toplines: The Old and the Restless

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The State of Matrimony Marriage rate declines as divorce and cohabitation increases.

Mae West was ahead of her time when she quipped that while marriage was a great institution, she wasn't fond of living in institutions. An increasing number of Americans share similar sentiments, according to "The State of Our Unions," the latest annual study from The National Marriage Project at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Over the past four decades, the number of couples tying the knot has steadily declined, as the number of divorces, cohabiting unmarried couples, and children living in single-parent households has increased.

"Our divorce culture has scared young people - whose parents or friend's parents may have divorced - into waiting longer to marry, or perhaps never marry at all," says David Popenoe, a sociologist and co-director of The National Marriage Project.

The number of marriages per thousand unmarried women aged 15 and older has fallen from 77 in 1970 to 50 in 1996, the latest year for which data is available, according to the report. This coincides with an overall decrease in the number of married folks in the total 15 and over population: 58 percent of men and 55 percent of women sported a wedding band in 1998, down from 69 percent of men and 66 percent of women who did so in 1960. And many people are choosing never to walk down the aisle at all. In 1960, 94 percent of women had been married at least once by age 45, but if current trends continue, fewer than 85 percent of today's young adults will ever marry.

The lovebirds who do decide to get hitched are waiting longer to do so. The average age at first marriage is now 25 for women and 27 for men, up from 20 and 23, respectively, in 1960. Yet, even maturity does not guarantee happily ever after. Today, couples have a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of divorce or permanent separation, according to the study. While divorce rates have declined slightly since the 1980s, they have increased dramatically overall since 1960, when there were about nine divorces a year per thousand married women. This number peaked at 23 divorces per thousand in 1980, and dropped slightly to 20 in 1998.

However, all this doesn't mean that men and women have stopped fighting over the ups and downs of the toilet seat. Since 1960, the number of unmarried sexual partners sharing a household has grown from 439,000 to over 4 million in 1998, an almost 1,000 percent increase. It is estimated that one-quarter of single women aged 25 to 39 are currently living with a boyfriend, and an additional one-quarter have lived with one at some point in their lives.

These marriage, divorce, and cohabitation trends have had an effect on children as well, say the authors. Overall, fertility rates for women in the U.S. have fallen from about 3.7 births per woman in 1960 to 2.1 in 1998, which is a slight recovery from the 1980 low of 1.8 births per woman. And a growing number of households have decided to postpone or forego the joys of parenthood altogether. In 1960, 49 percent of all households had at least one child under 18 in residence, while in 1998 this figure fell to 34 percent.

For those households that do have kids, the scenario is less Cosby Show and more Ricki Lake than ever. Sixty-eight percent of children under 18 today live with two parents, down from 88 percent in 1960. But these figures do not necessarily mean two biological parents: About 12 percent to 13 percent of all children live in a stepparent household. Approximately 20 million kids live in a single-parent household.

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