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The State of Our Unions: Marriage Up Among Older Americans, Down Among the Younger

The State of Our Unions: Marriage Up Among Older Americans, Down Among the Younger

The share of married adults in the United States has remained about 50% for more than half a decade, despite a steady drop since the 1960s. But this overall pattern masks the diverging trends by age: Among those ages 18 to 64, the share of currently-married adults has decreased consistently, reaching a record low of 48.6% in 2016, when the most recent Census data was available.1 In contrast, the share among adults ages 65 and older has increased slightly over the past five decades. As a result, adults ages 65 and older became more likely than younger adults to be married in the mid-2000s, and in 2016, a majority of older adults were married. In this new IFS research brief, IFS research director Wendy R. Wang highlights key trends in the share of married and divorced Americans.


Men & Marriage: Debunking the Ball and Chain Myth

Men & Marriage: Debunking the Ball and Chain Myth

Marriage is not worth it for men. It’s not worth the practical and financial sacrifices, the lost romantic opportunities, or the “lack of freedom.” All in all, a spouse is a ball and chain—of little benefit to any man interested in pursuing happiness and well-being.

Considering both the latest survey data and the continuing decline in the marriage rate, it’s fair to say that this viewpoint is becoming more entrenched in our society, particularly among younger men.1 

But despite its prevalence, the ball and chain view of marriage is simply not supported by the research. Indeed, the benefits of marriage for men are substantial by every conceivable measure, including more money, a better sex life, and significantly better physical and mental health. Yet many men remain ignorant of these benefits, a view seemingly promoted by popular culture.

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How Many Married People Have Thought About Divorce?

Almost everyone wants a happy marriage and wants it to last a lifetime.  But most also know the scary U.S. statistics: nearly 50 percent of first marriages and more than 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. Researchers have discovered a lot about the struggles that lead to marital breakdown and the factors that raise or lower couples’ divorce risk. Strangely, however, we know little about how people consider the option of divorce. What are spouses thinking as they ponder it? How often and how long have they been having these thoughts? What marital problems are they facing, and what do they do to address them? 

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The Paradox of Adoption

Their parents are generally well-educated and affluent. They receive more time and educational resources from those parents than the average child gets from theirs. Yet they get into more conflicts with their classmates at school, display relative little interest and enthusiasm about learning tasks, and register only middling academic performance. About whom are we talking? Adopted children. This is the paradox of adoption in America.

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Cohabitation, Marriage, and Union Instability in Europe

There has always been a fierce debate about the relationship between cohabitation and divorce risks. Some argue that cohabitation lessens people’s commitment to partnership and thus increases their risk of divorce, while others believe that a cohabitation phase before marriage (as a trial marriage) would strengthen marital stability.  

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Life Before Marriage: Does What Happens in Vegas Stay in Vegas?

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We tell ourselves this over and over, so it must be true. What if we think about Vegas as what happens in one’s love life before settling down in marriage? Does what happens in that Vegas stay there? Most would say yes—I call this widespread belief the Vegas Syndrome. 

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Practice May Not Make Perfect: Relationship Experience and Marital Success

In most areas of life, having more experience is good. Want to be great in your chosen field? Sustained experience is essential. Want to be great at a sport? There’s no substitute for practice.  But while more experience is often beneficial in life, the story looks different when it comes to some types of experience before marriage.

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Testing a Relationship Is Probably the Worst Reason to Cohabit

“Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation.” That’s the headline and conclusion from a national survey conducted by the Barna Group.  They surveyed 1,097 adults in April 2016, finding that 65 percent ofAmericans now approve of cohabiting prior to tying the knot, while 35 percent do not.  Given that nearly 70 percent of Americans marrying today will cohabit before getting married, these findings are not too surprising.  The Barna Group also found that 84 percent of those who support premarital cohabitation do so because it provides a test of compatibility prior to marrying. That will be our main focus in this piece .

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Counterintuitive Trends in the Link Between Premarital Sex and Marital Stability

American sexual behavior is much different than it used to be. Today, most Americans think premarital sex is okay, and will have three or more sexual partners before marrying. What, if anything, does premarital sex have to do with marital stability?  This research brief shows that the relationship between divorce and the number of sexual partners women have prior to marriage is complex.

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Sex and Divorce: What’s the Connection?

Are “liberal values the key to saving marriage?” asks economist Noah Smith. He argues, provocatively, that one of the problems with working-class family life is that it is not liberal enough. Working-class men and women are too attached to outdated norms regarding gender, sex, and family life to forge strong and stable families for the twenty-first century, by his account. Jessica Goldstein, Richard Reeves, and Justin Wolfers have made similar arguments about the counterproductive character of cultural conservatism for today’s families.  Are they right?

