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.