Marriage Divorce Unmarried Cohabitation Loss of Child Centeredness Fragile Families with Children Teen Attitudes about Marriage and Family

Marriage

Key Finding: Marriage trends in recent decades indicate that Americans have become less likely to marry, and the most recent data show that the marriage rate in the United States continues to decline. Of those who do marry, there has been a moderate drop since the 1970s in the percentage of couples who consider their marriages to be “very happy,” but in the past two decades this trend has flattened out.

Americans have become less likely to marry. This is reflected in a decline of more than 50 percent, from 1970 to 2010, in the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women (Figure 1). In real terms, the total number of marriages fell from 2.45 million in 1990 to 2.08 million in 2010. Much of this decline—it is not clear just how much—results from the delaying of first marriages until older ages: the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 28, respectively, in 2010. Other factors accounting for the decline are the growth of unmarried cohabitation and a small decrease in the tendency of divorced persons to remarry. Finally, U.S. Census data indicate that the retreat from marriage has accelerated in the wake of the Great Recession.

FIGURE 1. NUMBER OF MARRIAGES PER 1,000 UNMARRIED WOMEN AGE 15 AND OLDER, BY YEAR, UNITED STATES

Figure 1

Note: We have used the number of new marriages per 1,000 unmarried women age 15 and older, rather than the Crude Marriage Rate of marriages per 1,000 population to help avoid the problem of compositional changes in the population, that is, changes that stem merely from there being more or less people in the marriageable ages. Even this more refined measure is somewhat susceptible to compositional changes. Also note that the most recent number presented for total marriages comes from 2009, not 2010.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2001 (Table 117) and for 1986 (Table 124), available online at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.htlml; Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table A1), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2009.html; American Community Surveys for 2010 (Tables S0101 and S1251), available online at factfinder2.census.gov/; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data” for 2007 (in National Vital Statistics Report 56) (Table 2) and for 2009 (NVS Report 58) (Table A), available online at www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr.htm.

The decline also reflects some increase in lifelong singlehood, though the actual amount cannot be known until current young and middle-aged adults pass through the life course.

The percentage of adults in the population who are currently married has also diminished. Since 1960, the decline of those married among all persons age 15 and older has been about 16 percentage points—and approximately 30 points among black females (Figure 2). It should be noted that these data include people who have never married and those who have married and then divorced.

FIGURE 2. PERCENTAGE OF ALL PERSONS AGE 15 AND OLDER WHO WERE MARRIED, BY SEX AND RACE, 1960–2010, UNITED STATES

Figure 2

Note: Percents of total males and total females include races other than black and white. In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table UC3), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

In order partially to control for a decline in married adults due solely to delayed first marriages, we have looked at changes in the percentage of persons age 35 through 44 who were married (Figure 3). Since 1960, there has been a drop of 23 percentage points for married men and 21 points for married women.

FIGURE 3. PERCENTAGE OF PERSONS AGE 35–44 WHO WERE MARRIED, BY SEX, 1960–2010, UNITED STATES

Figure 3

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1961 (Table 27), 1971 (Table 38), 1981 (Table 49), and 2001 (Table 51), available online at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html; General Population Characteristics for 1990 (Table 34), available online at www.census.gov/prod/cen1990/cpi/cp-i.html; Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table UC3), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

Marriage trends in the age range of 35 to 44 are suggestive of lifelong singlehood. In the past and still today, virtually all persons who were going to marry during their lifetimes had married by age 45. More than 90 percent of women have eventually married in every generation for which records exist, going back to the mid-1800s. By 1960, 94 percent of women then living had been married at least once by age 45—probably a historical high point.[1] For the generation of 1995, assuming a continuation of then-current marriage rates, several demographers projected that 88 percent of women and 82 percent of men would ever marry.[2] If and when these figures are recalculated for the early years of the twenty-first century, the percentage of women and men ever marrying will almost certainly be lower.

The decline in marriage does not mean that people are giving up on living together with a sexual partner. On the contrary, with the incidence of unmarried cohabitation increasing rapidly, marriage is giving ground to unwed unions. Most people now live together before they marry for the first time. An even higher percentage of divorced persons who subsequently remarry live together first. And a growing number of persons, both young and old, are living together with no plans to marry eventually.

There is a common belief that, although a smaller percentage of Americans are marrying than was the case a few decades ago, those who now marry have marriages of higher quality. It seems reasonable to surmise that if divorce removes poor marriages from the pool of married couples and cohabitation “trial marriages” deter some bad marriages from forming, the remaining marriages should, on average, be happier. The best available evidence on the topic, however, does not support these assumptions. Since 1973, the General Social Survey periodically has asked representative samples of married Americans to rate their marriages as either “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.”[3] As Figure 4 indicates, the percentage of both men and women responding “very happy” has declined moderately over the past forty years.[4] This trend, however, has essentially flattened out over the last two decades.

