Is marriage outdated? What are Americans attitudes about relationship issues?

In recent decades, the spectrum of socially accepted relationships has expanded. No-fault divorce legislation was enacted in every state (except New York) between 1969 and 1985. More recently, marriages of same-sex couples have received legal recognition in 19 states and the District of Columbia, as of July 2014.60 The family law landscape has certainly shifted rather dramatically in the past fifty years, and further changes are being debated in legislatures and courtrooms around the country. Along with legal changes in the structure of relationships, Americans have altered their behavior quite radically. Marriage rates have declined for decades. Divorce rates rose rapidly through the 1960s and 70s before peaking in the 1980s, and have been slowly declining ever since, remaining largely in step with marriage rates. What do Americans think about new forms of intimate relationships? In sections 19 to 25 we discuss these and other issues.

Figure 19.1Attitudes about relationships & marriage
AMERICANS LARGELY ARE MORE SUPPORTIVE (OR TOLERANT) OF COHABITATION, THE LEGAL RECOGNITION OF SAME-SEX UNIONS, AND NO-STRINGS-ATTACHED SEX. ALTHOUGH ONCE POPULAR, STAYING TOGETHER “FOR THE SAKE OF CHILDREN” DOESN’T SEEM TO BE SOUND ADVICE TO MANY AMERICANS. THEY ARE EVEN LESS ENAMORED OF POLYAMOROUS RELATIONSHIPS, THE NOTION THAT MARRIAGE IS OUTDATED, AND THE IDEA THAT ADULTERY MIGHT BE PERMISSIBLE, ON OCCASION.

In declining order of enthusiasm, Americans largely are more supportive (or tolerant) of cohabitation, the legal recognition of same-sex unions, and no-strings-attached sex. Although once popular, staying together “for the sake of children” doesn’t seem to be sound advice to many Americans. They are even less enamored of polyamorous relationships, the notion that marriage is outdated, and the idea that adultery might be permissible, on occasion. What is also of note here is how many fence-sitters there are—the share of adults who neither agreed nor disagreed with the statements posed to them. Given time, neutrality in the sphere of family change tends to track in the direction of greater acceptance. But this is not universally the case, or randomly so, and attitude shifts occasionally slow, stop, or even begin to reverse.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these seven attitudes in Sections 19-25. Sections 19-25 show breakdowns of attitudes towards each of these social issues by religious affiliation. Appendix B provides supplementary material that shows the attitudes of those who attend worship services three or more times a month for those religious groups where the sample size is sufficient to make reliable estimates.

Figure 19.2Marriage is an outdated institution

Is marriage outdated?

As noted above, marriage rates in the U.S. remain on the decline. Does this signal that Americans perceive marriage as outdated? Perhaps more than before, but Americans are still pretty enamored of marriage. It’s hardly antiquated in their minds. Nearly seven times as many adults said marriage is not outdated as said it is (66 percent vs. 10 percent).

Although young Americans are more likely to think marriage is outdated, a majority at every age disagrees, and the differences between age groups do not appear to be substantial.

Historically, most marriages have involved both religious ceremonies as well as state recognition of the union. Church and State have long played complementary roles in the process of discerning and regulating marriage, but their distinctive roles are a subject of increasing disagreement and contest, including between faith traditions. In general, Christians disagree that marriage is outdated, with only small variations between groups. Hindus, Jews, and Muslims are similarly conservative. Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated tend to be more ambivalent on the issue, but even among them fewer people agree that marriage is outdated than disagree.

In the end, America still likes marriage-however defined—though perhaps not as universally as in the past and a little bit later in the life course.


60Same Sex Marriage State-by-State,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. June 25, 2014. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

Next: Is no-strings-attached sex OK?
Click to Navigate
Religion
Relationships and Sex
Marriage and Divorce
Family Attitudes
About the Report
Contact Us

Questions, media inquiries, and comments should be directed to our research team. They can be reached by email at research@austin-institute.org. If you find this information interesting and helpful, we also invite you to visit our website, like us on Facebook, or share stories on social media.