Sex & Relationships

Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete?

Nearly 40 percent of Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete. Are they right? Or is marriage just undergoing some significant changes?

You’d never know it, but 39 percent of Americans think that marriage is becoming obsolete.

Finally. It’s not quite half but it’s a big enough number for me to feel vindicated. Before I was old enough to tie my shoes I knew I’d probably never tie the knot. Now, according to a Time Magazine/Pew Research story, 39 percent of people think marriage is becoming as obsolete as a VHS tape or a dial phone. The number rises and falls depending on who you ask. Only 27 percent of college-educated people think it’s on its way out – that rises to 62 percent when the respondents are unmarried parents living with a partner.

Still, 39 percent average is a lot more than I’d have imagined, especially when you consider the cultural catbird seat marriage occupies. Almost all of us are expected to do it. Time’s Belinda Luscombe quotes sociologist Andrew Cherlin: "Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life," and "It's like the ultimate merit badge."

It’s also a cash cow. According to Time the wedding industry is a $40-billion-plus business; About.com says there’s $72 billion spent on weddings in the U.S. each year. There are many glossy wedding magazines (though none on marriage that I know of) and numerous wedding shows, from “Bridezillas” to the new "Bridalplasty" in which brides-to-be compete for a dream wedding and various plastic surgeries their grooms won’t see until they lift the veil (because it’s every man’s dream to marry someone he couldn’t pick out of a lineup).

Then there’s gay marriage, which has made many people think of an old institution in a brand new way. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005 and the sky didn’t fall in on the Great White North. Chicken Littling over the issue in the U.S., however, has denied the civil rights of many and the hoopla caused marriage to be further cemented as a Holy Grail, something you’re supposed to want (though the real issue is simply equal protection under the law). Of course I support the rights of same-sex couples to end up saying things like “She’s your mother. You change her corn pads,” even though the more vaunted marriage is, the more I’ll probably be marginalized as an iconoclastic anti-social unmarried weirdo. That’s love.

Anyway, it’s all an awful lot of sturm und drang over something 39 percent of people think is going the way of Chess King.

Marriage is at an all-time low; only 52 percent of legal adults are taking part in it at the moment. The Census Bureau is now including unmarried and same-sex couples as well as foster children in its definition of family when measuring poverty (taking pooled incomes into account) partly due to the increase in cohabitation -- 13.5 percent in one year, which “analysts largely attributed to people unwilling to make long-term marriage commitments in the fact of persisting unemployment,” says the AP.

On the other hand, persisting unemployment could easily jack up the number of people cohabitating to help pay the bills.

Anna North writing in Jezebelhoned squarely in on the fact that the more wealthy and educated people are, the better their chances of getting and staying married, though the less well-off want marriage just as much: “The most important gap in this country -- the one we really need to work to close -- may not be between married and unmarried, but between those who have the means to do what they want in life, and those who don't.”

And marriage is something many people still want, even though they think no one else will. While 44 percentof people under 30 think marriage is becoming obsolete, only 5 percent of them don't want to marry. (Here's Belinda Luscombe talking about the story and its many intriguing statistics.)

In light of this, one has to wonder if the word “traditional” was something people mentally put in front of “marriage” when taking this survey. Traditional marriage may be on shaky ground but people will always want to celebrate their love. In the age of customization it might be time for marriage to have more variations.

It’s not a new idea.

In 1975 Time ran a story about people wanting to customize their marriage contracts, including provisions about affairs and renewal intervals. One included the phrase “Ralph agrees not to pick, nag or comment about Wanda’s skin blemishes.” The article says that even with a customized contract courts would likely hold up whatever traditional marriage law is, so if the contract says you can have affairs your spouse can probably still claim adultery in court and win a divorce. Attorney Brenda Feigen-Fasteau advised in the piece that staying unmarried would be more likely to make the contract be treated like any other contract.

So, is that still valid? Would the law still be less likely to uphold a private agreement between married people, hence allowing customization of the age-old tradition?

“Pre- and post-nuptial agreements are legal in Florida when dealing with monetary assets. Dealing with rights to have sex outside the marriage, etcetera…probably not,” says Tom Dyer, Orlando attorney and publisher of the LGBT newspaper Watermark. "I have drafted many 'cohabitation agreements' for same-sex couples who do not have the ability to marry in Florida. They are very much like prenups in that they mostly address what would happen with assets in the event of a breakup, and they are generally upheld by courts as a contract between two adults... almost as if they'd formed a business together. I've never had a couple ask that open relationship provisions be included.”

Kevin Maillard, associate professor of law at Syracuse University and member of the board of directors of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, says that the 1975 Time story would still be valid, largely because courts tend to side with whatever keeps marriage traditional and strong. Courts, he says, will often go all the way back to the 1888 case of Maynard v. Hill as a reference point on the subject of marriage.

“Though there is this growing interest in diversity of ways that people can exist in families, courts still adhere to this old-fashioned notion that marriage is the foundation of society, so even in a state like Massachusetts that does have same-sex marriage, the entire case, the opinion, the wording, is all about how important marriage is in the United States. So even though they’re expanding the idea of who can get married and who is eligible to get married they’re still saying that people need access, everyone needs access to this because it’s so incredibly important.”

Also, if for some reason two people can't marry, Maillard says, “if they are cousins or they’re two men or one of them has some kind of other non-qualifying characteristic, they could contract because there’s no other way for them to get married and generally courts would want to protect those people.” For someone who could get married but might want to customize an agreement to say, hypothetically, include extramarital relationships, “I would say no because it’s not approximating what kind of regular or traditional marriage would be.”

Maillard sites the famous 1976 palimony case of actor Lee Marvin as a turning point in how the law sees relationships. Marvin had a verbal contract and marriage-like partnership with girlfriend Michelle Triola Marvin. When they split up she took him to court and eventually won and though she got a much smaller settlement than she asked for (and never collected anything) it was a big victory for cohabitation.

Maillard and his opposite-sex partner would seem to be a perfect case in point for the changing view of coupling; they opted for a contract made through lawyers rather than a traditional marriage.

“We are still not married but we wanted to have some type of protection between the two of us,” he says. He and his partner made a contract through a lawyer that would be individual and personal, to show seriousness and permanence to them and their families without seeing themselves through the lens of traditional marriage.

“This was individually, to us,” he says. “I didn’t want something everybody else was doing.”

Not everyone can afford access to lawyers and have customized agreements, but the low marriage rate, the changing template of “family,” the gay marriage issue forcing people to look at whether tradition is more important than justice, the British couple who are suing after being denied a civil union on the basis of their heterosexuality, all point to the notion that in this survival-of-the-fittest world, marriage might well undergo some adaptations.

After all, the dial phone is obsolete…but the phone itself is better than anyone could ever have imagined. Who says marriage can’t end up the same way?

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.