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Marriage — Only for the ‘Haves’?

In Belinda Luscombe’s recent article in Time magazine, “Who Needs Marriage? How an American Institution Is Changing,” she assess the state of marriage today, pointing out that of all the changes marriage has gone through in the last 50 years — the biggest shift being the gap between the marriage rates of rich and poor. Luscombe writes:

In 1960 the median household income of married adults was 12% higher than that of single adults, after adjusting for household size. By 2008 this gap had grown to 41%. In other words, the richer and more educated you are, the more likely you are to marry, or to be married — or, conversely, if you’re married, you’re more likely to be well off.

This is a startling statistic, one that underscores the growth of income inequality in the America in recent decades, a shift that has been met with a separate set of lifestyles and expectations for the haves and the have-nots. Marriage, as Luscombe illustrates, is for the haves, and she makes this point by citing statistics that show that married people today are more likely to have college degrees and, well, money.

In this article Luscombe does a good job of showing why marriage has declined for those without college degrees, but doesn’t get into why and how women with college degrees and professions are now more likely than they were just a couple of decades ago to get married. For a long time the vision of a progressive future included women receiving degrees and working outside the home, but not necessarily marrying. Marriage was seen as a relic of the patriarchy, an oppressive institution, and something that a progressive society would move away from. This, of course, is what has happened in Scandinavian countries — the unofficial progressive lodestar. But it appears that just the opposite is happening here, and it is better-off, independent women who are heading down the aisle.

I would be interested in seeing some academic research on this phenomenon. But in the meantime, all I can offer is a personal anecdote as an explanation. I, as someone with an advanced degree and would therefore qualify as a “have” in Luscombe’s division, see marriage not as a hindrance, but rather my chance to fulfill my personal and professional ambitions. I want a career, a family and someone I can rely on while I try to make both those things happen. I want decent real estate (or however decent a pair of writers can afford), someone to travel with and take care of me when I am sick. (I also love my husband, but love seems somewhat irrelevant here.) I see my marriage, with the security and stability it provides, as the support system I need to do these things. And because my marriage is an equal, or “companionate” one, I get this support in a true partnership.

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