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Want to Avoid Divorce? Wait to Get Married, But Not Too Long

If you hope to avoid divorce, what’s the ideal age to get married? For years, it seemed like the longer you waited to marry, the better. That’s because the relationship between age at marriage and divorce risk was almost linear: The older you were, the lower the chances of divorce. Although teens still face an elevated divorce risk relative to older adults, my analysis of more recent data shows that those who tie the knot after their early thirties are now more likely to divorce than those who marry in their late twenties.


Does the “Marriage of Equals” Exacerbate Educational Inequality?

In a recent article in the New York Times, economist Tyler Cowen contends that the “marriage of equals”—the tendency of women and men to mate and have children with partners who are in the same social class as themselves—helps to propagate inequality across the generations. Noting that assortative mating has increased in recent decades, he argues that, “Of all the causes behind growing income inequality...this development may prove one of the most significant and also one of the hardest to counter.”  Cowen focuses on income, wealth, and “power couples,” but assortative mating also occurs in the middle and at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.  How much does it contribute to disparities in children’s educational achievement?  My analysis of data from a large-scale longitudinal study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education shows just how pronounced assortative mating is among the parents of today’s young adults and how it relates to gaps in the achievement of different groups. 


Weak and Strong Links: Asymmetrical Commitment in Unmarried Relationships

With some couples, one partner is substantially more committed than the other. We call these Asymmetrically Committed Relationships (ACRs). No one who is looking for lasting love wants to find themselves in an ACR, but we suspect it has become increasingly easy to land in one. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Less Marriage, More Inequality

The standard portrayals of economic life for ordinary American families paint a picture of stagnancy, even decline, amidst rising economic inequality. But rarely does the public conversation about our changing economy, from the pages of the New York Times to the halls of the Brookings Institution, focus on questions of family structure. This is a major oversight: though few realize it, the retreat from marriage plays a central role in the changing economic landscape of American families, in race relations in America, and in the deteriorating fortunes of poor boys. In a word, the increasingly “separate and unequal” character of family life in the United States is fueling economic, racial, and gender inequality. 


The Marriage Gap in Europe

It’s common knowledge that fewer people are getting married these days.  This has become an increasingly serious problem for the simple reason that most couples who don’t marry don’t stay together, whereas most couples who do marry do stay together.  Among parents, roughly eight out of 10 who are married when their child is born will still be together when their child completes secondary education. If the parents don’t marry, the odds of staying together while bringing up a child plummet to three out of 10. That’s a pretty big gap. 


Marriage is an Important Tool in the Fight Against Poverty

Marriage is no “panacea for poverty,” according to a Center for American Progress (CAP) report by Shawn Fremstad released last week. “Marriage Won’t Cure Poverty,” read the Atlantic headline for an article by Rebecca Rosen spotlighting the CAP report. And, a few years ago, a prominent study by three sociologists framed the question in a way that sounds familiar: “Is Marriage a Panacea?”  When progressive policy makers, journalists, and scholars pose the question like this, the answer is never in doubt: marriage is no poverty panacea.  But just because putting a ring on it won’t cure poverty, that doesn’t mean the converse is true: namely, marriage plays no role in the fight against poverty. In truth, marriage is one important tool, among others—from high-quality education to wage subsidies for low-income jobs—in the fight against poverty.

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Millennial Women and Marriage

Dating and marriage can be a “Tinder” subject these days among Millennials, but let’s be honest, dating is hard and the struggle is real! There was once a time when chivalry existed, men actually initiated relationships, and being pursued by a gentleman was considered an honor for a woman.  But today, many Millennial women are trading dating with future intent for instant gratification and pleasure. Young adults think they can pick and chose the perfect mate by viewing a picture of who’s hot and who’s not, all the while leaving character, values, and depth aside. Consequently, we live in an age where many women are trading life-long intimacy through marriage for temporary pleasure, and where the hookup and resulting walk of shame are more likely than a walk down the aisle. But most Millennial women still want to be married, but are choosing to delay marriage. The question is why.


Millennials: Generation Infidelity?

Americans’ disapproval of extramarital sex has dipped in recent years, according to a recent report from Paul Hemez at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. The first possible cause the researcher brings up are those blasted Millennials might have begun to soil the General Social Survey with their casual attitudes toward sex, including, apparently, sex between a married person and someone who is not his or her spouse.  No one hates my generation as much as I do, but I don’t think we deserve the blame for this one.


The Costs and Benefits of Welfare Reform

According to conservatives, by making cash welfare benefits temporary, welfare reform encouraged more poor Americans to enter the labor force, which caused poverty rates to decline. Liberals, for their part, have long held a different view. The earliest critics of welfare reform attributed any drop in poverty to the strong economy of the late 1990s, not the law. More recently, the left has argued that welfare reform increased “extreme poverty” in particular—not poverty in general, not “deep poverty” (half the poverty line), but the state of living with almost no money whatsoever.