FIGURE 4. PERCENTAGE OF MARRIED PERSONS AGE 18 AND OLDER WHO SAID THEIR MARRIAGES WERE “VERY HAPPY,” BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 4

Note: The number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 2,000—except for 1977–1981, 1998–2002, and 2004–2008, with about 1,500 respondents for each sex.

Source: The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.

DIVORCE

Key Finding: The American divorce rate today is nearly twice that of 1960, but has declined since hitting its highest point in our history in the early 1980s. For the average couple marrying for the first time in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation now falls between 40 and 50 percent.

The increase in divorce, shown by the trend reported in Figure 5, has probably elicited more concern and discussion than any other family-related trend in the United States. Although the long-term trend in divorce has been upward since colonial times, the divorce rate was level for about two decades after World War II, during the period of high fertility known as the baby boom. By the middle of the 1960s, however, the incidence of divorce started to increase and it more than doubled over the next fifteen years to reach a historical high point in the early 1980s.

FIGURE 5. NUMBER OF DIVORCES PER 1,000 MARRIED WOMEN AGE 15 AND OLDER, BY YEAR, UNITED STATES

Figure 5

Note: We have used the number of divorces per 1,000 married women age 15 and older, rather than the Crude Divorce Rate of divorces per 1,000 population to help avoid the problem of compositional changes in the population. Even this more refined measure is somewhat susceptible to compositional changes. Calculations for this table are by the National Marriage Project for the United States, less California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, and Minnesota.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2001 (Table 117), available online at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html; Current Population Report for 2000 (Table 3), available online at www.census.gov/cps; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data” for 2000 (in National Vital Statistics Report 49) and 2009 (in NVS Report 58) (Table 2), available online at www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm.

Since then, the divorce rate has modestly declined. The decline apparently represents a slight increase in marital stability.[5] Two probable reasons for this are an increase in the age at which people marry for the first time, and that marriage is progressively becoming the preserve of the well-educated. Both of these factors are associated with greater marital stability.[6]

Although a majority of divorced persons eventually remarry, the growth of divorce has led to a steep increase in the percentage of all adults who are currently divorced (Figure 6). This percentage, which was only 1.8 percent for males and 2.6 percent for females in 1960, had quadrupled by the year 2000. The percentage of divorced persons is higher for females than for males primarily because divorced men are more likely to remarry than divorced women. Also, among those who do remarry, men generally do so sooner than women.

FIGURE 6. PERCENTAGE OF ALL PERSONS AGE 15 AND OLDER WHO WERE DIVORCED, BY SEX AND RACE, 1960–2010, UNITED STATES

Figure 6

Note: In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years. “Divorced” indicates family status at the time of survey. Divorced respondents who later marry are counted as “married.”

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table A1) and earlier similar reports. Available online from www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

When it comes to cultural attitudes, Figure 7 indicates that the public has become more accepting of divorce in the last decade, after turning against divorce somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a sobering development, insofar as more permissive divorce attitudes are associated in the population at large with lower-quality and more unstable marriages.[7] Indeed, this attitudinal shift may be linked to the deceleration of the decline in divorce in the 2000s (see Figure 5).

FIGURE 7. PERCENTAGE OF INDIVIDUALS AGE 18–45 WHO SAID THAT DIVORCE LAWS SHOULD BE CHANGED TO MAKE GETTING A DIVORCE “MORE DIFFICULT,” BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 7

Note: The number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 2,000—except for 1977–1981, 1998–2002, and 2004–2008, with about 1,500 respondents for each sex.

Source: The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.

Overall, the chances remain high—estimated between 40 and 50 percent—that a first marriage entered into in recent years will end in either divorce or separation before one partner dies.[8] (However, see the accompanying sidebar: “Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think.”) The likelihood of divorce has varied considerably among different segments of the American population: the figures are higher for blacks than for whites, for instance, and higher in the South and West than in other parts of the country. But these variations have been diminishing. The trend toward a greater similarity of divorce rates between whites and blacks is largely attributable to the fact that fewer blacks are marrying.[9]

At the same time, there has been little change in such traditionally large divorce rate differences as between those who marry when they are teenagers compared to those who marry after age 21 and the non-religious compared to the religiously committed. Teenagers and the non-religious who marry have considerably higher divorce rates.[10] Of course, last year’s report indicates that one new trend is that there is a growing educational divide in divorce in the United States: less-educated Americans face a much higher divorce rate than their college-educated fellow citizens.

By now almost everyone has heard that the national divorce rate is almost 50 percent of all marriages. This is basically true for the married population as a whole. But for many people, the actual chances of divorce are far below 50/50.

