How Does Your Marriage Stack Up?

Today’s younger Philly couples are not only waiting longer to say "I do"; they’re dealing with a whole different set of issues than their parents—from Facebook-stalking to who gets to pick the love seat. Can marriage survive it? An intimate look at an institution in flux

When Michael and Jennifer have dinner at Parc with friends—say, three other married couples—they believe that statistics dictate two of the couples at the table will divorce. Turns out they’re wrong. The oft-repeated 50-50 gamble falls to just 25 percent when you look at college-educated couples, which is great news for the 38 percent of adults in the Philadelphia region who have degrees—and the 70 percent in Center City.

Still, maybe thanks to the perceived high breakup stat or the fact that they experienced plenty of divorce growing up, when those younger than 50 answered the Pew/Time surveyors’ question of whether marriage is becoming obsolete, 43 percent said yes. So are they right about that?

Civilization has bemoaned the decline of marriage for more than 2,000 years—seriously, the ancient Greeks worried about it—but take the current widespread belief in a gloomy divorce rate and the storm over the legalization of gay marriage, and you can see that, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, we might be smack in the middle of a pivotal moment for the institution as we know it.

“The traditional version of your parents’ marriage is gone, finished,” Mandell says. But whether this means marriage itself is on the way out is harder to say. On one hand, younger generations seem to be taking a more practical approach to marriage, which could strengthen their unions; waiting yields more adults who think they have a better grip on what they want in a lifelong mate. On the other, there are real challenges to blending two fully formed lives. Plus, all at once, society’s growing acceptance of divorce puts less pressure and more pressure on every “I do.” Pile on Facebook cheating, still-shifting gender roles and the pervasive notion that just about nothing’s permanent, and you start to wonder why anyone even bothers anymore.

Will marriage look familiar to us 30 years from now? Can we stare down the divorce statistic? Should we move beyond the concept of “till death do us part” and view marriage as just another phase in life, one in which two adults come together for the purpose of raising a family? The Michaels and Jennifers of Philly could very well decide.

"I HAD THREE LONG relationships before this, and with each one there was a problem,” John* says. “Nicole and I were a perfect match. We liked traveling and cooking. We were exactly the same.”

John grew up in Delco and Nicole went to Villanova, but the two didn’t cross paths until they were both 25 and working in New York City. John, then living with a roommate, invited friends over before a night on the town and asked them to bring along Nicole, who was just moving into her own apartment. They began dating, and two years later, when John’s lease was about to end, they decided he’d move in with Nicole. “It made sense,” John says. “Especially when rent is so high in New York.”

Nicole admits she “could have been 40 and single and that would have been fine, if I hadn’t met John.” The recent economic downturn threw off their timing when John was laid off from his pharmaceutical job. But he found a new position last year, and the two were married in January. (They now live near Rittenhouse Square.) Both agree they’ve got a different approach to marriage than their parents. “My mom got pregnant a few years in and stopped working,” says Nicole. “I’m much more independent than my mom. My dad paid the bills. For me, it’s important that I’m involved in that.”

“My sister followed in my parents’ footsteps and got married to someone from high school and had children right away,” John notes. “Now she’s almost done with her divorce.”