Image: Britain's Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton
Kirsty Wigglesworth  /  AP
Britain's Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton are a typically modern couple who are living together before marriage.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/18/2010 12:24:59 PM ET 2010-11-18T17:24:59

Ah, romance! A mere two days after the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton set hearts aflutter, a new study shows that nearly 40 percent of Americans think the institution of marriage is becoming obsolete .

The Pew Research Center survey only confirms what many of us don't want to admit: Marriage is optional. It's become a menu choice rather than the central organizing principle of our society.

Four in 10 say marriage is becoming obsolete

Despite the rapture over William and Kate’s fairy tale engagement, their real-life relationship isn’t a contradiction of the Pew findings. They’re actually a typically modern couple who have been living together for the last eight months in Angelsey, Wales, and years before when they attended university. In what may be the most surprising sign of the times, Queen Elizabeth is said to have been quite delighted over their royal shack-up.

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“Unlike William’s parents, this girl is not a young woman chosen because she has good blood lines or is a virgin,” said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Video: William and Kate already living together (on this page)

Other ways of living
That's the whole point. Marriage is being transformed into one in a range of choices that are selected depending on one’s circumstances and inclinations. William and Kate have been leading a life of commitment to each other for years. Now they are choosing another form to better suit their circumstances, like someday being a king.

Marriage is not going to disappear. Most Americans say they either like their own marriage, or, if they’re single, say they would like to marry eventually. And most of us will.

But we are also well aware that marriage is often a temporary condition (ask Eva Longoria), and many children are born to unmarried parents. And yet society endures. So our collective view of the institution as an indispensable part of our culture is being erased and we’ve come to see other paths as not only morally acceptable, but equally workable.  

Experts — and especially many non-experts like politicians and pundits — argue endlessly about why and about the consequences of the change. Feminism is often cited. As Coontz points out in her soon-to-be-released book,“A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s": “conventional wisdom held that marital harmony would be threatened if a woman acquired educational and economic resources of her own.” Many people still believe this.

It’s not true. In fact, as Coontz explained, and as I’ve reported before , women who are more educated and have some economic security enjoy their marriages and tend to stay married, while less educated, poorer women often find it tough to get married at all even if they want to be married which is why conservatives who say they value marriage ought to be agitating for better economic equality.

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Being richer doesn’t mean more people will marry, though. Marriage rates have been in decline in almost all affluent societies for about 50 years; we’re just catching up to Europe where marriage rates have recently shown signs of stabilizing at a new, lower level.

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That would seem to support the view that marriage isn’t ending, it is making room for other ways of living. “We are beginning to recognize reality a bit more,” Coontz said. “The reality isn’t that it is changing, it is that it has already changed.”

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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Video: Marriage fading from American mainstream

  1. Transcript of: Marriage fading from American mainstream

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We want to begin here tonight with a number that is being called a game changer for how American society might look in the years to come. Almost 40 percent of Americans now say marriage is obsolete. That's way up from just a few decades ago. More and more people see marriage as something only for those with money, if they enter into it at all. Almost one in three American children is now living with a divorced, separated or never married parent. This is in a major survey by a well-regarded research center. And if these numbers continue, it's a wholesale change to American life . We want to begin our reporting tonight with NBC 's Kevin Tibbles in Chicago .

    KEVIN TIBBLES reporting: married , two kids. But apparently, no more.

    A half century ago the Cleavers were the stereotype: Wow, times certainly have changed.

    Ms. D'VERA COHN (Pew Research Center Senior Writer): A Pew Research Center / Time magazine study found that when asked straight up, 39 percent of Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete.

    TIBBLES: We found ourselves going to very elaborate weddings and then finding that a few years later they didn't work out, so we've managed to outlast many of those people.

    Mr. GEOFF WILLERTON: I think people should get married . I think it's worth it. I think it's a commitment.

    Unidentified Woman #1: While marriage is declining in all groups, it's a choice made mostly by the college educated and financially secure, and less prevalent among those on the low end of the socioeconomic scale. And yet the concept of family in America remains vital. Three-quarters of those surveyed say their family is the most important element in their lives. But what is a family in today's America ? Eight-six percent say they would view a single parent with a child as a family , 80 percent say an unmarried couple with a child, and 63 percent say a gay or lesbian couple raising a child, whether they're allowed to marry or not.

    TIBBLES: It's confusing to people trying to figure out how this family fits together, but we are a family .

    Unidentified Woman #2: Having children outside of wedlock has increased substantially. In 1960 , just 5 percent of babies were born to unmarried women. In 2008 , more than 40 percent.

    TIBBLES: Pew also found that 44 percent of adults say they've lived together without being married , although some believe it's better to tie the knot.

    TIBBLES: Marriage is extremely important to me, especially in raising a family .

    Ms. MEGAN LENGYEL: Americans still believe in the centrality of family , even as the arrangements of family life today have changed so dramatically.

    Ms. COHN: The survey found that while what makes a marriage may be changing, it's family that matters most. Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, Chicago.

    TIBBLES:

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