The background characteristics of people entering a marriage have major implications for their risk of divorce. Here are some percentage-point decreases in the risk of divorce or separation during the first ten years of marriage, according to various personal and social factors:[a]

factors percent decrease in
risk of divorce
Annual income over $50,000 (vs. under $25,000) -30
Having a baby seven months or more after marriage (vs. before marriage) -24
Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18) -24
Family of origin intact (vs. divorced parents) -14
Religious affiliation (vs. none) -14
College (vs. high school dropout) -25

So if you are a reasonably well-educated person with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after age 25 without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are very low indeed.

Also, the “close to 50 percent” divorce rate refers to the percentage of marriages entered into during a particular year that are projected to end in divorce or separation before one spouse dies. Such projections assume that the divorce and death rates occurring that year will continue indefinitely into the future—an assumption that is useful more as an indicator of the instability of marriages in the recent past than as a predictor of future events. In fact, the divorce rate has been dropping, slowly, since peaking around 1980, and the rate could be lower (or higher) in the future than it is today.[b]


  1. Matthew D. Bramlett and William D. Mosher, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States, Vital and Health Statistics 23 (Washington, DC: National Center for Health Statistics, 2002); and W. Bradford Wilcox, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America,” The State of Our Unions: 2010 (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project/Institute for American Values, 2010). The risks are calculated for women only.
  2. Rose M. Kreider and Jason M. Fields, “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces, 2001,” Current Population Reports, P70-80 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

UNMARRIED COHABITATION

Key Finding: The number of unmarried couples has increased dramatically over the past five decades. Most younger Americans now spend some time living together outside of marriage, and unmarried cohabitation commonly precedes marriage.

Between 1960 and 2010, as indicated in Figure 8, the number of unmarried couples in America increased more than seventeen-fold. Unmarried cohabitation—the status of couples who are sexual partners, not married to each other, and sharing a household—is particularly common among the young. It is estimated that about a quarter of unmarried women age 25 to 39 are currently living with a partner and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past. More than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none fifty years ago.[11]

FIGURE 8. NUMBER OF COHABITING, UNMARRIED ADULT COUPLES OF THE OPPOSITE SEX, BY YEAR, UNITED STATES

Figure 8

Note: Prior to 1996, the U.S. Census estimated unmarried-couple households based on two unmarried adults of the opposite sex living in the same household. After 1996, respondents could identify themselves as unmarried partners.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table UC3), available online from www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

For many, cohabitation is a prelude to marriage, for others simply an alternative to living alone, and for a small but growing number it is considered an alternative to marriage. Cohabitation is more common among those of lower educational and income levels. Our 2010 report indicates that among women in the 25 to 44 age range, 75 percent of high school dropouts have cohabited compared to 50 percent of college graduates. Cohabitation is also more common among those who are less religious than their peers, those who have been divorced, and those who have experienced parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood. A growing percentage of cohabiting couple households, now over 40 percent, contain children.

The belief that living together before marriage is a useful way “to find out whether you really get along,” and thus avoid a bad marriage and an eventual divorce, is now widespread among young people. But the available data on the effects of cohabitation fail to confirm this belief. In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.

This evidence is controversial, however, because it is difficult to distinguish the “selection effect” from the “experience of cohabitation effect.” The selection effect refers to the fact that people who cohabit before marriage have different characteristics from those who do not, and it may be these characteristics, and not the experience of cohabitation, that leads to marital instability. There is some empirical support for both positions. A recent study based on a nationally-representative sample of more than 1,000 married men and women concluded that premarital cohabitation, when limited to the period after engagement, is not associated with an elevated risk of marital problems; however, this study also found that couples who cohabited prior to engagement were more likely to have marital problems and less likely to be happy in their marriages.[12] What can be said for certain is that no published research from the United States has yet found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not.[13]

When thinking of the many benefits of marriage, the economic aspects are often overlooked. Yet the economic benefits of marriage are substantial, both for individuals and for society. Marriage is a wealth-generating institution. Married couples create more economic assets on average than do otherwise similar singles or cohabiting couples. A 2002 study of retirement data concluded that “individuals who do not participate in legal marriage (e.g., never married or cohabiting) have significantly lower wealth than those who are continuously married.” Compared to those continuously married, those who never married had a reduction in wealth of 75 percent, those who were currently cohabiting had a reduction of 58 percent, and those who divorced and didn’t remarry had a reduction of 72 percent.[a]

One might think that the explanation for why marriage generates economic assets is because those people who are more likely to be wealth creators are also more likely to marry and stay married. And this is certainly true, but only in part.

The institution of marriage itself provides a wealth-generation bonus. It does this through providing economies of scale (two can live more cheaply than one), and as implicitly a long-term personal contract it encourages economic specialization. Working as a couple, individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their spouse.

