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More women are waiting longer than ever to get hitched. But as our sex lives have changed, calls to “save marriage” have grown.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/16/2009 8:38:36 AM ET 2009-07-16T12:38:36

It may have worked as a plotline for “Sex and the City,” but according to new  government figures, very few American women need fear being an “old maid.”

Eighty-six percent of women marry by age 40, according to the National Center for Health Statistics which recently released revised data gathered in 2002. And those women are waiting longer than ever to wed — age 25 on average.

More than 20 years ago, a Newsweek magazine article called “The Marriage Crunch” scared the bejesus out of many women by stating that if a white, college-educated woman hadn't married by age 30, she had a slim chance of ever tying the knot. The most notorious nugget of the article declared that a 40-year-old single woman had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.

The article was wrong then and now, a generation later, it is even more off the mark.

The vast majority of women who want to marry actually do, although they're no longer in a rush to do it. Does that mean women and men are less interested in marriage than in the past?

No! Americans love marriage compared to people in other industrialized countries. While Americans get hitched at a rate of 7.5 per every 1,000 inhabitants in a given year, the French and Germans marry at a rate of 4.5 to 4.9 per 1,000, Swedes 4.0 to 4.4, Belgians 2.8 to 3.9.

Yet as American sex lives have changed, not coincidentally, calls to “save marriage” have grown. That seems to indicate some confusion about the purpose of marriage and the role of sex within it.

Like the old Newsweek article, some traditionalists fret that Americans are falling out of the marriage habit. “Marriage has fallen by the wayside,” declares the National Marriage Project in its most recent report from 2007. The Project, a research organization based at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., blames “secular individualism” and tolerance of “alternative lifestyles” for marriage's perceived unfashionable status.

While such statements seem to fly in the face of the recent government data, the Project bases them on the divorce rate (about 45 percent of all marriages), the number of adults who are not married (roughly 50 percent of people older than age 18 are unmarried at any one time because of divorce, a spousal death, or by choice) and relaxed attitudes toward phenomena like out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation. It argues that “the institution of marriage needs to be promoted by all levels of society, particularly the families, the schools, the churches, the non-profit sector, and the government.”

This is essentially a political argument, part of the now-hibernating culture wars that are rooted in worry over sexual morality. But turning marriage into a political issue is a losing idea no matter where on the liberal-conservative spectrum you fall because marriage isn't going away. It's just changing, quickly.

Video: A case against marriage
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“I always tell my students that everything we study right now could be out of date in 10 years, that’s how rapidly the social environment is changing,” said Christine Whelan, a University of Iowa sociologist and author of “Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women.”

‘The personalized marriage’
We may idolize the perfect marriage, but need to recognize that its purpose has been redefined.

The “institutional” marriages of the 19th century were practical affairs, meant to establish family bonds, distribute property and raise children as part of a unit within a community, Whelan explained. Then, from about World War I to the early 1960s, “people married for friendship, for a division of labor — what men did and what women did — and for love and attachment,” she said.

Since the 1970s it has been evolving into our current phase, the “personalized marriage.” This is all about what the relationship can do for you as an individual,” said Whelan.

In recent surveys, nearly 90 percent of young people say they want to find their “soulmate.” A 2007 Pew study found that “mutual happiness and fulfillment” was cited by Americans as the main reason to get married by a three-to-one margin. Children ranked eighth on a list of items that made a “successful marriage.”

The rise of the personalized marriage happens to dovetail with Americans’ changing sexual norms. While the age for first marriages has climbed, the age at which Americans become sexually active has fallen. The mean age of first intercourse for boys and girls is now about 17 according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Contrast that with women who were born before World War II. More than 80 percent were still virgins at 18.

To which many might say “Ah ha! We’ve loosened our sexual morals so much we’ve endangered marriage.”

But something else has happened. Women are freer to pursue their educational and career goals, as well as their carnal desires. That delay allows them to be more selective in their partner choice, so they can wait to find a more suitable spouse or time of life.

According to Whelan, women who wait at least until age 25 often have better marriages than those women who marry at 20, although waiting until after age 25 doesn’t seem to add much to marital stability. Men who get married before they turn 25 are twice as likely to get divorced , Australian researchers recently reported.

It can be argued that premarital sex has freed us to make better choices when it comes to marriage partners and to know ourselves better, too.

Those who think our culture now devalues marriage often point to women’s success in education and the workplace and to high-powered women who choose to be single mothers — the “Murphy Brown” effect. But while women now outnumber men in graduate schools and often those women out-earn their future mates, the vast majority of such women still marry and younger men are very attracted to them. Dorothy Parker’s old saw about men not making passes at women who wear glasses has been turned into Tina Fey worship.

However, there is one segment of our society in which women do not marry at the numbers they used to, helping to fuel worry over marriage in general. But it’s not about sex, it’s about economics and lack of education.

According to the new government figures, about 53 percent of poor black women have not been married by age 35 and it's not because they are too busy working on Wall Street.

Video: Cheating politicians giving marriage a bad name? “There is a diverging demographic of marriage separating the marriage haves from the marriage have nots, and that split is getting bigger and bigger,” Whelan said.

Marriage as a job
But, as Whelan suggested, the average middle-class altar-bound types, have come to regard marriage as a form of personal enrichment, like a Tony Robbins seminar.  

It’s not. Marriage is a job. It’s a job we may love and find rewarding, but there are days (weeks? years?) when it’s a slog. Pop culture has fed us the ideal of wildly romantic love accompanied by a rock power ballad and filled us with the belief that if we’re not having nightly explosive sex with our spouses of 15 years, we’re losers.

The newest figures prove that we don’t hate marriage in this country, we just have a problem staying married because we still don’t understand the complex institution and become disenchanted when our expectations crumble. In the segments of our society in which marriage may truly be in trouble, the cause isn’t sex, or tolerance of “alternative lifestyles.” It’s lousy education, tough economics and, yes, sometimes a lack of personal discipline. Try fitting all that into a political philosophy.

Among the well-educated and economically secure — an increasingly rare bunch these days — we managed to break the shackles binding marriage to sex and to free ourselves to make better choices later. That’s good. But we risk those marriages by forgetting that to a large degree they are business arrangements, ones in which you get to dress inappropriately at the office, but business just the same. 

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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