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Chapter 13 - Family

This book has been updated. The new version of this chapter is located at FreeSociologyBooks.com

In all societies, the family is the premier institution for all of the following: socialization of children, adult intimate relationships, life-long economic support and cooperation, and continuity of relationships along the life-course.    Sociologists are leaders among scientists who study the family.  They have functioned in a core assessment role for describing, explaining, and predicting family-based social patterns for the United States and other countries of the world. Sociologists have allowed us to understand the larger social and personal level trends in families. 

What Is the Family?

The family structures that were very common a century ago are not nearly as common today.  In the US around the year, 1900 most families had 3 generations living in one home (IE: children, parents, and uncle/aunt/grandparent) and most did manual labor.  Today, most families fall into one of two types.  The first is a Nuclear Family, or a family group consisting of mother & father and their children.  This is the family type that is mostly preferred.  The second most common form is the Blended Family, or the family created by remarriage including step siblings and parents.  Today, very few families are multiple generational beyond parents and their children.  Finally, all the family relations you have past your nuclear or blended family we call an Extended Family (ie cousins, aunts & uncles, grand and great grandparents).

The US Census Bureau conducts annual surveys of the US population and publishes them as the Current Population Surveys.  Table 1 represents the US family Types as of October 1, 2008.  You will notice that marrieds comprise the largest proportion of family types in 2008.  Single never marrieds are the second largest type and include another 6.8 million cohabiters of opposite sex and an unknown number of same sex cohabiters.  Next is divorced, widowed, then separated.

(see Table UC1. Opposite Sex Unmarried Couples by Labor Force Status of Both Partners: 2008 retrieved 30 March 2009 from  http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2008.html).  

Table 1.  US Family Types, 2008

Never Married-Single71,479,00030%
Total Families 15 and over237,993,000100%

Taken from Internet on 30 March 2009 from Table A1.  Marital Status of People 15 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Personal Earnings, Race, and Hispanic Origin/1, 2008

Look at Figure 1 below to see the US trend of actual numbers in millions of family types.  It shows that the single largest type of family in the US has always been marrieds then never marrieds.  The divorced overtook widowed category in the 1970s and has been higher ever since.  Why are the trends upward?  Simple, these are numbers and not rates nor percentages.  The population has grown and therefore the population size has been steadily increasing.

Figure 1. United States 1950-2000 Numbers of Family Types (in Millions)*


*Taken from United States Census Bureau on 30 March 2009 from Table MS-1.  Marital Status of the Population 15 Years Old and Over, by Sex and Race:  1950 to Present  http://www.census.gov/

What Are Typical Marriage Structures?

The culturally preferred marriage type today is Monogamy, or the marriage form permitting only one spouse.  Almost all in the US have married monogamously since the original colonies in the 1600s.  Monogamy implies a 1:1 relationship and is typically desired both by married and opposite and same-sex cohabiters.   Multiple spouses at the same time has been preferred in the past by Mormons (they ceased polygamy in 1890 and Current Mormons who try to marry polygamously are excommunicated) and Mormon-splinter groups (many still polygamous today). 

Polygamy is a marriage form permitting more than one spouse at the same timePolygyny is a marriage form permitting more than one wife at the same time and is the most common form of polygamy in the world’s history.  Polygyny is still common and legal in many African, Middle-Eastern, and Indian nations.  It was a deep part of China’s history and prior to World War II it was common for a Chinese man to have multiple wives and many children. 

Polyandry is a marriage form permitting more than one husband at the same time.  This is historically and currently rare and if practiced often included the marriage of one wife to a set of brothers with all having sexual access to the wife.  What if a person marries, divorces, marries divorces, etc.?  Serial Monogamy or Serial Polygamy is the process of establishing intimate marriage or cohabiting relationships that eventually dissolve and are followed by another intimate marriage or cohabiting relationships that eventually dissolve, etc. in a series.  So, polygamists have simultaneous multiple spouses while serial monogamists or serial polygamists have multiple spouses in a sequence of relationships.

