THE BLOG
03/16/2011 03:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Needs Marriage?

In 2009 -- 2010 there was a 13% jump in couples living together, and the number of cohabitation keeps growing. Sure, we can blame it on the bum economy, but maybe the reality is marriage is simply out-dated. It's had it's time. It's played out.

When I was researching my book, I talked to a lot of seniors who were heartbroken when their kids' split, and many who couldn't be happier. Never thought she/he was good enough. By and large the older generation was hopeful their divorced son or daughter would find happiness down the road. It was just a matter of finding the right person. The question that loomed was whether or not their divorced child was willing to chance it again. Remarriage is also on the downswing.

This raises the question about the next crop of marriage eligible men and women -- the 20-somethings. Having surveyed the divorce landscape, are they asking, "Who Needs Marriage?"

According to the Pew Research Center's findings ("The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families") although 44 percent of Americans under the age of 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only five percent of those in the age group do not want to get married. Also, college graduates are more likely to get married in order to start families (64 percent) than those with no college education (48 percent). In 1960 nearly 70 percent of Americans took the plunge; now only about half that number, and eight times as many kids are born out of wedlock (TIME/Pew survey).

I am an instructor of basic composition at a community college. My students are primarily Generation Y. I was curious about their views of marriage so, on Valentine's Day, I assigned an excerpt from Laura Kipnis's essay "Against Love." (The piece appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2001.)

Before I tell you what I learned, let me summarize some of Kipnis's key arguments:

  • Marriage no longer serves its purpose. It was fine back in the days when marriages were business arrangements between families. But now that marriage is based on romance, it's no longer sustainable.
  • Ultimately, passion dies in long term unions. In order to renew desire, partners plug away at sex like assembly line workers.
  • Divorce is a predictable outcome of marriage. "...[It's]a modern technique for achieving what was once taken care of far more efficiently by early mortality."
  • Monogamy boxes us in. It subjugates us, takes away our freedom. You can't leave the house without saying where you're going. You can't be a slob, leave the dishes for later, drink straight from the carton, etc. etc.
  • Rather than police ourselves, what we need is a different social contract to take the place of marriage.

Needless to say, our discussion was lively. Hands flew up, even from those who had been stealthy text-messaging their friends. The students were convinced Kipnis is a frustrated old bag who got kicked in the ass by some dude who left her crying at the altar. I explained that the voice of her "polemic" isn't, by Kipnis's own admission, precisely hers. She delights in being playful, completely irresponsible. When I asked the students to write their views: Do you agree that marriage is out-dated? Is adultery the best escape hatch for domestic confinement? Do you see marriage in your future? , I got the following comments:


"I strongly believe in everlasting love and passion, and won't settle for anything less than someone who loves me and who I can love in return." This from a student whose parents are separated.

"Just because one relationship has failed does not mean that finding someone to spend the rest of your life with is not possible. Finding love is a live and learn experience."

"I think we need to work hard enough in our sex and relationships, as hard as we work in our jobs."

"In my opinion I think love can last forever, and it will if someone really tries hard enough. When we find our soul mate we like to think that they will be as sweet as that first day when we met, but that's never the case. People change; we just have to accept each other for who we are, and doing that is what is called love."

"A relationship is about making sacrifices. Nothing is easy in life and if a person wants the togetherness to continue there are things that have to be done. Keep in mind that if a person is not fulfilled at home, they will go find what's missing in someone else. In my opinion, I much rather give the relationship my all than push my partner to commit adultery."

"Kipnis made me realize how happy I am with my chosen partner. I still maintain that we have our highs and lows together; and that sometimes I question what I am doing, but when I see her smile, I remember why I am with her and how much I love her."

"Wolves mate for life, so why can't humans? Keeping the passion alive in a relationship is fun. It gives the couple a chance to be creative, try something new and make new memories together. When the passion is reborn anew, it's an amazing feeling, almost as if falling in love all over again.

"Even though my parents did divorce, a true rock solid relationship can be obtained if love is strong."

"It's not about if the passion dies or the sex isn't enough or anything that Kipnis is arguing about. It's about if there was ever passion in the first place. The word love is being thrown around as if it were a football."

"I still believe that romance and sexual attraction between two people can really last a lifetime. If you do not take a chance with your heart then you will never know how it really feels to be loved. Yes, there is the chance of you getting your heart broken, but a broken heart will not last a lifetime because there are many more fish in the sea."

"Some people don't get it right the first time they marry somebody, but I believe that, in the end, everybody ends up with who they should be with."

"One thing that modern society is teaching us about marriage is if you get married and it doesn't work out, that it's ok to get divorced, that it's ok to think you're in love and decide to make a commitment that's supposed to last a lifetime, and then not live up to that commitment. If you think about it, this message is everywhere, in music, in TV, in the movies, plays books, etc.

"People seem to get married for the wrong reasons: for money or they feel that they are getting too old. You rarely see people getting married because the love they have for other one is so strong, they cannot imagine their life without them."

"If we decide to be against love, then we are not going to have a fully completed life because we will never had those butterflies in our stomach and we will never have experienced the beautiful feeling of being loved and to love somebody else. ... We are putting our hearts on the line, but when we do find the right person, the one that completes that missing piece .. . then all the pain will be worth it in the end."

While this is just a sampling, it is fairly representative of the responses I got. These young people know that love is fragile. Marriage takes work. They've seen the failures. They are still willing to take that risk. But what about future generations? Will the institution of marriage survive long-term?