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Americans' attitudes toward marriage are changing rapidly

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many people are used to thinking of marriage as the start of adult life. Get married, set up a house, have kids - in that order. But Americans attitudes toward marriage are changing. Today, more people are tying the knot in their 40s and older, and the share of people who never marry has doubled since 1960. So we asked some people over 40 to tell us their stories about marriage and relationships.

Bethany Phillips (ph) in Los Angeles told us she wed for the first time at age 43, after enduring years of unwelcome comments about her single status.

BETHANY PHILLIPS: It was definitely, like, oh, you're just going to be a spinster, I guess.

MARTIN: Steve Peterson (ph) is over 40 and single in Salt Lake City. He says marriage is not a panacea for life's problems.

STEVE PETERSON: If you are not happy by yourself, a relationship in and of itself is not going to make you happy.

MARTIN: And Kristi Riggs (ph) in Washington, D.C., says she likes being single in her 40s, partly because she doesn't have to share her bathroom.

KRISTI RIGGS: I have my towels on the rack situated a certain way and my perfume bottles and everything. And when they come over - like, the relationships I've had recently, I'll come into my bathroom after they've left, and it's like, what has happened in here? Like, why - the towel is on - my little Chanel towel is on the sink. And I'm like, oh, God.

MARTIN: So what does this shift in traditional ways of thinking about marriage mean for individuals and for society? And if you're over 40 and single, what are the chances you will eventually marry? I posed that question to sociology professor Susan Brown. She leads the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University.

SUSAN BROWN: Well, I think this is really the million-dollar question for us and one that we've struggled with in the field for some time, which is, does marriage delayed really mean marriage forgone? That is, if you wait too long to get married, are you perhaps less likely to ever marry at all? Marriage overall in the United States continues to be in decline. Nonetheless, what we're finding is that for midlife adults, who we define as age - ages 40 to 59, we're actually seeing an uptick in first marriage entry.

MARTIN: What do people think about marriage or feel about marriage? Do people still want to be married?

BRIOWN: Well, absolutely. I think Americans are very much the marrying kind. We see high levels of support for marriage in most young adults. But at the same time, I think the bar for marriage has really ratcheted up such that now we would describe marriage as a capstone experience. It's something that people do after they have achieved a number of other accomplishments in life, whether that be completing their education, getting a real job, paying off or minimizing their debt and being ready to buy a house. And those are - buy - hurdles for a growing share of Americans. And I think that these factors are really contributing to this extended delay that we're seeing in marriage entry these days.

MARTIN: The growing number of people who are not married, are they kind of, in a way, disadvantaged by social policy?

BRIOWN: Yes. And we would describe marriage today as an engine of inequality, that, in fact, the gap between the married and the unmarried in terms of financial resources, health and well-being is growing. And part of this has to do with changing patterns of mate selection. So whereas in the past, individuals would have selected spouses more along those traditional religious lines, for example, now they're selecting them along the lines of education. And we're seeing the doctor marry the doctor, the lawyer marry the lawyer, as opposed to the doctor marry the nurse or the lawyer marry the secretary. And so marriage is actually contributing to widening economic inequality in the U.S. today.

MARTIN: Do we have any way to capture, though, whether - even if people aren't married in the traditional sense, that - you know, a formal ceremony recognized by the state - are there other forms of partnership that we're just not capturing?

BRIOWN: Yes. I mean, certainly there's cohabitation. People are familiar with that. And that has become quite common across the life course. We're seeing that at all stages of adulthood. But beyond that, we want to be mindful of partnerships that are non-coresidential. Living apart together, or LAT relationships, really represent what I think could be argued as the next frontier in partnership and relationship formation behaviors in the sense that, much like cohabitation was introducing more flexibility beyond marriage, now LAT partnerships provide still more independence and autonomy. And I think, particularly for those in the second half of life, this is a very appealing form of partnership, provided that one can afford to live independently.

MARTIN: If fewer people are getting married and if they're getting married later and presumably more mature, does this mean that marriages are more stable?

BRIOWN: Yes, marriages are much more stable today than they were a few decades ago. And, in fact, the divorce rate in the United States has been slowly but steadily decreasing since it peaked in 1979. But we're seeing a tremendous drop in divorce among young adults in their 20s and through their 30s. And this has to do in part with exactly what you're describing, that individuals are marrying at later ages these days. They're more mature. They're more economically secure. And this contributes to marital stability. Interestingly, where we're seeing a rise in divorce is actually in the second half of life, among people over the age of 50. We refer to this as gray divorce. And actually 1 in 10 people getting divorced today is over the age of 65.

MARTIN: Wow. That's so interesting. Now, I'm also interested in whether these patterns - these new patterns of living are a problem. I mean, is this something that we should worry about?

BRIOWN: I think that the research that's emerging, whether it's studies showing that midlife first marriage is on the rise or gray divorce is a growing phenomenon - shows us that perhaps what we need to do is shift our focus towards middle age and beyond, and that we're actually seeing a lot of family change in those demographics that tend to be overlooked. And so for me, that's what's been most eye-opening and exciting about this area of research is we're seeing a tremendous amount of flux in family formation and dissolution patterns for middle-aged adults and beyond.

MARTIN: Susan Brown is the director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University. Professor Brown, thank you so much for being here.

BRIOWN: Thank you. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEAN BOWSER'S "THEORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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