Trends of the Past Four Decades

Marriage

Figure 1. Number of Marriages per 1,000 Unmarried Women Age 15 and Older, by Year, United States [A]

Figure 1. Number of Marriages per 1,000 Unmarried Women Age 15 and Older, by Year, United States
  1. 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 people to help avoid the problem of compositional changes in the population, that is, changes which stem merely from there being more or fewer people in the marriageable ages. Even this more refined measure is somewhat susceptible to compositional changes.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2001 (Table 117) and for 1986 (Table 124). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html; Current Population Reports: “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table A1). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html; Current Population Surveys (CPS) March 2007 supplement. Available online from www.census.gov/cps/. (The CPS March 2007 Supplement is based on a sample of the U.S. population, rather than an actual count, such as is available from the decennial census. See sampling and weighting notes at www.bls.census.gov:80/cps/ads/2002/ssampwgt.htm.) 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 from www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm.

Figure 2. Percentage of All Persons Age 15 and Older Who Were Married, by Sex and Race, United States[A]

Figure 2. Percentage of All Persons Age 15 and Older Who Were Married, by Sex and Race, United States
  1. 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.
  2. Includes races other than blacks and whites.

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, : “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table A1). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.

Figure 3. Percentage of Persons Age 35–44 Who Were Married, by Sex, United States

Figure 3. Percentage of Persons Age 35–44 Who Were Married, by Sex, United States

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 from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html; General Population Characteristics for 1990 (Table 34). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/cen1990/cp1/cp-1.html; Current Population Reports: “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table A1). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html; Current Population Surveys (used for 2008 data). Available online from www.census.gov/cps/; (Current Population Surveys are based on a sample of the U.S. population, rather than an actual count, such as those available from the decennial census. See sampling and weighting notes at www.bls.census.gov:80/cps/ads/2002/ssampwgt.htm).

Figure 4. Percentage of Married Persons Age 18 and Older Who Said Their Marriages Were “Very Happy,” by Time Period [A], United States

Figure 4. Percentage of Married Persons Age 18 and Older Who Said Their Marriages Were 'Very Happy,' by Time Period, United States
  1. The number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 2,000—except for 1977–81, 1998–2002, and 2004–08, with about 1,500 respondents for each sex. Some years are not included in the time period, because the General Social Survey began as an annual survey and later became a biannual survey.

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

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 decade, 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 2009 in the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women (Figure 1). 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 climbed from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 28 respectively in 2009. Other factors accounting for the decline in marriage frequency are the increase in unmarried cohabitation and a small decrease in the tendency of divorced persons to remarry.

The percentage of adults in the population who are currently married has also diminished. Since 1960, the number of people married (among all persons age 15 and older) has declined about 15 percentage points—and approximately 30 points among black females (Figure 2). (For these data, divorced persons are considered unmarried.)

The trend toward delayed first marriages only partially accounts for this reduction in total marriages. When we looked at changes in the percentage of persons age 35 through 44 who were married (Figure 3), we found a drop of 22 percentage points for men and 20 points for women, since 1960.

In every generation for which records exist—back to the mid-1800s—more than 90 percent of women eventually marry. In 1960, 94 percent of women had been married at least once by age 45, and this was probably a historical high point.[1] Relying on data from 1990, and assuming a continuation of then current marriage rates, several demographers projected that only 88 percent of women and 82 percent of men would marry.[2] If and when these figures are recalculated for the early 21st century, the percentages will almost certainly be lower.

The trend toward fewer marriages among those age 35 to 44 suggests an increase in lifelong singlehood (though the actual number cannot be known until current young and middle-aged adults have completed the course of their lives). In times past and still today, virtually all persons who were going to marry during their lifetimes had married by age 45. But 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 ceding ground to nonmarital unions. Most people now live together before they marry for the first time. An even higher percentage of those divorced who subsequently remarry live together first with their remarriage partner. And a growing number of persons, both young and old, are living together with no plans for eventual marriage.

There is a common belief that, although a smaller percentage of Americans are now marrying than was the case a few decades ago, those who marry have marriages of higher quality. It seems reasonable that if divorce removes poor marriages from the pool of married couples, and if cohabiting couples’ “trial marriages” deter some bad marriages from forming, then the remaining marriages should be happier on average. The best available evidence on the topic, however, does not support these assumptions. Since 1973, the General Social Survey[3] has periodically asked representative samples of married Americans to rate their marriages as either “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.” As Figure 4 indicates, the percentage of both men and women reporting “very happy” has declined moderately over the past 35 years.[4] This trend has essentially flattened out over the last decade.


  1. See 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 (1) (1996): 15–39.
  2. See 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 (3) (2001): 553–63.
  3. This is a nationally representative study of the English-speaking, noninstitutionalized population of the United States age 18 and over, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.
  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. See their “Is Marital Quality Declining? The Evidence from Two Generations,” Social Forces 75 (1997): 1089–1100.