Welfare and Marriage in Fishtown

“When you get married, I’m pretty sure that you lose your insurance,” Katie, a 26-year-old cohabiting mother of two who receives Medicaid benefits, said in a recent interview with Institute for Family Studies (IFS) research fellows David and Amber Lapp. The Lapps interviewed a dozen poor and lower-middle-class individuals about how social-welfare programs affect their marriage decisions. Katie is planning on marrying her boyfriend, but she’s also worried about the impact marriage would have on her access to healthcare.


How Family Transitions Affect Students’ Achievement

Among journalists who write about education, the stock explanation for student underachievement and school discipline problems is poverty. Yet there are examples in every school system of students from impoverished family circumstances who do well academically, as well as instances of students from affluent families who get D’s and F’s. When poverty is overemphasized as a cause of instructional ills, other aspects of family life—such as conflict between parents or changes in student living arrangements—are typically ignored or underemphasized.  Indeed, it is not generally appreciated how much burden has been placed on our public schools by the revolutionary increases in divorce, cohabitation, and unmarried childbearing that took place over the last half century.


More Than 60% of U.S. Kids Live with Two Biological Parents

Each year the Census Bureau captures a snapshot of the living arrangements of U.S. children through its Current Population Survey. The 2014 results were released by the Bureau last week, and despite all the talk about the growing irrelevance of marriage, 43 million children, a 58-percent majority, were living with both their birth mother and biological father in a traditional married-couple family.


The Crime of Nations: The Underappreciated Role of Family Factors

Why do some countries have so much crime? Here in the U.S., we often worry about the fact that our murder rate is so much higher than those of other developed countries. Even more disturbing are crime rates in much of the developing world. Some blame culture; others blame poverty or inequality; still others blame a lack of good government. A new study looks at the question through a different lens: Maybe crime is one manifestation of a “fast life-history strategy”—a bundle of traits, unified by a wide-ranging evolutionary theory, that also includes adolescent fertility and low paternal investment. The results suggest that, indeed, nations with young mothers and absent fathers also tend to have high crime, even after other potential causes have been accounted for.


What Couples with Children Argue About Most

About what are married couples with children most likely to argue? No, it isn’t money, nor being too tired for sex, nor caring for the kids, although all of these are frequent subjects of marital disagreement. The most common area of contention is chores and responsibilities. Nearly half of couples with kindergarten-aged children (49 percent) said they argued about chores and responsibilities “often” or “sometimes.” 


Race, Ethnicity, and Family Stability in Red and Blue America

Many debates about contemporary family trends involve a clash between two schools of thought, one emphasizing demographic and economic factors and the other emphasizing culture, morality, and religion. The research brief released at Family Studies last week has revealed those fault lines once more.  In the brief, we explored how states’ varying levels of family stability relate to their voting patterns in presidential elections.


Red Families vs. Blue Families: Which Are Happier?

Blue families are stronger and more stable than red families. Until recently, this was the conventional wisdom in the media and the academy. But this belief has been challenged by new reports in Family Studies and the New York Times. At least at the regional level, blue families—that is, families in areas that vote Democratic in presidential elections—do not have an advantage. It turns out that, on average, more conservative counties across the country have more marriage, less nonmarital childbearing, and more family stability for their children.


Extramarital Sex and Religion: Democrats vs. Republicans

Sexual misconduct is also often discussed in the context of religion, perhaps to give journalists something to write between elections. So why not put all three topics forbidden in polite company—sex, politics, and religion—into one blog post?  I’ll focus on extramarital sex using a question from the General Social Survey (GSS): “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” Obviously, this is only one type of sexual misconduct, and it does not apply to people who have never been married. Still, it’s misconduct that most Americans disapprove of.


Faith and Family, Better Together? Religion and Family Around the Globe

Here in the United States, the increasingly secular caste of American society has gone hand in hand with a retreat from a family-focused way of life that prioritizes marriage and parenthood. As Americans have become less likely to defer to religious authorities—from the Pope to the pastor—and less likely to darken the door of a church on any given Sunday, they have also become less likely to tie the knot and have that third or fourth child.


Religious Service Attendance, Marriage, and Health

Considerable research over the last two decades has been devoted to the relationship between religious participation and health and well-being. Our research indicates that religious service attendance is associated with greater marital stability—or more specifically, with a lower likelihood of divorce.  We are not the first to study the relationship between religious service attendance and the likelihood of divorce. In fact, a number of studies have found similar results: namely, that those who attend religious services are about 30 to 50 percent less likely to divorce than those who do not.

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Dad and the Diploma

In this policy brief, Brad Wilcox shows that young adults who as teens had involved fathers are significantly more likely to graduate from college, and that young adults from more privileged backgrounds are especially likely to have had an involved father in their lives as teens.

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Men & Marriage: Debunking the Ball and Chain Myth


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