Also, married couples save and invest more for the future, and they can act as a small insurance pool against life uncertainties such as illness and job loss.[b] Probably because of marital social norms that encourage healthy, productive behavior, men tend to become more economically productive after marriage; they earn between 10 and 20 percent more than do single men with similar education and job histories.[c] All of these benefits are independent of the fact that married couples receive more work-related and government-provided support and also more help and support from their extended families (two sets of in-laws) and friends.[d]

Beyond the economic advantages of marriage for the married couples themselves, marriage has a tremendous economic impact on society. Marriage trends have a big impact on family income levels and inequality. After more than doubling between 1947 and 1977, the growth of median family income has slowed in recent years. A major reason is that married couples, who fare better economically than their single counterparts, have been a rapidly decreasing proportion of total families. In this same twenty-year period, and in large part because of changes in family structure, family income inequality has significantly increased.[e]

Research has consistently shown that divorce and unmarried childbearing increase child poverty. In recent years the majority of children who grow up outside of married families have experienced at least one year of dire poverty.[f] According to one study, if family structure had not changed between 1960 and 1998, the black child poverty rate in 1998 would have been 28.4 percent rather than 45.6 percent, and the white child poverty rate would have been 11.4 percent rather than 15.4 percent.[g] The rise in child poverty, of course, generates significant public costs in health and welfare programs.

Marriages that end in divorce also are very costly to the public. One researcher determined that a single divorce costs state and federal governments about $30,000, based on such factors as the increased use of food stamps and public housing as well as increased bankruptcies and juvenile delinquency. The nation’s 1.4 million divorces in 2002 are estimated to have cost the taxpayers more than $30 billion.[h]


  1. Janet Wilmoth and Gregor Koso, “Does Marital History Matter? Marital Status and Wealth Outcomes among Preretirement Adults,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 64 (2002): 265.
  2. Thomas A. Hirschl, Joyce Altobelli, and Mark R. Rank, “Does Marriage Increase the Odds of Affluence? Exploring the Life Course Probabilities,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 65 (2003): 927–38; Joseph Lupton and James P. Smith, “Marriage, Assets and Savings,” in Shoshana A. Grossbard-Schectman (ed.), Marriage and the Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 129–52.
  3. Hyunbae Chun and Injae Lee, “Why Do Married Men Earn More: Productivity or Marriage Selection?” Economic Inquiry 39 (2001): 307–19; Sanders Korenman and David Neumark, “Does Marriage Really Make Men More Productive?” Journal of Human Resources 26 (1991): 282–307; Kermit Daniel, “The Marriage Premium,” in Mariano Tomassi and Kathryn Ierulli (eds.), The New Economics of Human Behavior (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 113–25.
  4. Lingxin Hao, “Family Structure, Private Transfers, and the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children,” Social Forces 75 (1996): 269–92.
  5. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Measuring 50 Years of Economic Change Using the March Current Population Survey, Current Population Reports, P60-203 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998); John Iceland, “Why Poverty Remains High: The Role of Income Growth, Economic Inequality, and Changes in Family Structure, 1949–1999,” Demography 40 (2003): 499–519.
  6. Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, “The Economic Risk of Childhood in America: Estimating the Probability of Poverty Across the Formative Years,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 1058–67.
  7. Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill, “For Richer or For Poorer: Marriage as an Antipoverty Strategy,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 21 (2002): 4.
  8. David Schramm, “Individual and Social Costs of Divorce in Utah,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 27 (2006): 1.

LOSS OF CHILD-CENTEREDNESS

Key Finding: The presence of children in America has declined significantly since 1960, as measured by fertility rates and the percentage of households with children. Other indicators suggest that this decline has reduced the child-centeredness of our nation and contributed to the weakening of the institution of marriage.

Throughout history, marriage has first and foremost been an institution for procreation and raising children. It has provided the cultural tie that seeks to connect the father to his children by binding him to the mother of his children. Yet in recent times, children have increasingly been pushed from center stage.

Americans on average have been having fewer children. Figure 9 indicates the decline in fertility since 1960. It is important to note that fertility had been gradually declining throughout American history, reaching a low point in the Great Depression of the 1930s before suddenly accelerating with the baby boom generation starting in 1945. By 1960, the birth rate was back to where it had been in 1920, with the average woman having about three and one-half children over the course of her life. After 1960, the birth rate declined sharply for two decades before leveling off around 1990.

FIGURE 9. FERTILITY RATES OF WOMEN AGE 15-44, BY YEAR, UNITED STATES

Figure 9

Note: The total fertility rate is the number of births that an average woman would have if, at each year of age, she experienced the birth rates occurring in the specified year. A total fertility rate of 2.11 represents “replacement level” fertility under current mortality conditions (assuming no net migration).

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Vital Statistics Report for 1993 and for 2001; “Births: Preliminary Data” for 2009 (in NVS Report 59), available online at www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm.

