If you’re sick of buying a variety of summery but semi-formal dresses to avoid wearing the same thing in all the Facebook wedding photos, this should seem like welcome news, but Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post reported on this issue like it’s a problem needing to be solved. All of her quotes are from people who see this development as a negative. Sam Sturgeon of Demographic Intelligence worries, “We kind of hope we've reached a floor.” Conservative sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox complains, “Marriage is, in some ways, in the worst place it’s ever been.” Schulte even quotes wedding and tourism professionals, so they can lament on how you lazy cohabitators are ruining their business.
“Hopeful signs...are rising rates of marriage among the educated,” Schulte writes. Hey, I rock a corsage as well as anyone, but is the desire to see father-daughter dances to “Unforgettable” really such a big deal?
Despite Schulte’s framing, it’s not actually a given that a high marriage rate is better than a low one. It might be a problem if there were huge swarms of Americans who want to get married but can’t, but all the evidence suggests that isn’t exactly what is going on. Instead, it appears that Millennials aren’t eschewing marriage so much as they are putting marriage off: Marrying a little later, when they are more established and sure of themselves and their relationships. And that is a good thing.
After all, as Schulte completely fails to address, the divorce rate in this country is also going down. It’s not just because fewer people married means fewer divorces, either. The divorce rate in relation to the marriage rate is going down, or, bluntly put, the chance that your personal marriage is going to end in divorce has gone down. Waiting longer, not being so impulsive about who you marry, and entering into marriage when you’re more mature: Common sense tells us these things would lead to a lower divorce rate, and the statistics bear this out.
Schulte does list some convincing reasons as to why people are delaying marriage longer than they used to, namely a combination of lessened pressure to make it legal and growing economic insecurity. But I’d also argue that the meaning of marriage is shifting subtly in our culture, and that is contributing to people’s choices to put it off until later.
Marriage used to be understood as the beginning of the relationship. Sure, you had dated before you married, but weddings were structured around the idea that this is the beginning of your life together. Cohabitation before marriage used to be controversial, but now, outside fundamentalist circles, it’s treated as standard. Marriage is now what you do after you’ve accumulated the other accoutrements of adulthood: the education, the job, the social capital, even the fully stocked kitchen and furnished living room.
Marriage isn’t fundamental anymore. It’s aspirational. It’s not marking your entrance into adulthood, but more a graduation ceremony, a celebration of an achievement already locked down before the next phase of life begins. That’s why couples are increasingly comfortable with waiting until after they have a kid or two to marry. It’s also why things like married student housing at college campuses have become a relic of the past. People used to marry to grow up. Now they grow up to marry.
This change should be welcomed with open arms and not just because marrying when you’re a little more grown up means the marriage is likelier to last. It also restructures the concept of marriage. While some might still romanticize the idea of partnering off while you’re still unformed and growing up together, there’s significant advantages of partnering up with someone after you’ve hardened into the person you’re going to be, with all your opinions and habits and peccadillos. It makes it easier for spouses to retain an individual identity, apart from the relationship. For women especially, this is a huge boon, and probably one reason that conservatives want to return to the days when you became a Mrs. before you became yourself.
Plus, it’s probably better for your sex life. As sex therapist Esther Perel has been arguing in recent years, a little mystery is necessary to maintain erotic intrigue. How better to have that mystery than to be with someone who had a life before you, who had adventures and experiences that shaped them that had nothing to do with you? So maybe it’s not that the Millennials are somehow failing by not marrying as much or as young. Maybe it’s that they’ve finally figured out what their elders never learned.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She's a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.