Many conservatives now concede they've lost the argument on same-sex marriage. The question is not if but when full marriage equality will prevail in the United States, and what the effects will be. But as much as we've talked about marriage in recent months, most of the debate has been lacking in context about the state of marriage in America today. We'll get to the data in a moment, but first, a few brief words about the history of marriage. Supporters of "traditional" marriage often express their fear that if gay people are allowed to marry, the institution will be transformed. The truth, however, is that marriage has already been transformed, not just in the United States but around the world. We're now seeing simply the latest phase of a long evolution.
When people refer to "traditional" marriage, they're usually talking about developments that occurred only within the last couple of centuries of marriage's history. If you advocate "biblical" marriage, you're speaking in favor of polygamy; couples joined together for a couple of thousand years before churches and states began to get involved at all, and while we now think of the idea of one family selling its daughter to another family in a purely commercial transaction as monstrous, that would be "traditional" marriage too. That's not even to mention the changes just within the last century that made it legal for people of different races to marry, or gave women the same rights as men in marriages.
Perhaps the most significant change in United States marriage law until recently was the adoption of no-fault divorce laws, the first of which was California's, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1969. Within a decade and a half, every state but New York had followed suit, the result of which was that couples who wanted a divorce no longer had to testify to the state that one spouse had abused, cheated on, or abandoned the other (strangely, New York did not pass no-fault divorce until 2010). Divorce rates did indeed rise (as we'll see in a moment), but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing; an easier path to divorce meant that couples that should never have been together in the first place, or whose marriages had become untenable, were more likely to dissolve them and move on with their lives. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers analyzed data from before and after states adopted no-fault divorce, and found that the change in the law led to significant decreases in suicides among women and cases of domestic violence.
Along with a series of social trends, no-fault divorce helped bring us to the situation we have today, where marriage is considered to be a union of two equal partners, entered into freely for their own well-being and that of their children, should they choose to have them.
Every year, about two million Americans get hitched. Nevertheless, those who lament the decline of marriage are right about one thing: Marriage rates have indeed gone down over the last 30 years. A look at marriage rates since the Civil War shows that for much of the country's history, every year there were around nine to ten marriages for every 1,000 Americans. During the Depression, marriage rates dropped, from 10.1 in 1929 down to 7.9 by 1932. The biggest year for marriage in American history was 1946, when the rate leaped to 16.4 after World War II's end.
The current decline in marriage began in the mid-1980s. The last year the rate exceed ten marriages per 1,000 population was 1985, and it has declined steadily since then; in 2011, the rate was 6.8. But something else has been happening at the same time: Divorce has been declining, too. In the 19th century, divorce was incredibly rare. The divorce rate stayed under three per 1,000 until 1969, the year Reagan signed California's no-fault law. It rose steadily over the next decade, finally peaking in 1981 at 5.3 per 1,000 people. Since then, however, divorce rates have been heading steadily down, and in 2011 the rate was 3.6 divorces per 1,000 people.
The decline in marriage rates, furthermore, is a worldwide phenomenon. As these data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show, marriage rates have declined in recent decades across the developed world.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have argued in the past that if a state allows gay people to get married, then marriage itself will be "devalued," and straight couples will be less likely to join in wedded bliss and more likely to dissolve the marriages they're already in. While it may be a little early to see whether these predictions turn out to be true, one thing we can say is that the states that have instituted same-sex marriage are among those with the lowest divorce rates. Not only that, the states that will probably be the last to enact marriage equality—conservative states in the South—have some of the highest rates of divorce. Of the ten states with the lowest divorce rates in 2011, five now have same-sex marriage (Iowa, Massachusetts, D.C., Maryland, and New York), and at least two others (Illinois and New Jersey) are likely to join the list in the next few years. Overall, divorce rates are highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast.
For much of American history, marriage regularly meant a couple of teenagers who barely knew each other making a lifetime commitment for which they were ill-prepared, and it was that way until fairly recently. That does not mean the typical marriage age has been rising steadily; in fact, it dipped to historic lows in the 1950s, then began to rise. In 1956, the median age of first marriage for women was 20, meaning that half of all women who married did so while they were still teenagers. Few would argue that that situation was preferable to the one we have today, where the median age of first marriage for women is a substantially more mature 26.6.
Today, around 40 percent of births are to women who aren't married. This is a significant increase over recent decades—it was 33 percent in 2000, and only 18 percent in 1980. But the increase is coming among adult women, not teenagers, and it's a good bet that more of those unmarried births are by choice. In fact, teenage pregnancies are at all-time lows. This is one of the best pieces of news we've had about marriage in recent years, but it has gone almost unnoticed.
This decline has occurred for all kinds of teenagers, but the drop has been particularly striking among African American girls. Between 1991 and 2005, the birthrate among African American girls aged 15-19 was cut in half.
Last weekend, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that just debating same-sex marriage—never mind making it legal—is weakening marriage itself. "As the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward," he wrote, "the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before." Douthat had his facts right; he just got the causality backward. As our own E.J. Graff has been arguing for some time, same-sex marriage is a consequence, not a cause, of changing views on the institution. It's true that we now think of marriage in ways the traditionalists find distressing. As a society, we accept that marriage should be a union of equals. We believe that the choice to have children is just that, a choice, and we accept that couples can live together and have children without getting married if they choose to. Our conception of family has grown wider and more inclusive. This evolution in our ideas about marriage has taken place over the last few decades, and it's the evolution that made the new majority in favor of same-sex marriage possible.