Valentine's Day report: seven ways marriage is changing

It seems Valentine's Day, when 10 percent of all marriage proposals take place, is one of the few constants in the institution of marriage. Fifty years ago, marriage was between a man and a woman barely into their twenties, of the same race and social class, till death did them part. But marriage today is wildly different.

In increasing numbers, Americans no longer feel the need to marry to have sex, have a baby, or even to have financial stability. In short, Americans are redefining what marriage is and why they marry. Here are seven marriage trends in the US.

1.Maybe yes, maybe no

Graphic: At what age do Americans marry? (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

How have Americans redefined marriage? Simply put, marriage is being treated as more of an option today. The institutional model of marriage – in which marriage is a pragmatic system for providing kinship and mutual aid and raising a family – has given ground to a soulmate model, in which partners focus on finding an intense emotional connection.

The result? Americans’ expectations of marriage are far higher than those of their parents or grandparents. “We expect more from our marriages than we used to, and we need them less,” says Stephanie Coontz, a marriage and family studies expert and author of “Marriage, a History.” “People feel far less compelled to enter [marriage] – or to stay in it – if they’re not getting the intimacy they want.”

Not during a recession, honey

Data show that Americans have put off marriage during the economic downturn. (Newscom)

How did the recession affect marriage and divorce? As also happened during the Great Depression, both marriage and divorce rates dropped. Some 52 percent of adults were married in 2009, compared with 57 percent in 2000. Americans were reluctant on the one hand to take on the financial commitment of marriage as pink slips and pay cuts proliferated – and wary of the expensive legal battles and resource-splitting associated with divorce.

There is good news, too. “We’ve seen an increasing solidarity among some [married] adults because of the recession,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “There’s a renewed appreciation for the more fundamental, pragmatic benefits of marriage, like securing social welfare.”

The Americans most likely to marry

Some experts have attributed a drop in the marriage rate to falling religious conviction among blue-collar Americans. (Newscom)

Do certain demographic groups enjoy higher marriage rates? “We’ve seen a growing class divide in marriage rates,” says Ms. Coontz. Marriage rates are lowest among poor and poorly educated Americans, and highest among affluent, college educated Americans.

Sociologists attribute the gap to several factors: a decline of blue-collar jobs, which strains existing marriages and prevents potential unions; less religious conviction in marriage as a way of life; and increasing permissiveness among blue-collar Americans (traditionally bulwarks of conservative values) toward divorce, premarital sex, and having children outside marriage.

Cohabiting vs. marriage

Kentucky state Sen. Kathy Stein speaks on Feb. 25, 2009, against a bill that would prohibit adoption by an applicant 'cohabiting with a sexual partner outside of a marriage that is legally valid in Kentucky.' The bill failed. (Newscom)

How has cohabiting affected marriage? Cohabiting has skyrocketed, increasing from 430,000 couples in 1960 to 7.5 million today. And it’s not just young people doing it. In fact, women ages 40 to 44 experienced the greatest increase in cohabitation – a 163 percent increase in the last 20 years.

Cohabiting is growing quickly in the 40-plus age group, among divorced and widowed adults who want close relationships but don’t want to blend their families or complex portfolios of assets.

Rise of interracial marriage

Hai Nguyen and her husband, Jon Pope, stand outside their home in Houston on May 25, 2010. (Michael Stravato/AP/File)

Interracial marriage is way up. What – and who – is fueling it?

In 2008, nearly 1 in 7 marriages was interracial or interethnic, more than double the rate of the 1980s, according to a Pew report. Immigrants from Latin America and Asia are driving the trend, along with broad acceptance of interracial marriage.

White-Hispanic couplings account for the greatest proportion of intermarriages, at 41 percent. White-Asian couples make up 15 percent and white-black, 11 percent. But some groups are more likely than others to marry outside their race: Black men (22 percent) and Asian women (40 percent) had the highest rates of intermarriage.

Advent of gay marriage

John Lewis (l.) puts a wedding ring on the hand of Stuart Gaffney as they exchange marriage vows at City Hall in San Francisco on June 17, 2008. (Darryl Bush/AP/File)

What are civil unions and why does the public support them more than it does gay marriage?

Civil unions are the legally recognized union of same-sex partners. Because the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 prohibits same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples, same-sex couples get only state rights, not federal. They are recognized only in states that have civil union laws.

The main reason the public is less supportive of gay marriage is that marriage is also a symbol that holds deep cultural meaning. The power of the symbol is as important to gay-rights activists as it is to those who think gays shouldn’t marry. That explains a 2009 Pew poll showing some 57 percent of Americans support civil unions and 37 percent oppose it, while only 39 percent support same-sex marriage, and 53 percent oppose it.

Marriage's red/blue divide

A couple poses for wedding pictures in Temple Square in Salt Lake City. (Newscom)

What parts of the country have the highest marriage rates? Wedding bells are ringing out west. Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota, and Nebraska had the highest marriage rates in 2008, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research.

Folks are staying unhitched in the Northeast. Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware, and New York had the lowest marriage rates in 2008. About 6 percent of unmarried women over age 15 got married in Utah in 2008, compared with about 2 percent in Washington, D.C.

Marriage rates tend to follow a blue state/red state pattern, with higher marriage rates in politically conservative states, and vice versa – even down to county levels, says Mr. Wilcox of the National Marriage Project.