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  • These unused wedding dresses should be symbols of hope and optimism about the future. Instead, they are symbols of heartbreak and dreams deferred. Tweet This
  • There is a reason men outnumber women in the wild, wild west of dating apps. Tweet This
  • One in four 40-year-olds in the United States have never been married, according to the Pew Research Center. Tweet This

My sister-in-law walked down the aisle in a designer gown she bought at a sample sale. When she and my brother were planning their wedding, they asked their officiant if he had reservations marrying a couple from different faith backgrounds.

The priest’s response? “I’m just glad you’re getting married.”

That was in 2010, when only 51% of U.S. adults ages 18 and older were married — a record low up to that point. Fast forward more than a decade later and only 45% of U.S. adults are married, according to Deseret News’ 2022 American Family Survey.

In a world where fewer Americans are tying the knot, I’m grateful my sister-in-law joined the family and that her deeply discounted gown had its day in the sun. If only I could say the same of the bridal outfits hanging in my own closet and in the closets of some of my dearest friends.

Relics of Former Flames

Instead, the trousseau hangs as a memento of past relationships—relics of former flames overwhelmed at the prospect of having to provide for their respective children from previous relationships while also fitting any children I hoped to have into the budget.

The barrier to entry, among other things, was simply too high to make the relationship an everlasting one. The math simply was not alluring enough to say ‘I do’—and so my dresses hang untouched, even though I wish they were littered with grass stains from an unforgettable night.

My wedding dresses are not the only ones going unused. A friend, recently uncoupled, purchased a gown off eBay, and still another friend searches daily for a dress to add to her trousseau, praying, like me, that she gets the chance to wear it before time or disease puts an end to her childbearing years.

These unused wedding dresses should be symbols of hope and optimism about the future. Instead, they’re symbols of heartbreak and dreams deferred in a world where “choosing” to be a wife and mother increasingly is not an option for lower- and middle-income Americans.

Cratering Marriage Rate Crushing Davids Bridal 

In a sign of the times, David’s Bridal says the cratering marriage rate is one reason it is filing for bankruptcy a second time in five years, as demand for wedding attire shrinks amid a shaky economy forcing consumers to tighten their belts and shop second-hand.

“Based on the Company’s data derived from various sources and customer surveys, the marriage rate in 2022 remained low, with only 1.9 million weddings occurring last year as compared to the more than 2.2 million weddings that occurred annually in the years leading up to the pandemic,” reads a court filing.

Beyond the trend of women buying their wedding dresses second-hand and forgoing more formal wedding attire, women are getting married later — if they marry at all. And more and more women are not having children—but not necessarily because they want a childless future.

According to latest U.S. Census Bureau data, the median age at first marriage for women is 28 years old, up from age 20 in the late 1940s. The average age at first marriage for women is even higher at 30 years old, according to a survey from The Knot, a wedding-planning platform.

Empty Wallets Getting in the Way of Full Hearts

Why are adults delaying marriage? As Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center writes, marriage rates are “more closely linked to socioeconomic status than ever before,” and the marriage gap is widening between those with four-year degrees and those without four-year degrees.

Parker continues, 

In 2015, among adults ages 25 and older, 65% with a four-year college degree were married, compared with 55% of those with some college education compared with 55% of those with some college education and 50% among those with no education beyond high school.

Even more concerning, however, is the share of young adults ages 25 and older, irrespective of their educational attainment, who remain unmarried — more evidence to support the belief that financial hurdles are keeping American men and women from their happily ever after. 

In fact, one in four 40-year-olds in the United States have never been married, according to the results of a new Pew Research Center survey, a record high for the age group. By comparison, only 6% of 40-year-olds in 1980 had never been married. While researchers say it’s likely many of these never-married 40-year-olds will marry in the coming decades, chances are they will struggle financially and physically to start a family.

The reasons for delaying or forgoing marriage are varied, and respondents attribute it to lack of financial preparedness and inability to find someone they want to spend the rest of their life with, according to Pew.

How to Reverse Plunging Marriage Rate

One way to remedy the marriage problem is to create more accountability on dating apps. There is a reason men outnumber women in the wild, wild west of dating apps—women are afraid of exploitation. Americans don’t hail a taxi or call an Uber with drivers that haven’t received a background check. 

Why don’t we demand the same when we put an app in the driver's seat regarding our romantic relationships? There should be mandatory background checks on dating apps and, perhaps, if users assert they are unmarried or have no children, those should be fact-checked as well.

Accountability on dating apps is especially important during an age when one in five Americans don’t live near extended family—parents, grandparents, siblings, etc.—and might otherwise benefit from the protective effect of having family nearby. It’s also important to have safeguards on dating apps during an age in which millions of women have lost faith in the church and, consequently, are leaving the church, an avenue they might otherwise turn to meet a suitable match. 

Instead, they're turning to predatory dating apps and learning the hard way it will likely take kissing a lot of frogs before finding their happily ever after online—if they find him at all.

Remove Hurdles to Marriage, Baby Carriage

Affluent mothers have higher fertility rates. More specifically, mothers who work outside the home are having more babies. As The Economist reported last year, “higher female [labor] participation rates are associated with more babies” in rich countries.

If women today want marriage and kids, they need to earn a handsome salary because many men can’t provide for a family anymore on their own. I hear the refrain often: “Single-income families are a thing of the past”—even from my father, the sole breadwinner during my formative years.

In a world where a young woman is expected to go on the Pill during her best childbearing years and in which abortion is heavily subsidized and even encouraged, lawmakers need to give women a real choice when it comes to childbearing and enfranchise the disenfranchised work of being a wife and mother. Lawmakers can do that by creating a federal paid-leave program that applies regardless of traditional job status and creating early childhood care accounts for mothers.

Most U.S. companies to this day don’t offer paid maternity leave. The fact an old employer of mine did not offer paid maternity leave was a sticking point with a former flame. “How are we going to make that work, Carolyn?” I recall him asking. He had a child from a previous relationship and little bandwidth in own salary, between his living expenses and monthly child support, to put money toward a future child with me. It’s no wonder he never proposed. 

The world is very different from the one in which my parents and grandparents came of age, and I don’t think anyone anticipated how difficult it would be to make it down the aisle or out of the maternity ward.

Men who desire marriage need relief knowing their partner is covered in the early months after childbirth, especially given out-of-control inflation, housing costs, and a world in which so many men pay child support or alimony for an earlier relationship. 

The bottom line? Marriage and family shouldn't be reserved for the #girlboss C-suite. 

If policymakers fail to reevaluate marriage and family policy in a meaningful way, the marriage rate will continue to drop and more second-hand dresses hanging in closets nationwide will become moth-eaten relics.

Carolyn Bolton is the communications and marketing manager for a mission-driven giving-account provider. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.