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

Though marriage is never far from the headlines (see: Gingrich, Newt; Aniston, Jennifer; and Royal Wedding, William and Kate), “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families” spurred a flurry of stories in the news—many with an emphasis on decline. Among the stats: Fifty years ago, almost 75 percent of American adults were married; today, only about 50 percent are.

Part of this is due to divorce, but the lower numbers are also due to John and Nicole’s generation not rushing into marriage. While 50 years ago two-thirds of 20-somethings were married, three years ago only a quarter were. The median age at marriage has risen more than five years since 1960—for men, the number stands at 28; for women, 26. And when you think about it, even that seems kind of young these days, doesn’t it?

Not surprising, really, that those born in the 1970s and ’80s, when the divorce rate begin to skyrocket (it peaked in 1981, with 5.3 divorces for every 1,000 people), have been a little bit more careful before marrying. The mantra, particularly reinforced with young women, who are now attending college in higher numbers than men: Go to college. Get your degree. Wait to settle down. There’s no rush.

“They’re approaching marriage more mindfully, more maturely,” says Philly-based therapist Edd Conboy from the Council for Relationships, a nonprofit counseling center with 13 offices in the Philadelphia region. “This generation is much more careful about commitments.” Conboy has seen an uptick in couples going for therapy before getting married and has several newlyweds as patients, not for specific problems but for what they call “preventive maintenance.”

“We knew everything about each other,” John recalls. “There were no surprises.”

Could it be that marriage, after a detour through romance and love, is coming back round to practical? Men and women began marrying more for love starting in the late 1700s. Before then, the institution was predominantly business-minded, allowing families to amass wealth and build community ties. In Marriage, A History, researcher Stephanie Coontz points out that “no sooner had the ideal of the love match and lifelong intimacy taken hold than people began to demand the right to divorce.”

No one’s advocating arranged marriages or forsaking the heart, but among younger Philadelphians, there’s a distinct skepticism about romance these days, and an intense focus on partnerships. We live in a world where therapists encourage couples to have “business meetings.” Forget cheesy self-help à la Men Are From Mars that instructed couples to embrace gender differences. Now we look for advice in books such as this year’s Spousonomics, coauthored by two Wall Street journalists who apply the discipline of economics to marriage—everything from “moral hazard” to “supply and demand.” Remember in the 1990 movie Green Card when Andie MacDowell married Gérard Depardieu so he could live in the U.S.? She falls in love with him, of course. Today, there’s what 20-somethings casually refer to as “insurance-married,” which has young couples heading to a City Hall judge so one of them can get on the other’s company health insurance plan. “I have health insurance and he doesn’t,” says one single gal from Fairmount. “I think we’ll eventually get insurance-married and then in the future have a real wedding.” Ah, young love.

Conboy points out another advantage of marrying with experience: “People are more understanding of how much pressure there is to stay monogamous.” As a result, he thinks younger couples have an advantage when it comes to working through affairs. “They’re generally more forgiving because they have more of a personal history of relationships. They have sexual histories. I can’t think of the last time I met a couple under age 40 that this was their first partner.”