohabiters get married within 5 years.
Moving in with a beau does have some baggage that's worth unpacking. Research from the 1980s and 1990s suggested that people who lived together before marriage faced a higher risk of divorce -- fodder for conservative groups to claim that those couples had a blasé attitude toward commitment that would lead straight to Splitsville and wreak havoc on the traditional notion of family. But newer, more sophisticated studies suggest otherwise. And because cohabitation has become so mainstream, some experts now consider it a natural extension of dating, rather than a diversion from marriage. While it doesn't protect us from divorce, it doesn't make it any more likely.
And what about that old worry that your guy will be "getting the milk for free," so he won't bother taking the next step? Forget about it. If anyone is going to put off marriage at this stage, it's probably you. "In long-term cohabitating couples, research shows that the woman is more likely to be dragging her feet to the altar -- not the man," says Dorian Solot, coauthor ofUnmarried to Each Otherand cofounder of the national Alternatives to Marriage Project. Hardly surprising, given that what being a wife has meant historically -- cooking, cleaning, raising kids -- isn't so appealing on its own anymore. "Women want to pursue their own goals," Solot says. "And they want to be sure that getting married is going to allow them to be who they want to be."
We love sex -- and always have.
94PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN WHO HAVE PREMARITAL SEX TODAY
93PERCENTAGE WHO DID THE DEED WITHOUT WEDDING BANDS 30 YEARS AGO
Researchers say the number of Americans having prenuptial nooky hasn't changed much since the 1940s -- and it didn't necessarily start then either. "Premarital sex was common in the medieval era," Coontz says, "and throughout history." The idea that our generation (or even the last few) is the first to embrace unmarried sex is hogwash. Not only did your mom do it, there's a good chance Grandma did too.
So, if we've always given in to the heat of the moment, what's changed? "Over the past 30 years women have become more comfortable owning up to their sexual desires and behavior," Coontz says. "A woman's value isn't tied to her virginity the way it used to be," she adds. "So women don't feel pressure to play the naïve sexual role." This kind of openness translates into healthier sexual relationships. "Research shows clearly that today's husbands and wives report far more satisfying and enjoyable sex than couples did in the past," she says.
We're smarter, and therefore hotter.
94PERCENTAGE OF COLLEGE-EDUCATED WOMEN WHO TIE THE KNOT TODAY
70 to 80PERCENTAGE WHO DID 30 YEARS AGO
Back when the Doors were topping the charts, college-educated women were less likely to marry than their peers, making the old saying "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses" pathetically true. Back then, traditional breadwinner-housewife roles in marriage were as rigid as a Botoxed upper lip. But for our generation, the girl in Armani specs and a power suit is the most likely to marry of all. "Studies show that young men today want the same qualities in a woman that were traditionally considered desirable in a man," says Jean Elson, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire. In other words, someone smart and successful who can share the financial load. But it's about being on the same page intellectually as much as financially. "Men aren't looking for someone to play fetch anymore," says Christine B. Whelan, Ph.D., author ofWhy Smart Men Marry Smart Women. "They want to volley with an equal." According to her research, 71 percent of high-achieving men said a woman's career or educational success makes her more irresistible. And while it seems counterintuitive, women with degrees have the strictest views on divorce. "In a recent study, 62.5 percent of college-educated women said getting a divorce should be tougher," says Steven Martin, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Maryland. "In the 1970s, it was 36 percent." Experts believe that because college-educated women have stronger support systems and better problem-solving skills, they're more willing to try to work things out.
We're committed to going long.
43PERCENTAGE OF MARRIED COUPLES WHO GET DIVORCED TODAY
48PERCENTAGE WHO DID 30 YEARS AGO
Every marriage is haunted by the knowledge that roughly 1 in 2 will fail. But your own chances of divorce aren't exactly the coin toss implied by the stats. At the time of any couple's wedding, certain factors are already present that can dramatically increase -- or decrease -- their odds of success. And here's an eyebrow raiser: The divorce rate isn't actually going up; it's on the decline. The high point of divorce occurred almost 30 years ago and has been inching its way down ever since. Sure, it was far lower in the 1960s, but the comparison is unfair. There's less stigma around divorce today, and it's much easier to get one thanks to laws that speed the process along. Women have greater financial power than ever and can leave a relationship more easily. And the standards for a good marriage are much higher now. "In the past, all you had to do to qualify as an acceptable husband was be a provider for your family," Whelan says. "The idea of marriage being based on love and mutual respect is very new," Coontz adds. "For most of history, it was more like a business relationship." Couples in the past didn't expect to find the partnership enjoyable -- just practical.
Is today's divorce rate still too high? It's impossible to tell, because no one knows what the rate of divorce should be, or whether marriages in the 1960s would have lasted had divorce been less taboo and easier to obtain. And some experts consider the current rate as proof that our generation is uniquely committed to being happily married. "My research shows that people take marriage much more seriously now as a quality relationship," Coontz says. "And that's part of the current divorce rate. Women today believe it's better not to be married at all if the marriage doesn't meet this new standard." Which is why we're the ones to haul off to divorce court more than two-thirds of the time. Crystal Lopez, 26, of Atlanta, recently divorced her husband of 2 years. "The decision was difficult," she says. "But I see it as evidence of my commitment to marriage, not a lack of it." In spite of a long courtship, after getting married Crystal found that she and her husband had very different life goals. "I didn't want to miss out on the chance to have a fulfilling marriage in the future, and it became apparent that it would never be possible if I stayed in this one."
We're more happily married than ever.
90PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN TODAY WHO ARE DESTINED TO BE BRIDES
90PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN 30 YEARS AGO WHO WORE THE WHITE DRESS
Despite everything that has changed, the institution of marriage is still going strong. Yes, Bridget Jones had us freaked out for a while. But our chances of getting married are just as good as they were 100 years ago -- even if it doesn't seem that way when we're single and nearly blind from browsing eHarmony ads.
Most encouraging of all, tying the knot has become a choice rather than a necessity. It's hard to believe that just 30 years ago marriage was a woman's ticket to financial security, and dual-income families were as rare as a redneck at a Tori Amos concert. But over the past three decades, women have become better educated than men (58 percent of college students are female). And we're just as financially independent: Single women are now twice as likely as single men to buy homes, and nearly 40 percent of babies are now born to unmarried mothers (compared with 5 percent in 1960 and 18 percent in 1980).
So if we can do it all ourselves, what keeps us coming back? Maybe we just can't help it. "All cultures have some type of marriage ritual, suggesting that we're hardwired at the species level to want to marry," says James Cordova, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at Clark University who specializes in marriage studies. But the explanation might be even simpler: As social creatures, humans function more effectively in teams. "We do better when we are in a positive, long-term relationship," Cordova says. "We live longer, we eat and sleep better, our immune systems function more effectively, we're less susceptible to depression, and our children are more likely to thrive." Now that we're not under as much pressure to get -- and stay -- married, we're more interested in the quality of the partnership. All of which adds up to powerful incentive.
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