Traditional roles of men and women play into how the family functions in society.  Typically and throughout history families have been Patriarchal, where males have more power and authority than females and where rights and inheritances typically pass from fathers to sonsMatriarchal families are families where females have more power and authority than males and rights and inheritances pass from mothers to daughter and sons.  In Matriarchal families, the mother is not only the social and emotional force of the family but is also the economic force.  More and more in the US families are leaning toward Egalitarian families, or families with power and authority more fairly distributed between husband and wife.

What Are The Functions of Families?

In studying the family, Functional Theorists have identified some common and nearly universal family functions.  That means almost all families in all countries around the world have at least some of these functions in common: Table 2 shows many of the global functions of the family:

Table 2. Global Functions of the Family

  • Economic support - food, clothing, shelter, etc...
  • Emotional support - intimacy, companionship, belonging, etc...
  • Socialization of child - raising children, parenting
  • Control of sexuality - defines and controls when and with whom (IE: marriage)
  • Control of reproduction - the types of relationships where children should/could be born
  • Ascribed status - contexts of race, socioeconomic status, religion, kinship, etc.

By far, economic support is the most common function of today’s families.  When your parents let you raid their pantry, wash clothes in their laundry, or replenish your checking account that’s economic support.  For another young adult, say in New Guinea, if she captures a wild animal which is cooked on an open fire, that’s also economic support in a different cultural context.  I’ve always been amazed at how far family economic cooperation extends.  Some families cooperate in business-like relationships.  In Quebec, Montreal there is an established pattern of Italian immigrants who help family and friends emigrate from Italy to Canada.  They subsidize each others travel costs, help each other find employment once in Canada, and even privately fund some mortgages for one another.   Each participant is expected to support others in the same manner.  To partake in this form of economic cooperation is to assume a very business-like relationship.

Emotional relationships are also very common, but you must understand there is a tremendous amount of cultural diversity in how intimacy is experienced during emotional support in various families around the world.  Intimacy is the social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical trust that is mutually shared between family members. Family members share confidences, advice, trust, secrets, and ongoing mutual concern.  Many family scientists believe that intimacy in family relationships functions as a strong buffer to the ongoing stresses experienced by family members outside of the home.

Socialization of children was covered in detail in a previous chapter.  For now, keep in mind that children are born with the potential to be raised as humans.  They will realize this potential if older family members or friends take the time to protect and nurture them into their cultural and societal roles.  Today the family is the core of primary socialization.  But, many other societal institutions contribute to the process. 

Controlling sexuality and reproduction have traditionally been sanctioned by families.  A few centuries ago the father and mother even selected the spouse of many of their children (they still do in many countries).  Today, US parents and children want their adult child to select their own spouse.  Older family members tend to encourage pregnancy and childbirth in only marriage or a long-term relationship.  Unwed Mothers are mothers who are not legally married at the time of the child’s birth.  Being unwed brings up concerns of economic, emotional, social, and other forms of support for the mother that may or may not be present with the father.  Many fathers reject their fatherly obligations in the case of unwed mothers.

When an unwed mother delivers the baby, it is often the older female family members who end up providing the functions of support for that child rather than the birth father.  Table 3 shows the unwed mother births for the US in 2000 and 2006. Most of the 4,266,000 live US births in 2006 were to married mothers.  But, about 1/10 of teen mothers and 38 percent of all mothers were unwed (retrieved 30 March 2009 from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/tables/09s0077.pdf).   This trend of increasing unwed birth rates suggests that more and more families have less control by sanctioning childbirth within marriage.  On the other side of the coin, many of these unwed mothers marry the child’s fathers and many of those marriages eventually end in divorce.

