Three 'Rules' That Don't Apply
A Historian Upends Conventional Wisdom.

Newsweek, Monday June 5, 2006
By Stephanie Coontz

June 5, 2006 issue - Marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the previous 300. People today have unprecedented freedom about whether, when and whom to marry, and they are making those decisions free from the huge social and economic pressures that once had them marching in lockstep.

In such periods of massive change and diversification, it is useless to see averages as descriptions of the typical experience. They are simply the artificial addition of the experiences of many different subgroups, each of which may be going in a different direction, divided by the total number of people. That is why so many old assumptions and predictions have turned out to be wrong.

When I look at the 1986 NEWSWEEK story, I see three old "rules" of marriage that are particularly bad guides for modern relationships. Two have already been overturned. And the third is in the process of being overturned.

The first is that women who delay marriage are condemning themselves to lifelong singlehood. This had some truth in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the economic and social pressures to marry early were enormous. One psychiatrist wrote in 1953 that "a girl who hasn't a man in sight by the time she is 20 is not altogether wrong in fearing that she may never get married." So women made sure to set their sights on a potential husband early. The average age of first marriage was 20, with the greatest single number of women marrying at 18. Very few women married for the first time after 24. It was easy to assume that a woman who hadn't married by the end of her 20s would never marry.

That turned out to be wrong. As more women went to school and worked for a longer period of time, the average age of marriage rose. But perhaps more important, the breakdown of the rigid, cookie-cutter life course of the 1950s created more variation in when people left home, went to work and got married, so there was a wider range of dispersal from the average. This is a different world than the 1950s. The average age at first marriage for women is now almost 26. For women with a B.A. it is more than 27, and for women with master's or professional degrees it is 30. And there is huge variation within each average, so that more women now marry for the first time in their 40s, 50s and even 60s than ever before in history.

The second "rule" is that women who remain single to pursue higher education or a successful career are less likely to marry. That was true for hundreds of years, and remained true for women born up to 1960, those who reached marriageable age in the 1980s. So as late as 1986 it seemed a safe prediction. But even then it was already being overturned. For women born since 1960, this rule has ceased to apply. Today, although the average college grad marries almost two years later than the average woman-and the average women who gets an advanced degree marries almost five years later-they are more likely to marry than women with low levels of education.

This "rule" has recently been recycled as women's graduation rates have outstripped men's. Many people claim men aren't willing to marry educated, independent women. But that's no longer true. Men are now much more likely to marry women who are their educational and economic peers. Also, the pool of men available to older women has grown because women are now more willing to marry younger men, and younger men are now more willing to marry them.

The third "rule" is that people who marry earlier and later than average have a higher risk of divorce. On average, that's still true. But those averages are derived from a world that no longer describes the lives of most educated women who postpone marriage, and I believe this rule may be on its way out, too. The people who married late used to be those who were least competitive in the marriage market. But today, with educated and professional women having a much better chance of marrying late than women with low education or earnings, my educated guess is that this old rule will also cease to apply.

The divorce rate has gone down for college-educated women in the last two decades, while it has gone up for those without college. And it is college-educated women who have the best chance of marrying late. Women with education and earnings have more ability to leave a bad marriage, but they also have more ability to change the terms of marriage to make them more satisfying for both partners. And they are the ones most likely to choose husbands who support equality.

So the bottom line is, chart your own course. Don't rush into marriage because some so-called expert waves depressing averages at you. Don't avoid it because you fear divorce. Marriage is more work today than it was at a time when gender roles were nonnegotiable, when men had the legal right to the final say in many family arguments and when women had to stick it out because they couldn't afford to leave. But the payoffs of a good marriage are also higher than in the past. And many of the older marriages being contracted now are between people who have the skills to construct those good marriages-more egalitarian men, more savvy women and lovers who have deeper friendships.

Coontz is the author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage" (Viking). She is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

© 2006

URL: http://msnbc.msncom/id/13006808/site/newsweek/

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