Changes in Marriage in the Last Fifty Years


Marriage is one of the human values that have changed significantly over the past fifty years. This view is supported by Cahn who notes that the attributes of marriage have undergone significant transformations that are worthy studying. Cahn also notes that there is a remarkable contrast between the scenes in marriage at the beginning of the last century and present scene, which even though confined to a small segment of the institution of marriage, are very interesting (97).

Research works by authors such as Cahn above show that the institution of marriage has changed dramatically since 1950. This brief essay will assess how attitudes towards marriage have changed, what caused the change and how it has affected America.

How marriage has changed and why it has changed

It is inarguable that marriage is a dynamic institution. This is supported by Stevenson and Wolfers who argue that any kind marriage is “not static given falling rate of serious marriages and a steady rise in rates of divorce” (28). In view of this point, it is true that the value of marriage has significantly declined and marriage is no longer respected by everyone as an important union in the society (Bleu).

According to the American Experience, the 1950s were characterized by women under pressure to focus their ambitions on having a wedding ring. In addition, the rate of marriage in the United States was very high and couples tied the knot at considerably younger ages (American Experience). According to this site, “marriage and children were part of the national agenda”, unlike the present scenario where marriages are looked at as contracts that can be cancelled. Further, young men and women who got married right out of high school or while in a tertiary institution were greatly admired (American Experience). In fact, there was a common stereotype that American women went to college to get husbands or obtain the title “Mrs.” (American Experience). Marriage was not a secular activity as it appears to be today. According to the American Experience, women had many aspirations but “the dominant theme promoted in the culture and media at the time was that a husband was far more important for a young woman than a college degree.” Along line, the 1950s were characterized by a common perspective that if women were not engaged or married by the time they were in their twenties, they were in danger of becoming “old maids” (Bleu). Thus, everyone revered the marriage institution and divorce cases were uncommon.

The present day situation is a stark contrast of the 1950s and some years after. The need to obtain higher education qualifications means that women can stay unmarried until they are in their thirties. Additionally the present society does not condemn remaining single. So while remaining single in the American society in the past was undesirable, the situation seems to be the order of the day in the present time (Bleu). Since women have been getting more independence in the recent years, they no longer consider marriage as a very important institution. This has probably contributed to the high rates of divorce in the United States. It is also interesting that while being pregnant and single was abhorred in the United States particularly among whites during the 1950s (Bleu), the position today has changed and there are very many cases of single mothers.

The overall contributing factors to the changes that have occurred in marriage therefore include the increase in independence among women and a decline in emphasis to have stable marriages.

What caused the changes

According to Stevenson and Wolfers, the developments that occurred in the American society in the late 1960s contributed to the sharp increase in cases of divorce and less respect for marriage. The authors also note that divorce rates rose sharply and doubled between the mid-1960s and the 1970s (28). This was caused by several factors such as the sexual revolution, the development and rise of the women’s liberation movements, the elimination of fault-based divorce, and a steady increase in women’s participation in the labor force (28). But perhaps the greatest change in the United States laws was the granting of marriage as an essential right under the United States constitution as served under the Supreme Court.

The above points indicate various causes of unstable marriages. The sexual revolution brought about different perceptions about marriage in that women started playing a major role other than being considered as subjects to their husbands (Katz, Eekelaar and Maclean 18). This was coupled with the development of women’s liberation movements that fought to make women have more rights. But the acquisition of these “rights” probably increased the tendency to have separations in marriage. Unlike the situation in 1950s when “unwed mothers paid a huge price for premarital sex” (Stevenson and Wolfers 8), the current crop of women can live comfortably as single mothers. The increase in employment of women means that women have gained more independence, thus reducing their reliance on husbands in marriage. Additionally, due to change in marriage law in the United States, all the states have enacted the no-fault divorce laws, which recognize living separately as a pointer to divorce (Emery 12).

Implications of changes in marriage

The changes that have occurred in the marriage institution have had a number of implications. According to Amato, the existing laws, which seemingly recognize divorce, “have encouraged couples to increasingly form households without necessarily having to be in marriage.” This adds a new dimension on the essence of marriage because in the past households were formed only by married couples.

A common developing trend is that couples are getting married after a period of cohabitation and this increased from about 10 percent between 1965 and 1974 to more than 50 percent for cohabiting couples getting married between 1990 and 1994 (Amato). This is a contrast from the situation in the 1950s when partners wedded before becoming married couples.

The high instances of divorce due to unstable marriages means that there are very many children with single parents or who have experienced divorce. Amato notes that presently in the United States, “about 40% of all children with married parents will experience divorce before reaching adulthood.” This coupled with nonmarital births (which were rare in the 1950s) means nearly half of all children in the United States stay with a single parent, in most cases their mothers (Amato).


Marriage has changed significantly from the 1950s when partners, particularly women were keen to have everlasting relationships. Changes that have occurred over time have however emboldened women and given them more freedom of independence. Thus, they have more say in choosing whether to be married or not. This has contributed to the high prevalence of divorce and single parent families.

Work cited

Amato, Paul R. Implications for Children, Adults, and Society. National Healthy Marriage Center, 2008. Web.

American Experience. People & Events: Mrs. America: Women’s Roles in the 1950s The Pill. Web.

Bleu, D. How Modern Marriage has changed from the Past. 2009. Web.

Cahn, Edmond Nathaniel. The Moral Decision: Right and Wrong in the Light of American Law. New York: Wm. S. Hein Publishing, 1993.

Emery, Robert E. Renegotiating Family Relationships: Divorce, Child Custody, and Mediation. New York: Guilford Press, 1994.

Katz, Sanford N., Eekelaar, John and Maclean, Mavis. Cross Currents: Family Law and Policy in the United States and England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Stevenson, Betsey and Wolfers, Justin. “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces”. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 21(2)-2007—Pages 27–35.

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