Y! Big Story: The state of matrimony and other unions

Vera H-C Chan

Everything you need to know to get up to speed on the big story of the day

North Carolina's Amendment 1 reaffirmed the "defense" of marriage, but for whom are we saving the hallowed institution?

These days, barely half of eligible Americans are yoking themselves to each other, an all-time low. A half century ago, 72% of Americans took marriage vows.

The recession, a scapegoat for many societal ills, has been blamed for accelerating these rates, but marriage was already in decline. The way things are going, spouses will be a minority group.

So what does it take to put a ring on it? And will this handwringing stop when the millennials come of age? (Answer: Maybe. Maybe not.)

The new global singles: The United States isn't the only country with abandoned wedding aisles. Nuptials are passé in Britain. The French don't see the point. New Zealand says the breakdown of the traditional family costs $1 billion a year. In Asia (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong), women aren't hooking up at all, which drives mothers and demographers crazy, since their aging societies need new blood to keep up the population.

What is marriage: Marriage historically was rooted in financial arrangements. Today's economists describe American mating — in an age when women are becoming as financially independent as men — as "hedonic marriage," based on love and companionship. Other scholars have bandied about models of passionate love, but a generation that may not subscribe to the "living in sin" notion can indulge in lust without marital constraints.

[Related: Backlash over North Carolina's vote]

Who's getting married and who's not: People with money and degrees are marrying. Less educated women, with the "least to gain from the modern hedonic marriage," aren't.

Traditional marriage has evolved from a near-universal rite to a luxury for the educated and affluent. ... Americans with a high-school degree or less (who account for 58% of the population) tell researchers they would like to marry, but do not believe they can afford it. Instead, they raise children out of wedlock. Only 6% of children born to college-educated mothers were born outside marriage, according to the National Marriage Project. That compares with 44% of babies born to mothers whose education ended with high school (June 23, 2011, The Economist)

Some good news at least — divorce rates have been dropping. Check out these Y! Search patterns on marriages, weddings, and divorces (click on chart to enlarge image).

The hope of millennial matchmaking: The first millennials (born 1982-2003) will turn 30 next year. Since the median age for first marriages is 28 (guys) and 26 (gals), will they start a turnaround? The millennials do believe in parenthood, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage. Hitching? Not so much.

Young adults today are slower to marry than were their counterparts in older generations. Just 22% of Millennials are currently married. Back when Gen Xers were the same age that Millennials are now, some three-in-ten of them were married, as were more than four-in-ten Baby Boomers and more than half of the members of the Silent Generation (ages 65 and older). (March 3, 2011, Pew Research Center)

This massive generation (95 million) grew up cautious, in an age of sexually transmitted diseases and divorce. While they consider themselves spiritual, not as many belong to traditional religious institutions that could apply social pressure. The notion of childhood, which is a modern cultural phenomenon, has been extended as "boomerang kids" remain dependent on parents in a poor economy. College debt adds to making them leery of commitment. In general, they don't mind living alone, and if you want to get into analyzing members of a digital generation who have learned to live in spheres that don't involve physical proximity — that gets a bit more philosophical.

Thinking of the kids: The belief that good parenting doesn't require a matrimonial bond doesn't hold up for some. A report from the Institute for American Values, "Why Marriage Matters," argues that the "breakup rate" is 170% higher among U.S. cohabiting parents.

This is mainly because more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable. This report also indicates that children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems — drug use, depression and dropping out of high school — compared to children in intact, married families. (August 16, 2011, Newswise)

What it means to be married: That legal license gets you certain privileges. Just a few:

  • On a federal level, about 1,138 federal statutory provisions extend benefits to the legally recognized spouse; among them are Social Security, disability, Medicare, and veteran and military benefits. Joint tax returns are permitted, and family partnerships are easier to create.
  • Employers often extend insurance coverage.
  • You can sue on behalf of a spouse and visit them in jail or the hospital. The Terry Schiavo case famously illustrated the heartwrenching decisions that often only a spouse can make — among them, the right to die.

Gay marriage arguments: With the North Carolina vote, searches in the past seven days have increased on Yahoo! for "gay marriage" (+52%) and "nc marriage amendment" (+239%), and terms like "civil union definition," "states that ban gay marriage," "gay marriage states," "obama gay marriage" and "gay marriage arguments" are breaking out. As the state-by-state battle continues between advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage, the millennial generation seemingly indifferent to the institution of marriage doesn't oppose it for gays and lesbians, according to recent Pew polls.

[Related: A chorus of voices chime in on same-sex marriage]

That probably explains President Obama's willingness to admit a change of heart in his "personal" opinion, and while that might cost him swing-state North Carolina, it might pull independent voters his way. Another Y! Search chart on marriage look-ups, including same-sex unions (click on chart to enlarge image):

Every state recognizes the traditional form of marriage, but laws differ over types of partnerships, whether they are same-sex or between a male and a female. Here's a chart of the states' position on unions:

The state of unions in the United States

stats from National Conference of State Legislatures and the Christian Science Monitor

Same-sex marriages Common-law marriages (nonceremonial relationships entered with "positive mutual agreement") Civil unions (state-level spousal rights) Domestic partnerships (some spousal rights) Laws
(marriage defined as between man and woman)
Constitutional amendments (marriage defined as between man and woman)
Massachusetts (2004) Alabama Delaware California Delaware Alabama
Colorado Hawaii Nevada Hawaii Alaska
Iowa (2009) Wash. DC Illinois Oregon Illinois Arizona
Vermont (2009) Georgia (before 01/01/97 only) New Jersey Washington Indiana Arkansas
New Hampshire (2010) Idaho (before 01/01/96 only) Rhode Island Hawaii (more limited) Maine California (under legal review)
New York (2011) Iowa Maine (more limited) Minnesota Colorado
Wash. DC (2010) Kansas (prohibited for anyone under 18) Wisconsin (more limited) North Carolina Florida
Washington (approved Feb. 2012, pending) Montana Pennsylvania Georgia
Maryland (approved Feb. 2012, pending) New Hampshire (effective only at death) West Virginia Idaho
(pending court decision)
Ohio (before 01/01/91 only) Wyoming Kansas
New Jersey (vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie) Oklahoma (before 11/01/98 only) Kentucky
Pennsylvania (before 01/01/95 only) Louisiana
Rhode Island Michigan
South Carolina Mississippi
Texas ("informal" rather than common-law) Missouri
Utah Montana
Nevada (recognizes civil unions)
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oregon (recognizes domestic partnerships)
South Carolina
South Dakota