Heartbeat: The Marriage Malaise

Marriage rates are as low as they’ve been in a century. Here’s why it matters.

By Dr. Pepper Schwartz June 23, 2022

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Seattle magazine.

Is marriage becoming a bridge too far?

I’ve been thinking about marriage lately. Or non-marriage, as it turns out.

The stats for the last couple of years show fewer people marrying than a decade ago, people marrying later, and that while married people are happier than unmarried people, surveys show they are not as happy as they were previously.

What’s going on here?

When I was in my 20s, I was a critic of marriage. I’m not now. Then, it seemed oppressive. In the late ’60s and ’70s, marriage was still mired in rigid gender roles, and for young feminists like me, it seemed like an unforgiving trap. But over the years, gender roles were challenged, and people customized their marriages. Now, while there are plenty of couples who still want traditional marital roles, there are also people who are comfortable and creative about how marriage and the family can be constructed.

Men can be the primary parent, women can be the primary earner, money can be held separately, spouses can even live in different homes. With these freedoms to innovate, marriage appealed to me since nothing else in my opinion offers such a clear mutual intention of trying to love each other for the rest of our lives.

But the facts are that more people are staying single longer and that the number of people who might never marry is higher than at any other time in the past 100 years. Why?

One explanation I find convincing has been made by the eminent social scientist, Andrew Cherlin. He wrote an article on “Marriage as a Capstone Event,” meaning that at one time, people used to marry and then face life together not knowing what lay ahead, but committing themselves to take the journey as a couple, come what may.

Today, however, Cherlin says people delay marriage and get educated, go to work, create a life and then search for a worthy partner. Marriage becomes the cherry on top of the life-achievement sundae. Looking at this picture, I immediately see the problem: We don’t try to get married until we accomplish a lot, so we are older and pickier when we think about finding a life partner. All this creating a life takes a long time, and by the time we feel like a burnished product ourselves, we are no longer surrounded by as many other single people as we would be at the end of high school or college.

Furthermore, we are no longer in love with the possible person. We are faced with the reality of who this person is, which is rarely as great as what we had fantasized would be the case. And if he or she is just as amazing as we thought they would be — guess what — there is serious competition for that person or they are already off the market.

As we edge into our 30s, we have usually picked up some emotional bruises from unfulfilling dating, but we have also created a comfy life — a job, friends, a cool apartment, a great dog. Now the heat to pick a great partner/parent has been turned up and so the going is rough. After a few more failed relationships or time alone, we decide that finding “the one” is never going to happen, and perhaps we slide into dating or living with Mr. or Mrs. Goodenough, or someone we kind of know isn’t going to work out, and that lasts for a few years. And so, marriage drifts away.

Here is the conundrum. Cohabitation is also part of this equation. Cohabiting has become a part of courtship for an increasing number of people in the United States and around the world. About 80% of Americans want to rent before they buy, so a few failed cohabitations later (fewer than half end in marriage) and suddenly we are rethinking marriage and parenthood as we run out of time to be young parents.

I think a kind of resignation happens as goals change. Marriage becomes optional, and trying to find someone becomes sporadic or not at all. Women go on “girl’s trips” and a lot of men stop going anywhere besides work and home or the gym.

I don’t have any magic solution to all this, but I do believe marriage is worth fighting for. And I also think it’s never too late. We’d have a lot better luck finding a great mate if we didn’t make our requirements so ridiculously difficult. But I am going to save more commentary on that for a later column.

So, what’s on your mind?

Q: Both my husband and I think our daughter’s boyfriend is very controlling and we were so surprised she was putting up with it. He picks out her clothes for her and he wants her to call him all the time to know where she is. I need her to see what we saw but I am afraid that any criticism of him might drive her further into the relationship. What is a better way to help get her out of there?
It sounds like you have something to worry about. While picking out clothes for your girlfriend can be a sweet gesture, it can also be a form of controlling everything about her, starting with clothes, and then perhaps going on to activities, friends, relationship with parents, etc. The checking up on her makes me suspicious that your fear is justified. Secure people don’t call all the time to know where their partner is. They assume all is well unless they are called and told otherwise. They assume their partner is loyal unless they have obvious proof that they are not. In a healthy relationship, people should feel comfortable with not knowing or controlling every detail of their partner’s life.
But as you say, how do you comment without getting distanced from your daughter? If you are right about this guy, he would like nothing better than to isolate her from her friends and family. I would give her a good book about this problem and ask her to look it over and see if it sounds useful to her. I recommend “Emotional Abuse” by Nora Femenia. If this does not appeal to her, you might talk to a close friend and see if she is willing to chat with her about the warning signals in the relationship. It is also possible, however, that your daughter knows all this and is actually frightened about leaving.
You can ask her if she is worried about the relationship and if so, would she like any support and or recommendations for resources. If she says no, there’s not much you can do except be there to support her when and if she does decide this relationship is wrong for her.

Q: My wife and I have a perfectly acceptable sex life but she wants some fantasy stuff that I don’t think I can do. She wants us to do “role playing,” and I feel stupid trying to be someone that I am not. She is disappointed but I don’t know how to handle this. What can I read about this, or do you have suggestions that won’t make me feel silly?
Well, since feeling silly is not a turn-on in general, I am not going to advise you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable instead of sexy. But you might think of dipping your toe in the water a bit to see if there is anything in it for you.
Here are two things you might try: Meet your wife at a bar and pretend it’s the first time you are meeting. By doing this in public, it will help you stay in character. It could be sweet and, if you get bold, erotic. For example, you might get increasingly flirtatious with one another and act as if you are trying to get her in bed and she could respond flirtatiously (or you can be the one she is trying to coax into bed). If you are feeling brave, you or she can suggest some of the things you like to do with each other, as if you were suggesting them for the first time. Even if it’s just pretend chit chat at the bar, she’s going to love the effort you are making. (And so will the people at the bar who are getting turned on eavesdropping).
If that works and you want another idea – or you can’t bear the thought of doing anything public – how about getting in the front seat of your car and pretending you are the chauffeur while your wife gets in the back seat and pretends to be your customer. Again, you could do increasingly flirtatious talk. Ending, one hopes, in a great night in bed, or in the back seat.
If all of this sounds awful to you, one more thought: Go online together and pick out an erotic or explicitly sexy movie. Plan a night with wine or champagne and then watch the movie together. If you both get turned on (this might take about 30 seconds into the movie), you both might be inspired to make love. Yeah, it isn’t role playing, but if it’s something you don’t ordinarily do, she is going to appreciate the innovation — which, I think, is mostly what she is asking for.

Have a question for Dr. Pepper Schwartz? Send it to Pepper@seattlemag.com.

About the Heartbeat: Ask Dr. Pepper Schwartz Column

Welcome to my world!

I spend a lot of time thinking about intimate relationships.

If you’ve read any of my previous work as a professor at the University of Washington, or watched me on television, you know that I care about what keeps people together, what drives them apart and what gives them pleasure. I am curious about trends, but also unique behaviors. I look at people above the clavicle and below the waist. It’s all interesting and important to me.

I know it is to you, too. I want to hear what you’re thinking. Please ask me questions or give your point of view at Pepper@seattlemag.com and I will respond, if appropriate, online and perhaps in print.

Let’s have some meaningful conversations – and some fun while we’re at it!

So, what’s on my mind today?


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