I never planned to get married at the early-spring age of 23. While all my friends were either pairing off or pining to do so, I was plotting how to live several years on each of the seven continents (yes, even chilly, dark Antarctica). Husbands and babies were the farthest things from my mind, and at 23, I had room and time enough to be cavalier about my singleness. I knew my desire for adventure and my lack of desire for marriage were unusual at the time, but I never felt insecure or ashamed. But everything changed when I met Paul. I still wanted to be adventurous and travel the world—I just wanted to marry him more.
As it turns out, being a single female in today's world is not that unusual. Studies show that more women than ever before are choosing to remain single. According to a New York Times analysis of census results, 35 percent of women over the age of 15 in the Leave It to Beaver days of the 1950s were single. That number jumped to 49 percent in 2000 and to 51 percent in 2005.
Since 1960, the number of married people in the overall population has dropped from 72 percent to 51 percent, and 5 percent of that 20-year drop occurred from 2009-2010. Researchers can't say for sure, but they think the large uptick in the percentage of single people might have something to do with the economic downturn, and many single women agree.
According to Kate Bolick, contributing editor for The Atlantic, more and more women are remaining single due to a shortage of "marriageable" men—men who earn more money and are more educated. The perfect storm of women's ascent in society and the simultaneous decline in life prospects for men has led to a "crisis in gender" in which women must choose between deadbeats and players.
For Bolick, the economic crisis has split the dating pool into two camps: deadbeats who are unemployed, underemployed, or uneducated, and the playboys who eschew commitment because the demand for successful men outnumbers the supply. These changes come in conjunction with the tendency for people to marry later and marry less, and the ability to have a biological child without a physical partner.
Bolick's article is emblematic of a number of concerning ideas swirling in contemporary culture related to the nature of marriage. The following three are particularly egregious, in that they reduce the concept of marriage in such a way that "marriage" is seen as obsolete and altogether different from what God intended.
Marriage as an economic institution. For the broad swath of human history, economics has been an important factor in deciding whom to marry, particularly among the upper class. If two people wanted to marry for love, they either paid a penalty or did so against the wishes of their family.
When Bolick calls men who have lost jobs or taken pay cuts due to harsh economic times "deadbeats" who are "unmarriageable," she reduces marriage to an economic institution. Bolick is expressing something that has been happening in Western culture for the last several years.
Thanks to the women's movement, women are earning more now than at any other time in history, and they no longer need to depend on marriage for economic stability. To illustrate what a huge seismic shift this is, consider: just 50 years ago, most women needed their husband's signature to open a checking account. Today a woman is the CEO of one of the nation's top 20 banks. This economic freedom makes marriage seem obsolete for many.
Marriage as a context for children. Studies show that children are happier in traditional, two-parent families. Bolick thinks the key to fewer unhappy families is not establishing more traditional families, but coming to grips with these changes in marriage, intimacy, and kinship. For example, as an alternative to the nuclear family, she suggests the collaborative raising of children by a group of women who reside together—a variant of the social structure demonstrated by the Mosuo people in China.
Again, for most of human history, marriage was the context in which to have children, but that's no longer the case for many people living in Western culture. Families have changed so dramatically that only 3 of 10 children live in traditional families with two parents in their first and only marriage.
Almost a quarter of all children live in legally married blended stepfamilies, and this number increases when co-habiting couples are included. The categories of family types beyond the traditional ones include single parent due to divorce, death, abandonment, in-vitro fertilization, or mother never married; stepfamily; blended family; foster family; co-habiting family; grand-parented family; and homosexual family.
This breakdown in the nuclear family, along with women's ability to conceive through in-vitro fertilization, reduces the apparent need for a stable marriage in which to conceive and raise children. Further, reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization greatly diminish the role and identity of men and minimize the gratifying, mutually beneficial relationship that men and women were designed to have.
Marriage as sharing life, hearth, and home. In 1953, sociologist Ray E. Baber said that the "opportunity which marriage affords for constant and complete companionship with the person most loved, with the full sanction of society, is its greatest single attraction." Prior to 1960, living with a person of the opposite sex who was not your spouse would have been unthinkable. Marriage was the way to share life and a home with another person.
Despite some studies that seem to point to the contrary, couples who cohabit before marriage tend to be less satisfied with marriage and are more likely to either never marry or divorce. Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist in Virginia, says that couples tend to "slide" into cohabitation. "Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope," she writes, "one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean."
Yet despite the gloomy predictions for cohabiting couples, cohabitation in the United States has increased 1,500 percent in the last 50 years. In 1960, about 450,000 married couples lived together. Today that number is more than 7.5 million. However, most people still hold up marriage as the ideal even if they defer it or reject it for themselves. In a 2010 study, 91% of all adults reported they either were married or planned to be one day.
Economics, the context to conceive and raise children, and sharing a living situation with another person are important aspects of marriage, but they don't reflect the totality of what God intended for marriage. Author and professor David Gushee states that marriage is not simply about economics, children, or companionship, but a structure of creation, an institutional framework embedded within us before we left the Garden.
If we are to believe the biblical record, this has important implications for thinking rightly about marriage. First, marriage is an essential institution designed to meet a fundamental need that humans already have. Gushee writes, "Whatever marriage is, it is for all. This does not mean that every adult is required to marry; the New Testament teaches that celibate singleness is an option."
Gushee argues that solving the problem regarding the breakdown of marriage means aligning our views on marriage with the creation design for marriage. We understand, rightly, the importance of marriage for companionship, children, sex, and society, for these are related to flourishing marriages.
But when we cling to reductionist views about marriage—as if these things can be ideally pursued outside marriage—we miss another important dimension of marriage: covenant, a relationship forged by commitment. While marriage itself was created before the Fall, the necessity of covenant enters the story.
Through covenant, faithless people are required to keep faith: the sexually frustrated will remain sexually faithful, the bone-tired will follow through on parental responsibilities, the troubled will stay when the going gets tough. It's easy to say "I do" as I did, barefoot on the beach outside Santa Barbara. It's much harder to follow through day in and day out, through thick and thin and sticky places.
Of course, some would argue that since we can meet these fundamental needs apart from marriage, covenant is no longer necessary. Gushee disagrees. The benefits of marriage "cannot be reliably sought—let alone achieved—outside of a context of covenantal fidelity and permanence" because of the sinful conditions we live under. Only through confidence in the permanence and exclusivity of our relationship can we reap the benefits God intended for marriage.
Halee Gray Scott is an author, independent scholar, and researcher. Her PhD work at Talbot School of Theology focused on leadership development and spiritual formation. She blogs at hgscott.com. Halee lives in Holland, MI, with her husband Paul, daughters Ellie and Viv, and Patience, her Carolina dog.