In 2009, the latest year for which we have complete information, the American “total fertility rate” (TFR) stood at 2.01, below the 1990 level and slightly above two children per woman. This rate is close to the “replacement level” of 2.1, the level at which the population would be replaced through births alone, and is one of the highest rates found in modern industrialized societies. In most European and several Asian nations the total fertility rate has decreased to a level well below that of the United States, in some countries to slightly more than one child per woman.[14] The U.S. fertility rate is relatively high due in part to the contribution of our higher-fertility Hispanic population.

The long-term decline of births has had a marked effect on the household makeup of the American population. It is estimated that in the mid-1800s more than 75 percent of all households contained children under the age of 18.[15] One hundred years later, in 1960, this number had dropped to slightly less than half of all households. In 2010, just five decades later, only 33 percent of households included children (Figure 10). This obviously means that adults are less likely to be living with children, that neighborhoods are less likely to contain children, and that children are less likely to be a consideration in daily life. It suggests that the needs and concerns of children—especially young children—may gradually be receding from our national consciousness.

FIGURE 10.PERCENTAGE OF HOUSEHOLDS WITH A CHILD OR CHILDREN UNDER AGE 18, 1960–2010, UNITED STATES

Figure 10

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1964 (Tables 36 and 54), for 1980 (Tables 62 and 67), for 1985 (Tables 54 and 63), and for 1994 (Table 67), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2008.html; Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Tables F1 and H1), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

Several scholars determined that in 1960 the proportion of one’s life spent living with a spouse and children was 62 percent, the highest in our history. By that year the death rate had plummeted so that fewer marriages ended through death, and the divorce revolution of recent decades had not yet begun, so that a relatively small number of marriages ended in divorce. By 1985, however, just twenty-five years later, the proportion of one’s life spent with spouse and children dropped to 43 percent—the lowest in our history.[16] This remarkable reversal was caused mainly by the decline of fertility and the weakening of marriage through divorce and unwed births.

In a cross-national comparison of industrialized nations, the United States ranked virtually at the top in the percentage of those disagreeing with this statement: “The main purpose of marriage is having children.”[17] Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the main purpose of marriage is something else compared, for example, to 51 percent of Norwegians and 45 percent of Italians. Consistent with this view is a dramatic change in our attitudes about holding marriages together for children. In a Detroit area sample of women, the proportion of women answering “no” to the question “Should a couple stay together for the sake of the children?” jumped from 51 percent to 82 percent between 1962 and 1985.[18] A nationally-representative 1994 sample found only 15 percent of the population agreeing that “When there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don’t get along.”[19]

One effect of the weakening of child-centeredness is clear. A careful analysis of divorce statistics shows that, beginning around 1975, the presence of children in a marriage has become only a very minor inhibitor of divorce (slightly more so when the child is male rather than female).[20]

FRAGILE FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN

Key Finding: The percentage of children who grow up in fragile—typically fatherless—families has grown enormously over the past five decades. This is mainly due to increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and unmarried cohabitation. The trend toward fragile families leveled off in the late 1990s, but the most recent data show a slight increase.

There is now 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 (Figure 11). 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.[21] 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 twentieth century, by 2010 the percentage had risen to 25

FIGURE 11. PERCENTAGE OF CHILDREN UNDER AGE 18 LIVING WITH A SINGLE PARENT, BY YEAR AND RACE, UNITED STATES

Figure 11

Note: Total includes blacks, whites, and all other racial and ethnic groupings. Over these decades an additional 3 to 4 percent of children, not indicated in the above figure, were classified as living with no parent. In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years. In 2000 and 2010, whites is redefined to “white, non-Hispanic,” and “Hispanic” is separated out as its own group. Prior to 2007, the U.S. Census counted children living with two cohabiting parents as children in single-parent households. See “Improvements to Data Collection about Families in CPS 2007,” available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table C3), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

An indirect indicator of fragile families is the percentage of children under age 18 living with two married parents. Since 1960 this percentage has declined substantially, by more than 20 percentage points (Figure 12). Unfortunately, this measure makes no distinction between natural and stepfamilies; it is estimated that some 88 percent of two-parent families consist of both biological parents, while 9 percent are stepfamilies.[22] The problem is that children in stepfamilies, according to a substantial and growing body of social science evidence, fare no better in life than children in single-parent families.[23] Data on stepfamilies, therefore, probably are more reasonably combined with single-parent than with biological two-parent families. An important indicator that helps resolve this issue is the percentage of children who live apart from their biological fathers. That percentage has doubled since 1960, from 17 percent to 34 percent.[24]

FIGURE 12. PERCENTAGE OF CHILDREN UNDER AGE 18 LIVING WITH TWO MARRIED PARENTS, BY YEAR AND RACE, UNITED STATES

Figure 12

Note: Total includes blacks, whites, and all other racial and ethnic groupings. Over these decades an additional 3 to 4 percent of children, not indicated in the above figure, were classified as living with no parent. In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years. In 2000 and 2010, whites is redefined to “white, non-Hispanic,” and “Hispanic” is separated out as its own group. Prior to 2007, the U.S. Census counted children living with two cohabiting parents as children in single-parent households. See “Improvements to Data Collection about Families in CPS 2007,” available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table C3), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