Table 3. Percentage of All Births that were to Unwed Teens and Mothers of All Ages Years 2000 and 2006

 YearBirths to Unwed TeensBirths to All Unwed Mothers
 2000 11.8% 33.2%
 2006 10.4% 35.8%

Taken from Statistical Abstracts of the US on 30 March 2009 from Table 87. Births to Teenage Mothers and Unmarried Women and Births With Low Birth Weight—States and Island Areas: 2000 to 2006 http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/tables/09s0087.pdf

Finally, ascribed status is there at birth.  You were born into your racial, cultural-ethnic, religious and economic statuses.  That shaped to some degree the way you grew up and were socialized.  By far, in our modern societies, achieved status, or those statuses that come as a result of your own efforts, is more important than ascribed for most members of society.  The degree of achievement you attain often depends heavily on the level of support families give to you.

Since marriage is so very common in the US, it would be wise for this chapter to cover the process of pairing off and forming marriages as well as the process of divorcing and dissolving marriages that often occurs.  Pairing off can be better understood by incorporating a few principles that tend to describe, explain, and help us predict how two people move from strangers to intimate partners during the pairing process. 

How Do We Pair Off?

Numerous studies have established that Homogamy is the most important predictor of how couples pair off.  Homogamy is the tendency to pair off with another person who is similar to us.  Most people are attracted to people of about the same beauty, about the same economic status, about the same value system, and often about the same cultural background.  It is not true, at least based on most research studies, “that opposites attract.”  Typically, like-persons attract.  We seek out and associate with people at the same clubs, the same workplaces, and the same universities and colleges.  They often introduce their homogamous friends to you and your homogamous friends.  Are you at a state, private, or Ivy League college or University?  The factors that impacted you ending up in your institution are probably very similar for you and the other student there.  Similar people end up in similar places and organizations.

No couple is 100 percent identical.  Homogamy does not mean being identical, it simply means being similar.  All couples experience both Homogamy and heterogamy.  Heterogamy is the tendency to pair off with another person who is different in some ways from us.  I once had a student say that she disagreed with the Homogamy principle.  She argued that she and her husband were opposites.  She explained that she liked country and he liked classical music; she liked Chinese food and he likes Latin; She like basketball and he liked football; and she was majoring in Sociology and he was majoring in Business.  I pointed out to her and the other students in the class that they had differing tastes, but both liked music, ethnic foods, sports, and learning.  Many studies have demonstrated that the more Homogamy two people are together the higher the odds of the relationship succeeding over the long-run.

Another explanation for pairing off is the Social Exchange Theory, which claims that society is composed of ever present interactions among individuals who attempt to maximize rewards while minimizing costs.   It focuses on how rational decisions are made considering the fact that most of us want to maximize our rewards, minimize our losses and make our final choices economically.  The formula looks like this: (Max Rewards- Min Costs)=Outcomes.  More than once I have challenged my student to do the following activity:

Go down to the cafeteria or commons and pick the person you find to be the least attractive.  Ask him/her on a date and pay for everything.  At the end of the date give them one kiss that last at least 7 seconds.

The most common response I get from them is “WHY?”  Why would anyone in their right mind make such an effort to suffer in this way?  My response of course is that we typically won’t do these things because it would reverse the social exchange approach of maximizing rewards while minimizing costs.  In the real world, we should and do want more physical attraction, fun, affection, status, economic support, friendship, social belonging, and even popularity from our dating experiences.  If you are really fortunate, you might have a date every so often that ranks high on all of these rewards.  But, we never truly get the perfect catch in a partner, dating or married.  Mostly because we are not the perfect catch either and we tend to pair homogamously with those much like ourselves (Normal people attract to other normal people).

Another major principle that influences who you might pair off with is called Propenquity, or the geographic proximity of two potential mates to one another.  Ask most couples you know where they met and you’ll probably here something like: “we went to the same college, summer camp, mission, church, or Peace Corps experiences.”  Others meet at work.  Still others are introduced by friends of friends’ roommates.  Few meet if they are not geographically close to one another. 

