Is marriage dying, or is it just evolving?

Four Pennsylvania State University sociologists used two national surveys, one conducted in 1980 and the other in 2000, to quantitatively track how the experience of marriage has changed over a 20-year period. In both surveys, 2,000 randomly selected couples were asked an identical set of questions about their happiness, household division of labor, social lives, gender roles and attitudes, values, and more.

The results, just published in Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing, are fascinating. This is an academic book with lots of graphs and numbers, but it's well worth a read for anyone who really wants to understand the meaning and status of marriage these days–and, actually, as academic books go, it's fairly readable.

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On the negative side, couples are spending less time together eating meals, visiting friends, and working around the home. Plus, today's husbands and wives were far more likely to report that their jobs interfered with family life. This confirms the impression, voiced by many social critics and researchers and bloggers, that today's families are more harried and isolated than those in the past.

Meanwhile, however, marital problems and conflict steeply declined—-reports of domestic violence for both sexes tumbled from around 21 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2000, which is consistent with crime data during the same period. (The authors attribute this good news to public education campaigns against domestic violence, as well as increased likelihood that abusers will be arrested and punished.) Overall, husbands and wives in 2000 reported less anger, hurt feelings, jealousy, and domineering behavior in their marriages than did their counterparts in 1980.

But surprisingly, none of these improvements seemed to increase the happiness of the couples. According to the surveys, both husbands and wives are just as happy with their marriages today as they were in 1980.

I asked lead author Paul R. Amato why this should be the case. "We know that people's expectations for marriage have been increasing for many years," he told me. "So the fact that there is less violence and fewer relationship problems is what people expect. If there had not been a decline in violence or other relationship problems, then marital happiness probably would have declined rather than stayed the same."

Twenty-first-century married couples are "older, better educated, and more diverse than at any previous time in U.S. history," write the authors. Because so many women are working, egalitarian attitudes and a fair division of labor are critical to today's happiest marriages. "The most successful marriages," they conclude, "combine gender equality, two incomes, shared social ties, and a strong commitment to marital permanence."

But what about families that don't fit that mold?

"We can speak only in averages," Amato said. "Many couples who don't fit the above description still have successful marriages. One of the implications of the 'deinstitutionalizaiton of marriage,' which we discuss in the book, is that couples are free to design their own relationships in a way that wasn't possible in the past, when social norms, laws, and religion had more influence on marriage."

Conservatives argue that marriage is dying, threatened by a nefarious combination of feminism, gay rights, and secular humanism. But I think research like this confirms that it's traditional gender attitudes, not marriages, that are dying.

To me, that's something to celebrate.

[This is based on a shorter piece I wrote for Greater Good magazine.]

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