The dramatic shift in family structure indicated by these measures has been generated mainly by three burgeoning trends: divorce, unmarried births, and unmarried cohabitation. The incidence of divorce began to increase rapidly during the 1960s. The number of children under age 18 newly affected by parental divorce each year, most of whom have lost a resident father, grew from under 500,000 in 1960 to well over a million in 1975. After peaking around 1980, that number leveled off and remains close to a million new children each year. Much of the reason for the leveling off is a drop in average family size; each divorce that occurs today typically affects a smaller number of children than in earlier times.

The second reason for the shift in family structure is an increase in the percentage of babies born to unwed mothers, which suddenly and unexpectedly began to increase rapidly in the 1970s. Since 1960, the percentage of babies born to unwed mothers has increased more than sevenfold (Figure 13). More than four in ten births and more than two-thirds of black births in 2009, the latest year for which we have complete data, were out-of-wedlock.

FIGURE 13. PERCENTAGE OF LIVE BIRTHS TO UNMARRIED WOMEN, BY YEAR, UNITED STATES

Figure 13

Note: Total includes whites, blacks, and all other racial and ethnic groupings.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1995 (Table 94), 1999 (Table 99), 2000 (Table 85), and 2001 (Table 76), available online at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Vital Statistics Report, “Births: Preliminary Data” for 2009 (in NVS Report 59) (Table 1), available online at www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm.

A third and still more recent family trend that has affected family structure is the rapid growth of unmarried cohabitation. In fact, more cohabiting couples are having children, or bringing children into their relationship. Consequently, there has been about a fourteen-fold increase in the number of cohabiting couples who live with children since 1960 (Figure 14). Slightly more than 40 percent of all children are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting household during their childhood years.[25]

FIGURE 14. NUMBER OF COHABITING, UNMARRIED, ADULT COUPLES OF THE OPPOSITE SEX LIVING WITH ONE CHILD OR MORE, BY YEAR, UNITED STATES

Figure 14

Note: Prior to 1996, the U.S. Census estimated unmarried-couple households based on two unmarried adults of the opposite sex living in the same household. After 1996, respondents could identify themselves as unmarried partners. The Census also identified households with children under 15 until 1996 when they began identifying children under 18.

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2010 (Table UC3), available online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html.

In 2000, about 40 percent of unmarried-couple households included one or more children under age 18.[26] For unmarried couples in the 25 to 34 age group, the percentage with children is higher still, approaching half of all such households.[27] Seventy percent of the children in unmarried-couple households are the children of only one partner.[28] Indeed, if one includes cohabitation in the definition of stepfamily, almost one half of stepfamilies today would consist of a biological parent and unrelated cohabiting partner.[29]

Children who grow up with cohabiting couples tend to have worse life outcomes compared to those growing up with married couples.[30] The primary reasons are that cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than married couples, a lower level of household income, and higher levels of child abuse and domestic violence. The proportion of cohabiting mothers who eventually marry the fathers of their children is declining, a decline sadly predictive of increased problems for children.[31]

TEEN ATTITUDES ABOUT MARRIAGE AND FAMILY

Key Finding: The desire of teenagers of both sexes for “a good marriage and family life” has remained high over the past few decades. Boys are almost ten percentage points less desirous than girls, however, and they are also a little more pessimistic about the possibility of a long-term marriage. Both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are alternatives to marriage, including unwed childbearing and premarital cohabitation.

To find out what the future may hold for marriage and family life it is important to determine what our nation’s youth are saying and thinking, and how their views have changed over time. Are these products of the divorce revolution going to continue the family ways of their parents? Or might there be a cultural counterrevolution among the young that could lead to a reversal of current family trends?

Fortunately, since 1976 a nationally representative survey of high school seniors aptly titled “Monitoring the Future,” conducted annually by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, has asked numerous questions about family-related topics.[32] Based on this survey, the percentage of teenagers of both sexes who said that having a good marriage and family life was “extremely important” to them has remained high over the decades. Eighty percent of girls stated this belief in the latest period, with boys lagging behind at 72 percent (Figure 15).

FIGURE 15. PERCENTAGE OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WHO SAID HAVING A GOOD MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LIFE IS “EXTREMELY IMPORTANT,” BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 15

Note: Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Other data from the “Monitoring the Future” survey show a moderate increase in the percentage of teenage respondents who said that they expect to marry (or who are already married), recently 84.5 percent for girls and 77 percent for boys.[33] Among teenagers, boys are a little more pessimistic than girls about the belief that their marriage will last a lifetime. But this difference has recently diminished and, since 1986 to 1990, the trend has flattened out (Figure 16).