I’m often asked about the influence of online match-making sites.  These are relatively new but they function to compress propenquity at the stage of meeting someone.  They actually reduce the influence of propenquity in the acquaintance process.  But, eventually couples typically spend time together before they make any long-term commitments.  Finally, Filtering is the process of eliminating potential mates from the pool of eligible’s in the market place.

How many students attend your college or university?  Take that number and multiply it times 0.6 (In the US about 6/10 of all college or university students are female).   This equals the likely number of females in your market place.  The remaining number (representing a multiple of 0.4) is the number of males.  Knock another 20 percent off the estimate for men and women because some will be married or already in a relationship. That’s the estimated market place total. 

Now, how many do you come into contact with each day?   If you don’t know then count for two days  (simply count the numbers of potential mates you see walking to classes on a Monday then again on a Tuesday.  Add in those you interact with at work or in other places.  Add in roommate’s friends and families.  Finally, add in sorority or fraternity friends).  This is your pool of eligibles.  Your pool could be as high as 100-300.  Were there some you pass or have in the same class that you didn’t count because you know it wouldn’t work?  If yes, this is what filtering is about—you filter out based on your best judgment and on Social Exchange principles.

Another factor in the pairing process is the Sex Ratio, or the number of males per 100 females in a given population.  The US sex ratio for young adults is out of balance—meaning that there are more males per females in the 18-29 age group.  The US Census bureau estimates that there are about 105-114 males per 100 females in this age group which means 5-14 extra males per 100 females in 2000 (taken from Internet 31 March 2009 from A.C.E. Revision II: Adjustment for Correlation Bias http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/pdf/pp-53r.pdf ).

In 1970 a researcher named Murstein published a theory of marital selection which has been very useful in understanding how people move from being strangers to the point where they choose to marry or cohabit.  The Stimulus-Value-Role Theory of Marital Choice states that as people find someone they are attracted to, they initiate contact, spend time together comparing values and establishing compatibility, and eventually either break things off or make commitments toward marriage or cohabitation (See Murstein, B.I. (1970) Stimulus-value-role: A theory of marital choice, Journal of Marriage and the Family 32, 465-81). 

For example, a young man might see a young woman at a fraternity-sorority party and ask his friend if she's single.  Eventually he moves over to her side of the room and introduces himself.  If, after the forces of homogamy, propenquity, filtering, and social exchange support their interaction, they might go out together in the near future.  After enough quality interactions in groups with friends and alone by themselves they feel compatible and similar, they might eventually decide to date exclusively or “steady.”  Over time this may lead to a proposal or a decision to cohabit.  The original and continuing stimulus helps to establish similar values and eventually leads to semi-permanent or permanent roles.

What Predicts Divorce in the US?

In the US, states have power to allow for marriages and divorces.  The state you reside in regulates when and how you must apply for and be allowed to marry.  Your marriage license is proof of your compliance to the state’s laws.  If a couple who has been married decides to end their legal status as a married couple, the state laws allow for Divorce, or the legal dissolution of a marriage.  Most legal status changes each year are marriages, not divorces. 

The US has historically had low divorce rates which spiked briefly after World War II; declined until the late 1960s and rose sharply until the mid-1980s; finally, they declined gradually and continue to do so today.  Figure 2 shows divorce rates per 1,000 for each of the 5 years between 1960 and 2005.  It takes the US government a few years to calculate data like this which explains why the rates are not as current as last year. 

The power held by states to legalize the economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and physical union or disunion of a man and a woman is not only traditional, but also enduring in US history.  Centuries and millennia ago, fathers, clan or kinship leaders, religious leaders, and community members had the rights to marry which are now afforded to the state.  True, states don’t get involved in the spiritual or physical union, they just license it or legalize it the same way they license drivers or certify the legal sale of property.  Almost every year, there is about 1 legally sanctioned divorce per every 2 legally sanctioned marriages in the US.

