In conventional kinship diagrams, we denote the relationship of marriage with a symbol like an double bar ( = ) or an underbar linking two people, usually a circle and a triangle. It seems to suggest that this relationship of affinity is something that can be approached objectively, as though it exists independently of the people in it. Kinship diagrams are so reassuring. In spite of differences among cultures, the wordless symbols of affinity imply that, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a marriage is a marriage is a marriage.
Some recent reports: Barely half of all US adults are married (Cohn et al. 2011). The average age of the first marriage in the US has been approaching 30 gradually for many years. In the 1960s, an overwhelming majority of 20-somethings were married. In 2008, only about 26% were (Pew Research Center 2010). The same or similar trends are visible in Australian society too (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010, Swallow 2010).
In many western countries, especially since the 1960s, the conventional wisdom has been that the traditional family is breaking down. This has been interpreted as both a good and a bad thing, but most people agreed that a loosening of traditional morality was the cause of these trends. International comparisons are striking here. While all societies have some rate of divorce, divorce is much more likely in some countries than others. Since 1970, Australia's divorce rate (the number of divorces in one year per 1000 people) has more than doubled while in the US, it has only increased slightly. In Belgium, it has tripled, while in Latvia and Estonia, divorces are less common than in 1970. While the age of first marriage has been rising in some countries, in many European countries, the average age of first marriage is well over 30. If tradition was being gradually eroded, then we would not expect to see such large differences.
If marriage can be so different, then we can question whether there is such a thing as marriage which applies everywhere.
Stephanie Coontz, a sociologist, recently wrote an opinion article for CNN about marriage trends in the US (2010). She says marriage trends do not mean that marriage is becoming obsolete. Rather the trends show that the meaning of marriage is changing. In the past, when marriage rates were higher, people believed that marriage was a requirement. Being married was part of being an adult. It was an obligation to society, in a sense, to get married and have children. Today, people still say that marriage is an important goal in their lives, but that the reason why marriage is important is because it gives emotional satisfaction. People want to marry a partner and friend. Beyond the measurements of people's behavior, there is also the cultural values that people attach to these behaviors.
Is the value of marriage purely subjective, then? Actually, no. In her op-ed, Coontz goes on to point out another trend in marriage rates (2010). Wealthy and well-educated people are more likely to marry, and more likely to marry people of a similar background. High school graduates and working class people are less likely to marry at all, even though they also say in surveys that they value marriage as much as others, and for the same reasons. That is, people with less education still participate in the same culture and its values of marriage, but find it hard to establish marriages as adults. Moreover, society rewards people who are married. There is a huge marriage benefit for well-educated married women. On top of their greater socioeconomic standing, many aspects of life are simply easier for well-educated people because they have a spouse (see also deParle 2012). Thus changes in marriage are not simply shifts in attitudes. Structural forces are in play as well. Why does this gap exist?
See especially the PDF pages 3 in Kennedy's opinion and pages 75-76 in Scalia's dissent.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2010. Year Book Australia, 2009-2010. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/947114F16DC7D980CA25773700169C64?opendocument.
Cohn, D’Vera. 2011. “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/14/barely-half-of-u-s-adults-are-married-a-record-low/.
Coontz, Stephanie. 2010. “Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete?” CNN Opinion. http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/11/22/coontz.marriage.pew/.
Deparle, Jason. 2012. “Two Classes in America, Divided by ‘I Do.’” The New York Times, July 14, sec. U.S. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/us/two-classes-in-america-divided-by-i-do.html.
OECD. 2014. OECD Family Database. Paris: OECD. http://www.oecd.org/social/soc/oecdfamilydatabase.htm.
Pew Research Center. 2010. “The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/11/18/the-decline-of-marriage-and-rise-of-new-families/.
Swallow, Julian. 2010. “Couples Rejecting Marriage for de Facto.” Australian Geographic. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2010/09/couples-rejecting-marriage-for-de-facto.