At 36, Kristy Litz has watched most of her girlfriends marry and alight to the suburbs to start families.
But marriage is nowhere on Litz's agenda. She wants children, and ideally a partner, but she has seen enough people divorce that she doesn't see the point of walking down the aisle.
"Marriage doesn't seem to make life better," said Litz, who works in operations management and enjoys being able to vacation, watch TV and go out with friends whenever she pleases. "I'm not saying love isn't worth it, but I haven't met anyone worth giving up my current life for."
Over the past 50 years, marriage has slid from an economic and sexual necessity for women to an optional milestone, thanks to birth control and women in the workplace, plus, for both men and women, the waning stigma of singledom later in life. .
Married couples now represent less than half of American households, according to 2010 census data, down from 78 percent in 1950. A Pew Research Center survey published last year found that 52 percent of Americans were married in 2008, down from 72 percent in 1960, while the percentage of never-married Americans climbed to 27 percent from 15 percent. Meantime, the number of unmarried cohabiting couples has grown tenfold, the census shows.
The data don't necessarily mean fewer people will marry over the course of their lives; rather, it reflects that people are marrying later and often living together first, said Judith Stacey, a sociologist at New York University and author of this year's "Unhitched" (NYU Press). The average age of first marriage has climbed "astonishingly" fast, Stacey said, from 20 in 1960 to 28 today.
But there has undeniably been a cultural shift.
"I think we're at a crucial point where marriage is going from being the expected, traditional, assumed way of living to one that's very much in question," said Bella DePaulo, visiting professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara and author of several books about choosing singlehood, including this year's "Singlism" (DoubleDoor).
The Pew survey found that 39 percent of Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete. But as the fight for same-sex marriage shows, it remains highly valued, and most young people aspire to marry even as they condone alternative family structures.
In interviews with 120 young adults for her 2009 book "The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work and Gender in America" (Oxford), New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson found that the overwhelming majority plan to marry, but they're not in a hurry, and if they can't meet the high standards they have for themselves or their partner, they're OK staying unwed.
Both young men and women want marriage to entail lasting commitment, independence and flexible gender norms of how spouses are supposed to behave, Gerson said. They're wary of divorce but wouldn't stay in a bad relationship. Half of the young adults she interviewed whose parents stayed together said they may have been better off if their parents had divorced.
Ironically, Gerson said, as marriage becomes less something that everyone has to do, it's become more symbolically valued, as the primary reason to do it is love.
Of course, another big draw of marriage is the legal benefits. That's the only reason Katia Garrett and Don Salzman married after 21 years of unwedded bliss, during which time they'd bought a house together and had two kids.
Garrett, 51, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., for years opposed marriage because she believed it locked people into husband and wife roles — he's the breadwinner, she maintains the house — that she wanted no part of. By staying unmarried, Garrett felt, she and Salzman could more consciously negotiate how they wanted their relationship to function without bending to assumptions.
Once they had kids, the protections legal marriage affords, such as Social Security benefits if someone dies and hospital visits if someone gets sick, became more important. But aside from those protections, a great party and having a wedding anniversary (which Garrett can never remember), marriage has made no difference.
But haven't studies shown married people to be healthier and happier?
DePaulo, whose book "Singlism" discusses discrimination against singles in our "matrimaniacal" society, said those studies unfairly count only married couples who have stayed married (and therefore probably like it), and not those who abandoned ship, which gives a misleading message that marriage necessarily leads to greater happiness.
She points to one German study that found marriage gave a temporary bump in life satisfaction around the time of the wedding, but after several years happiness returned to premarital levels. Those who ended up getting divorced, meanwhile, had lower life satisfaction during marriage, the study found.
And what about the security of having a lifelong companion as you age? DePaulo, who is 57 and happily never married, said studies show married couples spend less time than singles calling, writing and visiting with their friends, neighbors and extended family. Putting all their eggs in the marital basket can make married people more vulnerable if something happens to their spouse, she said.
Pamela Haag, author of the new book "Marriage Confidential" (Harper Collins), believes marriage isn't dying so much as adapting to a "post-romantic" spirit that doesn't assume a spouse must be your end-all, be-all forever, which has become a tall order now that people are living so long.
Instead of taking or leaving the institution as is, some couples are adapting marriage rules to fit what they need, be it by loosening expectations of monogamy or committing just to co-parent until the kids are grown up, Haag said.
Rather than fret about the potential pitfalls of shifting marriage expectations, Gerson said it would be more helpful to create a culture that addresses the new challenges, such as more flexible jobs and social policies that treat unmarried and married people equally.
"For better or worse," Gerson said, "these changes are here to stay."
What about the kids?
At the National Marriage Project, a research initiative at the University of Virginia, a primary concern is how postponing or opting out of marriage affects kids, 24 percent of whom are now born to unmarried cohabiting partners.
In a just-released report, the group called cohabiting couples "the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children's family lives." Cohabiting couples with kids are more than twice as likely as married couples to break up before the child is 12, the report said, and family instability has been linked to school failure, behavioral problems, drug use, physical abuse and loneliness.
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, worries that when young adults hold out for a "soul mate" marriage, rather than viewing marriage as a social good, childbearing becomes a separate, spouse-less journey. In a 2010 Pew Research survey, 52 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life, while just 30 percent said the same about having a successful marriage, suggesting they're increasingly disconnecting the two institutions. (When young adults were asked the same questions in 1997, 42 percent said parenting and 35 percent said successful marriage.)
While the vast majority of kids in any family arrangement do just fine, on average children thrive better in an intact married household, Wilcox said.
But even putting kids aside, Wilcox challenges attitudes that marriage is merely a piece of paper. The collective ritual sends an important signal to couples and their community that they take certain norms seriously, he said, and the outside support and accountability helps the health of relationships.
"You'd be a lot more concerned about seeing a married friend who is two-timing than a cohabiting friend who is cheating on his girlfriend," Wilcox said.
Other scholars dispute the prevailing consensus that marriage is better for kids and couples than other arrangements.
Judith Stacey, whose book "Unhitched" explores marriage and family setups in different cultures, said kids need a consistent, attached, decent relationship with at least one adult, preferably two, but marital status doesn't matter. What's more damaging to kids not living with their married biological mom and dad is living in a culture that stigmatizes it, she said.
Why the decline?
The brunt of the marriage decline has occurred among moderately and least-educated Americans, perhaps because the loss of manufacturing jobs has left people feeling financially ill-equipped to marry, but also because shifting social mores have left them less marriage-minded, said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. College-educated Americans have the most stable marriage culture.
Between 1960 and 2008, marriage rates dropped to:
64% from 76% among college-educated Americans.
50% from 72% among Americans with some college.
48% from 69% among Americans with a high school education or less.
Source: Pew Research Center