Figure 2. United States Marriage and Divorce Rates per 1,000 Population 1960-2005*

*Taken from Statistical Abstracts of the United States on 27 March 2009 from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2008/2008edition.html ; Table 77, Section 2In Figure 3 below you can see just how many legal marriages were granted per divorce for the years 1960-2005.  These numbers are presented as a ratio (number of marriages/number of divorces per year).  Between 1960-1970, there were almost 4 marriages per divorce, indicating nearly 4 marriages per 1 divorce nationwide (fewer divorces).  As the rate of divorce increased in the 1970s-1980s we see that there were about 2 marriages per 1 divorce.  Notice that since the late 1990s the ratio is increasing because divorce continues to trickle downward.

Figure 3.  United States Ratio of Marriages per Divorces 1960-2005*

*Taken from Statistical Abstracts of the United States on 27 March 2009 from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2008/2008edition.html ; Table 77, Section 2.

For decades newscasters and educators have warned that 1 in 2 marriages “end in divorce.”  Sounds frightening, doesn’t it?  Is it true?  Not really, divorce never reached the actual 50 percent mark.  Based on surveys of exactly how many people have ever been divorced in their lifetimes, most will tell you it is closer to 43 percent (see US Census for tables at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/marr-div/2004detailed_tables.html ).

Years and years of research on divorce yielded a few common themes of what puts a couple at more or less risk of divorce.  Before we discuss those factors let me point out an uncomfortable truth—all of us are at risk of dying as long as we are alive; likewise, all of us are at risk of divorcing as long as we are married.  But, the presence of divorce risks does not imply the outcome of divorce.  There are things individuals can do to minimize the risks of divorce (personal level actions).  Table 4 below lists 10 of these actions.

Table 4. Ten Actions Individuals Can Take To minimize the Odds of Divorce

  1. Wait until at least your 20s to marry.  Avoid marrying as a teenager (either spouse).  By some estimates, this raises your odds by 2-3 times the likelihood.
  2. Don’t marry out of duty to a child.  Avoid marrying just because she got pregnant.  Pregnancy is not the same processes we discussed in the pairing off section above.
  3. Become proactive by maintaining your marriage with preventative efforts designed to avoid break downs.  Find books, seminars, and a therapist to help you both work out the tough issues.
  4. Never cohabit if you think you might marry.  Decades of studies show that cohabitation contributes to higher divorce risks among those who eventually marry.
  5. Leave the marriage market—when you marry avoid keeping an eye open for a better spouse.
  6. Remain committed to your marriage—most couples have irreconcilable difference and most learn to live comfortably together in spite of them (just live with it).
  7. Keep a positive outlook.  Avoid losing hope in your first 36 months—those who get past the 3-year mark often see improvements in quality of marital relationship and the first 36 months have the most intense adjustments in them.
  8. Take the media with a grain of salt.  Avoid accepting evidence that your marriage is doomed—this means being careful not to let accurate or inaccurate statistics convince you that all is lost, especially before you even marry.
  9. Do your homework when selecting a mate.  Take your time and realize that marrying in your late 20’s is common now and carefully identify someone who is homogamous to you, especially about wanting to be married.
  10. Look to the positive benefits found to be associated with being married in society.

Individuals who marry in their teens (even 17, 18, & 19) have much higher rates of marital dissolution.  Some argue that this might be because the individual continues to change up until about age 25-26 when they are fully psychologically mature.  Try to remember who you thought was attractive your senior year in high school.  Would you still find them attractive today?   Some who marry in their teens actually outgrow one another including their loss of attraction that stems from their changed tastes.   Couples who married as teenagers must unite as they take into account their ongoing maturation and change in tastes.  When marital data is collected by the US Census Bureau, it often shows that those marrying in their teen years have the highest rates of having ever been divorced.

As is mentioned above, most unwed mothers end up marrying the biological father of their baby.  These marriages often end in divorce more than marriages for non-pregnant newlyweds.  The existence of children at the time of the wedding is often associated with higher divorce rates.  

