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Marriage and the Family in the United States Today



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Marriage and the Family in the United States Today


In the United States today, marriage remains an important institution. Only about 27 percent of all adults (18 or older) have never been married, 56 percent are currently married, 10 percent are divorced, and 6 percent are widowed (see). Thus 72 percent of American adults have been married, whether or not they are currently married. Because more than half of the never-married people are under 30, it is fair to say that many of them will be getting married sometime in the future. When we look just at people aged 45–54, about 87 percent are currently married or had been married at some point in their lives. In a 2010 poll, only 5 percent of Americans under age 30 said they did not want to get married (Luscombe, 2010). [7] These figures all indicate that marriage continues to be an important ideal in American life, even if not all marriages succeed. As one sociologist has said, “Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life. It’s like the ultimate merit badge” (Luscombe, 2010). [8]

Although marriage remains an important institution, two recent trends do suggest that its importance is declining for some segments of the population (Cohn, Passel, Wang, & Livingston, 2011). [9] First, although 71 percent of adults have been married, this figure represents a drop from 85 percent in 1960. Second, education greatly affects whether we marry and stay married, and marriage is less common among people without a college degree.



Figure 10.1 Marital Status of the US Population 18 Years of Age or Older, 2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig10_001.jpg

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved fromhttp://www.census.gov/compendia/statab.

Recent figures provide striking evidence of this relationship. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of college graduates are currently married, compared to less than half (47 percent) of high school graduates and high school dropouts combined. People with no more than a high school degree are less likely than college graduates to marry at all, and they are more likely to get divorced, as we shall discuss again later, if they do marry.

This difference in marriage rates worsens the financial situation that people with lower education already face. As one observer noted, “As marriage increasingly becomes a phenomenon of the better-off and better-educated, the incomes of two-earner married couples diverge more from those of struggling single adults” (Marcus, 2011). [10] One of the many consequences of this education gap in marriage is that the children of one-parent households are less likely than those of two-parent households to graduate high school and to attend college. In this manner, a parent’s low education helps to perpetuate low education among the parent’s children.

The United States Compared to Other Democracies


In several ways, the United States differs from other Western democracies in its view of marriage and in its behavior involving marriage and other intimate relationships (Cherlin, 2010; Hull, Meier, & Ortyl, 2012). [11] First, Americans place more emphasis than their Western counterparts on the ideal of romantic love as a basis for marriage and other intimate relationships and on the cultural importance of marriage. Second, the United States has higher rates of marriage than other Western nations. Third, the United States also has higher rates of divorce than other Western nations; for example, 42 percent of American marriages end in divorce after fifteen years, compared to only 8 percent in Italy and Spain. Fourth, Americans are much more likely than other Western citizens to remarry once they are divorced, to cohabit in short-term relationships, and, in general, to move from one intimate relationship to another, a practice called serial monogamy. This practice leads to instability that can have negative impacts on any children that may be involved and also on the adults involved.

The US emphasis on romantic love helps account for its high rates of marriage, divorce, and serial monogamy. It leads people to want to be in an intimate relationship, marital or cohabiting. Then when couples get married because they are in love, many quickly find that passionate romantic love can quickly fade; because their expectations of romantic love were so high, they become more disenchanted once this happens and unhappy in their marriage. As sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin (2010, p. 4) [12]observes, “Americans are conflicted about lifelong marriage: they value the stability and security of marriage, but they tend to believe that individuals who are unhappy with their marriages should be allowed to end them.” Still, the ideal of romantic love persists even after divorce, leading to remarriage and/or other intimate relationships.


Children and Families


The United States has about 36 million families with children under 18. About 70 percent of these are married-couple families, while 30 percent (up from about 14 percent in the 1950s) are one-parent families. Most of these latter families are headed by the mother (see ).

Figure 10.2 Family Households with Children under 18 Years of Age, 2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig10_002.jpg

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved fromhttp://www.census.gov/compendia/statab.