FIGURE 16. PERCENTAGE OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WHO SAID IT IS VERY LIKELY THEY WILL STAY MARRIED TO THE SAME PERSON FOR LIFE, BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 16

Note: Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

At the same time, there is widespread acceptance by teenagers of nonmarital lifestyles. Take, for example, agreement with the proposition that “Most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone” (Figure 17). Less than a third of the girls and only slightly more than a third of the boys seem to believe, based on their response to this statement, that marriage is more beneficial to individuals than the alternatives. Note also that young women have seen their faith in marriage’s capacity to deliver happiness fall markedly over the last thirty years. Yet this belief is contrary to the available empirical evidence, which consistently indicates the substantial personal as well as social benefits of being married compared to staying single or just living with someone.[34]

FIGURE 17. PERCENTAGE OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WHO AGREED OR MOSTLY AGREED THAT MOST PEOPLE WILL HAVE FULLER AND HAPPIER LIVES IF THEY CHOOSE LEGAL MARRIAGE RATHER THAN STAYING SINGLE OR JUST LIVING WITH SOMEONE, BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 17

Note: Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Witness the remarkable increase in recent decades in the acceptance of out-of-wedlock childbearing among teens (Figure 18). And note that whereas in the 1970s girls tended to be more traditional than boys on this issue, now they are about the same. With more than 50 percent of teenagers now accepting out-of-wedlock childbearing as a “worthwhile lifestyle,” at least for others, they do not yet seem to grasp the enormous economic, social, and personal costs of nonmarital childbearing.

FIGURE 18. PERCENTAGE OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WHO SAID HAVING A CHILD WITHOUT BEING MARRIED IS EXPERIMENTING WITH A WORTHWHILE LIFESTYLE OR NOT AFFECTING ANYONE ELSE, BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 18

Note: Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000 except for 2001–2004, for which it is about 4,500. This question was not asked between 2007–2010.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Another remarkable increase is in the percentage of teenagers who are accepting of living together before marriage—now well over half of all teenagers (Figure 19). In this case, girls remain more traditional than boys. The growing cultural acceptance of cohabitation among high school seniors is congruent with the growth in cohabitation demonstrated earlier in this report.

FIGURE 19. PERCENTAGE OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WHO AGREED OR MOSTLY AGREED WITH THE STATEMENT: “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,” BY PERIOD, UNITED STATES

Figure 19

Note: Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

In summary, marriage and family life remain very important goals for today’s teenagers. Nevertheless, teens are also increasingly accepting of a range of nonmarital lifestyles that stand in tension with these goals. Given the ambiguous character of teenage attitudes regarding marriage, there are no strong signs yet of a generational cultural shift that could lead to a reversal of the nation’s recent retreat from marriage.