Family Scientists have borrowed from the physics literature a concept called entropy which is roughly defined as the principle that matter tends to decay and reduce, toward its simplest parts.  For example, a new car, if parked in a field and ignored, would eventually decay and rot.  A planted garden if left unmaintained would be overrun with weeds, pests, and yield low if any crop.  Marital Entropy is the principle that if a marriage does not receive preventative maintenance and upgrades it will move towards decay and break down.  Couples who take ownership of their marriage and who realize that marriage is not bliss and that it often requires much work, experience more stability and strength when they nurture their marriage.  They treat their marriage like a nice car and become committed to prevent breakdowns rather than wait to repair them.  These couples read and study experts like: Gottman, Cherlin, Popenoe, and others who have focused their research on how to care for the marriage, acknowledging the propensity relationships have to decay if unattended.

Cohabitation has been studied extensively for the last 2 decades, especially in contrast between cohabiting and married couple.   Clear findings consistently show that cohabiting and marriage are two different creatures (see studies by Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman).  Those who cohabit tend to establish patterns of relationships that later inhibit marital duration.  In other words people who cohabit then later marry are much more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited.

Many individuals struggle to completely surrender their single status.  They mentally remain on the marriage market in case “someone better than their current spouse comes along.”  Norval Glenn in 1991 argued that many individuals see marriage as a temporary state while they keep an eye open for someone better, “More honest vows would often be “as long as we both shall love” or “as long as no one better comes along (page 268).”  Glenn gets at the core of the cultural values associated with risks of divorcing.  (See “The Recent Trend in Marital Success in the United States” by Norval D. Glenn Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 261-270)

Robert and Jeanette Lauer are a husband-wife team who have not only studied the family but have written a college textbook called Marriage and Family: The Quest for Intimacy (2009, Cengage).  They studied commitment and endurance of married couples.  They identified 29 factors among couples who had been together for 15 years or more.  They found that both husbands and wives reported as their number 1 and 2 factors that “My spouse is my best friend and I like my spouse as a person” (see ‘Til Death Do Us Part: How Couples Stay Together 1986 by Robert Lauer and also Google: Lauer and Lauer and Kerr various years).  The Lauers also studied the levels of commitment couples had to their marriage.  The couples reported that they were in fact committed to and supportive of not only their own marriage but marriage as an institution.  Irreconcilable differences are common to marriage and the basic strategy to deal with them is to: negotiate as much as is possible, accept the irresolvable differences, and finally live happily with them.

Keeping a positive outlook on your marriage is essential.  As was mentioned above, as long as a couple is married they are technically at risk of divorce.  But, not all divorce risks are created equally.  Newly married couples 1-10 years have a great deal of adjustment to work through, especially during the first 36 months.  They have new boundaries and relationships to establish.  They have to get to know one another and negotiate agreements about the: who, what, why, and how of their day-to-day lives together.  The longer they stay together the lower their risks of divorce. 

In Figure 4 you can see the median duration of marriage for people 15 and older by sex and age.  This data is exclusively for those who ended up divorcing.  Even those who do divorce can expect a median (exact middle value in a list) of about 8 years for both men and women.  The average couple could expect to stay married quite a long time. 

Figure 4.  United States Median Duration of Marriages for Divorced People 15 Years and Over by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2004

A positive outlook for your marriage as a rewarding and enjoyable relationship is a realistic outlook.  Some couples worry about being labeled naïve if they express the joys and rewards their marriage brings to their lives.  Be hopeful and positive on the quality and duration of your marriage, because the odds are still in your favor.  You’ve probably seen commercials where online matchmaking Websites strut their success in matching people to one another.  There have been a few criticisms of online marital enhancement services, but millions have used them.  Along with DVD’s, talk CDs, self-help books, and seminars there are many outlets for marital enhancement available to couples who seek them.  Very few know that there is now a Website that offers support to marrieds who want to be proactive and preventative in their relationship http://marriage.eharmony.com/.

