Rude. Well, what happens when our manners are no longer so impeccable? When college-educated, independent women start feeling equal ambivalence about the institution? The time might not be as distant as marriage proponents would like. Take away romance, religious guilt and societal pressure, and the most compelling reason to marry is children. Although everyone seems to have a story about a brilliant, successful woman who is proudly pursuing parenthood solo, the Pew/Time survey showed that 69 percent of people consider the single-motherhood trend “a bad thing for society.” Sixty-one percent think a child needs a mother and a father “to grow up happily.”
“I think it’s about children. If neither one of us wanted children, it would be different,” Nicole says. “I have friends who have lived with their partners for 10 to 20 years, but you have no rights when you aren’t married, in terms of health care and financial support.”
Among those with whom marriage is still in vogue, the link between children and the institution is overwhelming. Just get married and see how many people ask you, in, say, the first three months, about children. Are you planning to start a family soon? Mom will nudge. So, when are you guys having kids? mere acquaintances will press.
Of course, marriage could become just another phase of life. Men and women might begin to get hitched for the practical purpose of raising a family, then, unless they’re wildly happy, go their separate ways. Think of the recent “gray divorce” trend, and this doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Or younger generations might forgo a legal pairing altogether. After all, if we begin to accept that children aren’t a reason to stay married, how long before we accept they’re not a reason to get married? That stat about single motherhood? Put the questions only to 20-somethings, and only about half believe a child needs a mother and a father to grow up happily; 44 percent reject the idea completely.
As careful as younger generations are being about their own marriages, our live-and-let-live attitudes mean we feel less invested in the marriages around us. Nobody wants to believe his or her marriage will end, but if the neighbors end up in Splitsville? That’s life.
“The decline in marriage has not occurred, but we could easily shift,” says Wax. “Marriage is in danger because people don’t think about it as something valuable to be preserved. It’s every man for himself. You do what you think is best and think it’s all going to work out in the end.”
Whether or not younger generations will consider marriage an institution worth saving has yet to be decided. But there’s still hope for the traditionalists, the moralists and the romantics—even if that hope is based on fading cultural norms.
Or the thrill of belonging to a special club. “My husband says he feels like he walks a little taller because he’s a husband now,” 34-year-old Jessica confides. “There’s an achievement and a feeling of accomplishment. Being able to say I am a card-carrying member gives me some power.”
Or good, old-fashioned word of mouth. “Now that I’m married, I’m that guy who says ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ to my friends,” Rob says. “Before, I couldn’t stand that guy. Now I am that guy. But I want to tell them: It’s not bad.”