  1. Andrew J. Cherlin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992): 10; Michael R. Haines, “Long-Term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times to the Present,” The History of the Family 1 (1996): 15–39.
  2. Robert Schoen and Nicola Standish, “The Retrenchment of Marriage: Results from Marital Status Life Tables for the United States, 1995,” Population and Development Review 27 (2001): 553–63.
  3. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, this is a nationally representative study of the English-speaking, non-institutionalized population of the United States age 18 and over.
  4. Using a different data set that compared marriages in 1980 with marriages in 1992, equated in terms of marital duration, Stacy J. Rogers and Paul Amato found similarly that the 1992 marriages had less marital interaction, more marital conflict, and more marital problems. “Is Marital Quality Declining? The Evidence from Two Generations,” Social Forces 75 (1997): 1089.
  5. Joshua R. Goldstein, “The Leveling of Divorce in the United States,” Demography 36 (1999): 409–14.
  6. Tim B. Heaton, “Factors Contributing to Increasing Marital Stability in the United States,” Journal of Family Issues 23 (2002): 392–409; W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Evolution of Divorce,” National Affairs 1 (2009): 81–94.
  7. See, for instance, Paul R. Amato and Stacey J. Rogers, “Do Attitudes toward Divorce Affect Marital Quality?” Journal of Family Issues 20 (1999): 69–86.
  8. Robert Schoen and Nicola Standish, “The Retrenchment of Marriage: Results from Marital Status Life Tables for the United States, 1995,” Population and Development Review 27 (2001): 553–63; R. Kelly Raley and Larry L. Bumpass, “The Topography of the Divorce Plateau: Levels and Trends in Union Stability in the United States after 1980,” Demographic Research 8 (2003): 245–59.
  9. Jay D. Teachman, “Stability across Cohorts in Divorce Risk Factors,” Demography 39 (2002): 331–51.
  10. Raley and Bumpass, “Topography of the Divorce Plateau.”
  11. Sheila Kennedy and Larry Bumpass, “Cohabitation and Children’s Living Arrangements: New Estimates from the United States,” Demographic Research 19 (2008): 1663–92.
  12. Galena K. Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley, and Howard J. Markman, “The Pre-Engagement Cohabitation Effect: A Replication and Extension of Previous Findings,” Journal of Family Psychology 23 (2009): 107–11.
  13. For a full review of the research on cohabitation see: Pamela J. Smock, “Cohabitation in the United States: An Appraisal of Research Themes, Findings, and Implications,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000): 1–20; David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage—A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002); and Anne-Marie Ambert, “Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They Related?” (Ottawa, ON: The Vanier Institute of the Family, 2005).
  14. The TFR in Italy, Poland, and Spain is 1.4; in Japan and Germany it is 1.3; in South Korea it is 1.2; and in Taiwan it is 1.0. See Social Trends Institute, The Sustainable Demographic Dividend (Barcelona: STI, 2011): 32.
  15. James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1990): 588, Fig. 22.4.
  16. Susan Cotts Watkins, Jane A. Menken, and John Bongaarts, “Demographic Foundations of Family Change,” American Sociological Review 52 (1987): 346–58.
  17. Tom W. Smith, “The Emerging 21st Century American Family,” GSS Social Change Report 42 (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, 1999): 48, Table 20.
  18. Arland Thornton, “Changing Attitudes Toward Family Issues in the United States,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1989): 873–93. This change occurred among women as they grew older, but it is very unlikely to be just an age effect.
  19. The 1994 wave of the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.
  20. Tim B. Heaton, “Marital Stability throughout the Child-Rearing Years,” Demography 27 (1990): 55–63; Philip Morgan, Diane Lye, and Gretchen Condran, “Sons, Daughters, and the Risk of Marital Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): 110–29; Linda Waite and Lee A. Lillard, “Children and Marital Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology 96 (1991): 930–53.
  21. Mary Parke, Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2003); and W. Bradford Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011).percent. The overwhelming majority of single-parent families are mother-only, although the percentage of father-only families has grown recently to about 18 percent (of single-parent families). But note also that the growth in single-parent families has leveled off in the last decade.
  22. Jason Fields, Living Arrangements of Children: Fall, 1996, Current Population Reports, P70-74 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).
  23. Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure and Child Well-Being: The Significance of Parental Cohabitation” Journal of Marriage and the Family 66 (2004): 351–67; and more generally, David Popenoe, “The Evolution of Marriage and the Problem of Stepfamilies,” in Alan Booth and Judy Dunn (eds.), Stepfamilies: Who Benefits? Who Does Not? (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994): 3–27.
  24. Fields, Living Arrangements of Children.
  25. Kennedy and Bumpass, “Cohabitation and Children’s Living Arrangements.”
  26. Tavia Simmons and Martin O’Connell, Married-Couple and Unmarried-Partner Households: 2000, Census 2000 Special Reports, CENSR-5 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).
  27. Wendy D. Manning and Daniel T. Lichter, “Parental Cohabitation and Children’s Economic Well-Being,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (1996): 998–1010.
  28. Larry Bumpass, James A. Sweet, and Andrew Cherlin, “The Role of Cohabitation in Declining Rates of Marriage,” Demography 53 (1991): 913–27.
  29. Larry L. Bumpass, R. Kelly Raley, and James A. Sweet, “The Changing Character of Stepfamilies: Implications of Cohabitation and Nonmarital Childbearing,” Demography 32 (1995): 425–36.
  30. Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure and Child Well-Being”; Wendy Manning, “The Implications of Cohabitation for Children’s Well-Being,” in Alan Booth and Ann C. Crouter (eds.), Just Living Together (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002): 121–52; Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters; Robin Fretwell Wilson, “Evaluating Marriage: Does Marriage Matter to the Nurturing of Children?” San Diego Law Review 42 (2005): 848–81; and Sandra L. Hofferth, “Residential Father Family Type and Child Well-Being: Investment Versus Selection,” Demography 43 (2006): 53–77.
  31. Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Lu, “Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the U.S.,” Population Studies 54 (2000): 29–41.
  32. The first survey was conducted in 1975, but because of changes in the ordering of the questions, the data from this survey are not comparable with the data from later surveys.
  33. In the 1976 to 1980 period, 73 percent of boys and 82 percent of girls said they expected to marry (or were already married); by 2001–2004, that percentage jumped to 77 for boys and to 84.5 for girls. A 1992 Gallup poll of youth aged 13 to 17 found an even larger percentage who thought they would marry someday—88 percent compared to 9 percent who expected to stay single. Gallup has undertaken a youth poll several times since 1977 and the proportion of youth expecting to marry someday has not varied much through the years. See Robert Bezilla (ed.), America’s Youth in the 1990s (Princeton, NJ: The George H. Gallup International Institute, 1993).
  34. For instance, see Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Doubleday, 2000); David G. Myers, The American Paradox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (1998): 527–36; and Popenoe and Whitehead, Should We Live Together?