The proportion of families with children under 18 that have only one parent varies significantly by race and ethnicity: Latino and African American families are more likely than white and Asian American households to have only one parent (see ). Similarly, whereas 30 percent of all children do not live with both their biological parents, this figure, too, varies by race and ethnicity: about 61 percent of African American children, 15 percent of Asian children, 33 percent of Latino children, and 23 percent of non-Latino white children.



Figure 10.3 Race, Ethnicity, and Percentage of Family Groups with Only One Parent, 2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig10_003.jpg

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved fromhttp://www.census.gov/compendia/statab.

We will discuss several other issues affecting children later in this chapter. But before we move on, it is worth noting that children, despite all the joy and fulfillment they so often bring to parents, also tend to reduce parents’ emotional well-being. As a recent review summarized the evidence, “Parents in the United States experience depression and emotional distress more often than their childless adult counterparts. Parents of young children report far more depression, emotional distress and other negative emotions than non-parents, and parents of grown children have no better well-being than adults who never had children” (Simon, 2008, p. 41). [13]

Children have these effects because raising them can be both stressful and expensive. Depending on household income, the average child costs parents between $134,000 and $270,000 from birth until age 18. College education obviously can cost tens of thousands of dollars beyond that. Robin W. Simon (2008) [14] argues that American parents’ stress would be reduced if the government provided better and more affordable day care and after-school options, flexible work schedules, and tax credits for various parenting costs. She also thinks that the expectations Americans have of the joy of parenthood are unrealistically positive and that parental stress would be reduced if expectations became more realistic.


KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • Although the nuclear family has been very common, many children throughout history have not lived in a nuclear family, in part because a parent would die at an early age.

  • Most Americans eventually marry. This fact means that marriage remains an important ideal in American life, even if not all marriages succeed.

  • About 30 percent of children live with only one parent, almost always their mother.



FOR YOUR REVIEW


  1. Write a brief essay in which you describe the advantages and disadvantages of the 1950s-type nuclear family in which the father works outside the home and the mother stays at home.

  2. The text notes that most people eventually marry. In view of the fact that so many marriages end in divorce, why do you think that so many people continue to marry?

  3. Some of the children who live only with their mothers were born out of wedlock. Do you think the parents should have married for the sake of their child? Why or why not?

[1] Starbuck, G. H. (2010). Families in context (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

[2] Smith, R. T. (1996). The matrifocal family: Power, pluralism, and politics. New York, NY: Routledge.

[3] Seccombe, K. (2012). Families and their social worlds (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

[4] Gottlieb, B. (1993). The family in the Western world from the black death to the industrial age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[5] Coontz, S. (1995, summer). The way we weren’t: The myth and reality of the “traditional” family. National Forum: The Phi Kappa Phi Journal, 11–14.

[6] Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[7] Luscombe, B. (2010, November 18). Who needs marriage? A changing institution. Time. Retrieved fromhttp://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2032116,2032100.html.

[8] Luscombe, B. (2010, November 18). Who needs marriage? A changing institution. Time. Retrieved fromhttp://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2032116,2032100.html.

[9] Cohn, D., Passel J., Wang, W., & Livingston, G. (2011). Barely half of US adults are married—a record low. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

[10] Marcus, R. (2011, December 18). The marriage gap presents a real cost. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-marriage-gap-presents-a-real-cost/2011/12/16/gIQAz24DzO_story.html?hpid=z3.

[11] Cherlin, A. J. (2010). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York, NY: Vintage; Hull, K. E., Meier, A., & Ortyl, T. (2012). The changing landscape of love and marriage. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.), The contexts reader (2nd ed., pp. 56–63). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[12] Cherlin, A. J. (2010). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York, NY: Vintage

[13] Simon, R. W. (2008). The joys of parenthood, reconsidered. Contexts, 7(2), 40–45.

[14] Simon, R. W. (2008). The joys of parenthood, reconsidered. Contexts, 7(2), 40–45.


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