“Doomed, soaring divorce rates, spousal violence, husbands killing wives, decline of marriage,” and other gloomy headlines are very common on electronic, TV, and print news stories.  The media functions to disseminate information and its primary goal is to make money by selling advertising.  The media never has claimed to be random or scientific in their stories.  They don’t really try to represent the entire society with every story.  In fact, media is more accurately described as biased by the extremes, based on the nature of stories that are presented to us the viewers. 

Many media critics have made the argument for years that the news and other media use fear as a theme for most stories, so that we will consume them.  As you observed above, most in the US choose marriage and most who are divorced will eventually marry again.  True, marriage is not bliss, but it is a preferred lifestyle by most US adults.  From the Social Exchange perspective, assuming that people maximize their rewards while minimizing their losses, marriage is widely defined as desirable and rewarding.

Doing your homework cannot be emphasized enough in the mate selection process.  The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” truly does apply to mate selection.  Taking your time, understanding yourself, waiting until you are 20 something or older, and finding a good friend in your spouse can make all the difference in the marital experience you have.   Keep in mind that very few people marry someone they meet as a stranger (even though I did).  Most of us end up marrying someone they find through their social networks such as work, campus, dorms, frats and sororities, friends of friends, and other relationship-based connections.  If you are female, there are an abundance of males because the country currently has a Marriage Squeeze, or a shortage of males or females in the marriage market.  There are 10-14 extra US men for every 100 women in the prime marriage years.  This has been the case since the 1980s (Google :US Marriage Squeeze). 

There also continues to be a trend of delaying age at first marriage.  In 2005, the US median age at marriage was about 27 years for men (Washington DC was 29.9 years and Utah was 24.6) and 25.5 for women (Washington DC was 29.8 years and 22.1 for Utah). (Taken from the Internet on 2 April, 2009 from R1204. Median Age at First Marriage for Men: 2005  and R1205. Median Age at First Marriage for Women: 2005 http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/GRTTable?_bm=y&-_box_head_nbr=R1204&-ds_name=ACS_2005_EST_G00_&-_lang=en&-format=US-30 and http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/GRTTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-_box_head_nbr=R1205&-ds_name=ACS_2005_EST_G00_&-_lang=en&-redoLog=false&-mt_name=ACS_2005_EST_G00_R1204_US30&-format=US-30 ).

Marriage is very popular among US adults, in part because it does offer many rewards that unmarried people don’t enjoy.  A sociologist named Linda Waite co-wrote a book with Maggie Gallagher called The Case For Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (2001, Doubleday).  Its title summarizes basic trends that have been found among married people for decades.  Marriage has become socially controversial in part because of the intense political efforts to legalize marriage for same-sex couples.  Regardless of your moral position on the issue of same-sex marriage, you can see the political quest for it as an indicator of just how rewarding it is to be legally a “married couple.”  There are numerous studies and books on the benefits of marriage to married individuals.  Table 5 lists 10 categories of these known benefits for you to consider.

Table 5. Ten Benefits of Being Married in Contrast to Being Single

  • Better physical and emotional health
  • More wealth and income
  • Positive social status
  • More and safer sex
  • Life-long continuity of intimate relationships
  • Safer circumstances for children
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Lower odds of being crime victims
  • Enhanced legal and insurance rights and benefits (tax, medical, and inheritance)
  • Higher self-reported happiness

Keep in mind as you think about this, that a toxic marriage has never been universally shown to be better than being unmarried or never married.  It would be unwise to marry carelessly.  It would also be unwise to think that once you marry you are at the end of your problems.  A newlywed once told her mother that “now that I’m married I’m at the end of all my problems.”  Her mother wisely replied, “which end, dear?”  Marriage requires preventative, proactive, consistent, and timely maintenance to be rewarding and satisfying.  The bottom line is that the burden of your marital quality falls to you and your spouse.