Introduction

A decade ago, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead published the first The State of Our Unions, offering trenchant commentary on the state of marriage and family life in the United States and compelling statistical indicators tracking “the social health of marriage in America.”

A decade ago, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead published the first The State of Our Unions, offering trenchant commentary on the state of marriage and family life in the United States and compelling statistical indicators tracking “the social health of marriage in America.”

In the years since, in these pages Popenoe and Whitehead have made signal contributions to our national conversation on marriage. They warned family scholars, journalists, policy makers, and the public about the rise among young adults of “sex without strings, relationships without rings.” They underlined the marriage lessons the U.S. can learn from other nations. They drew an unmatched portrait of the ways in which Americans are now gravitating towards a “soul mate” model of marriage, one that privileges emotional intimacy and personal growth, often at the expense of other goods long associated with marriage—such as marital permanency, childrearing, and economic cooperation.

Their effort to identify and portray the broadening influence of the soul mate model in contemporary married life inspired a new generation of scholars and journalists to revisit their understandings of marriage in America—as evidenced by countless news stories, academic articles, and blog postings on the subject of soul mate marriages and relationships.

In these ways and more, in the pages of The State of Our Unions Popenoe and Whitehead encouraged readers to think more deeply, more creatively, and more rigorously about the challenges and opportunities facing the institution of marriage in twenty-first century America. Moreover, as authors of countless books and reports on marriage and family life in the U.S. and Europe, they have made signal contributions to academic and public conversations about marriage that extend far beyond their work in these pages. To choose just one example from each of their contributions: Popenoe’s Life Without Father remains the best academic overview of fatherhood and has been a mainstay of Wilcox’s “Sociology of the Family” course at the University of Virginia for years. Whitehead’s lead essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” played a crucial role in igniting public concern in the 1990s about the effects of marriage breakdown on the emotional and social welfare of our nation’s children.

As we become the new editors of The State of Our Unions, we are honored and excited by the task before us. For most of our adult lives, we have followed and been inspired by the intellectual rigor and thoughtful leadership that David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead have shown on behalf of marriage. With the support of the National Marriage Project, which moved from Rutgers University to the University of Virginia this year, and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, we will seek to advance the conversation on marriage that Popenoe and Whitehead began a decade ago.

With this issue, we are also excited to welcome several established and emerging voices into the nation’s conversation about marriage. They include Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University, Alex Roberts of the Institute for American Values, Christine Whelan of the University of Iowa, and Ronald Wilcox of the University of Virginia. Our readers can look forward to encountering in future years more contributors from inside and outside the academy, and from across the ideological spectrum, who have a sincere desire to understand the social and cultural forces shaping married life in the U.S. and to strengthen the institution of marriage in America.

Inspired by the financial crisis our nation felt in the last year—what some are now calling the “Great Recession”—and its effects on the financial and emotional lives of millions of couples, the 2009 State of Our Unions focuses on the theme of “Marriage and Money.” This year’s issue is a product of the “Nest and Nest-egg Initiative” at the Institute for American Values. The Nest and Nest-egg Initiative is a multi-year inquiry, generously supported by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, into the prudential values and institutions that are essential to sustaining a secure and thriving American middle class.

The 2009 State of Our Unions seeks to answer the following questions:

The essays in the first section of this report reflect on the challenges and opportunities presented to the institution of marriage by the Great Recession. The second section of this report focuses on “the social health of marriage in America.” Here the reader will find annually or biennially updated, key indicators related to marriage, divorce, cohabitation, childrearing, and teen attitudes about marriage and family. This section covers the period from 1960 to the present and relies on data from institutions including the United States Bureau of the Census.

As scholars who care deeply about marital and child well-being, we are convinced that our nation needs excellent arguments and accurate data to help us confront the challenges and opportunities that face marriage, and to identify strategies to strengthen the quality and stability of married life in America. Our hope is that the 2009 State of Our Unions offers a powerful portrait of the state of marriage amidst the Great Recession, that it furthers the conversation about marriage and family life begun by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead a decade ago, and that this and future issues will inspire a new generation of scholars and leaders, as we have been inspired by those who came before us.


W. Bradford Wilcox

National Marriage Project, University of Virginia

Elizabeth Marquardt

Center for Marriage and Families, Institute for American Values

December 2009