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Marriage and Remarriage

Throughout history, the formation of marriages has been primarily between young adults, and that remains true in the United States and other modern societies. In late twentieth-century America, however, marital union formation became spread through the adult life span to an unprecedented extent, the average age of those marrying around the end of the century being substantially higher than it was fifty years earlier and moderately higher than it was a century earlier.

This increase in the average age of those entering marriage resulted from a rise both in the typical age at first marriage and in the proportion of marriages involving previously married persons. The former change occurred primarily in the 1980s and the latter in the 1970s and early 1980s, so the age distribution of those entering marriage changed rather dramatically in just one decade, from 1980 to 1990. The percentage of men who married who were under age twenty declined from 8.5 to 4.3, and the comparable percentage for women went from 21.1 to 10.6. The percentage of marrying persons who were under age twenty-five dropped from 44.2 to 29.0 for men and from 58.2 to 39.9 for women. In contrast, the percentage who were age thirty-five or older rose from 19.7 to 27.4 for men and from 13.8 to 21.0 for women.

By the early to middle 1980s the proportion of marriages in which at least one of the spouses was remarrying leveled off at about 46 percent, up from 31.4 percent in 1970. (The latest available data are for 1988, but there is little reason to believe that this proportion had changed much by the end of the century.) In 1990, the latest year for which relevant data are available, the median age of those remarrying after divorce was 37.4 for men and 34.2 for women, compared with 25.9 and 24.0, respectively, for men and women marrying for the first time. By the end of the twentieth century it had become common for persons remarrying after divorce to be in their forties and fifties. The median age of persons remarrying after widowhood was of course higher than that for those remarrying after divorce, and that age rose moderately, going from 51.2 to 54.0 for women and from 58.7 to 63.1 for men in the 1970–1990 period. Clearly, entering into marriage was no longer a common experience only for young adults.

The median age of persons entering first marriages went from 22.5 for men and 20.6 for women in 1970 to 26.8 and 25.0, for men and women, respectively, in 1997. This change apparently resulted partly from an increased tendency for couples to live together before marrying; the typical age at which marrying couples started cohabitation rose less than the typical age at which they married, though the exact extent of the difference is not known. Among the likely reasons often given for the increase in the median age at first marriage are (a) an increase in the ability of unmarried young adults to enter into sexual relationships, with or without cohabitation, and (b) a decline in the earnings of young adult males.

The increase in the typical age of those entering marriages has had important implications for how persons meet and choose their spouses. In the 1950s and 1960s, most people married soon after they completed their formal education, and many if not most of those married someone they met in school or college. By the end of the twentieth century, most people were marrying a few years after completion of their formal education, and the proportion who married someone they met in school or college had almost certainly declined. Work settings typically provide limited opportunities for meeting appropriate prospective spouses, and getting to know a large number and wide variety of eligible persons of the opposite sex is difficult for many single working people. This is especially true of single parents, who usually have very limited time and energy to seek spouses. Furthermore, single parents' search for spouses is complicated by the fact that each parent and his or her child or children are "on the market" as a package, which makes fewer prospective spouses acceptable and attractable.

The search for a spouse is more difficult for middle-aged and elderly women than for similarly aged men, because higher mortality among males produces a scarcity of men beyond early adulthood. More boys than girls are born (about 105.5 boys for every 100 girls), but that ratio declines within a birth cohort (the persons born during the same year or other period) as it grows older, so that in the twenties there are about equal numbers of males and females. In 1998, the number of males per 100 females in the United States was 98.6 at ages twenty-five to forty-four, 93.7 at ages forty-five to sixty-four, and 70.3 among persons age sixty-five and older.

The sex ratio among older persons is even more unbalanced for unmarried than for all persons, as shown by the number of unmarried persons by sex and age in the United States in 1998 (see Figure 1). Beyond about age forty, there were more unmarried women than men—a difference that was greater at the older ages. In the fifty-five to sixty-four age range, there were almost twice as many unmarried women as unmarried men, and in the range of seventy-five and older, more than three quarters of the unmarried persons were women.

The consequences of the decline in the sex ratio in aging birth cohorts on the relative marriage Figure 1 Number of Unmarried Persons (In Millions) by Sex and Age, United States, 1998 SOURCE: Author prospects of older men and women are exacerbated by the practice of men marrying women younger than themselves—the typical age difference between husband and wife being greater for those who marry at older ages. Among Americans marrying for the first time in 1990, the median age of the men was 1.9 years greater than that of the women. Among persons remarrying after divorce, the male-female difference in median age was 3.2 years, and among persons remarrying after being widowed it was 9.1 years.

As a result of male-female mortality differences and age disparities between husbands and wives, the remarriage rate of divorced and widowed persons is substantially higher for men than for women. For instance, in 1990 (the last year for which data are available) the number of marriages per 1,000 persons was 105.9 for divorced men but only 76.2 for divorced women, and the rate for widowed persons was 23.8 and 5.2, for men and women, respectively.

Figure 2 Percent of Persons Married, by Sex and Age, United States, 1998 SOURCE: Author

It follows that the pattern of marital status by age must differ substantially for men and women (see Figure 2). In the United States in 1998, the proportion of women who were married was highest in the age range of thirty-five to forty-four, in which a little more than 70 percent were married. In contrast, the proportion of men who were married was highest in the age range of fifty-five to seventy-four, in which about 80 percent were married. Among persons age seventy-five and older, the proportion married was more than twice as great for men as for women.

Beyond the basic demographic facts, relatively little is known about late-life marriages. For instance, there is no systematic evidence on how the very favorable marriage-market situation of older men affects the mate selection process or the nature (such as relative husband—wife power) of the marriages formed among older adults. Little is known about how and where middle-aged and older persons meet the persons they marry and about the characteristics they seek in potential spouses. Nor is much known about how the marital choices, including the decision to marry or not, of older persons are affected by relatives, friends, and acquaintances. The adult offspring of older persons who marry, or who consider marriage, are of course often concerned about how a parent's marriage will affect their inheritance. On the other hand, the remarriage of an elderly person sometimes eases the burden of care on offspring and other relatives. Whether adult offspring typically support or oppose a parent's decision to remarry is not known.

A desire to protect the financial interests of heirs has led many remarrying older persons in recent years to enter into prenuptial agreements with their new spouses to keep their property separate or in some other way to limit the claim of each spouse on the property the other has at the time of marriage. Placing property in trusts for offspring, grandchildren, or other relatives is also a common method used by wealthier persons to protect heirs from adverse financial consequences of remarriage.

A deterrent to the remarriage of many widowed persons is the loss or reduction of pensions, medical insurance, or other survivors' benefits that remarriage can cause. This, along with the value changes that have affected the living arrangements of younger persons, has led to an increase in nonmarital cohabitation among widows and widowers. Some older couples who are opposed on religious grounds to living together without being married have persuaded clergymen to perform marriage ceremonies without licenses or registration with the state so they can feel married "in the eyes of God." The prevalence of such informal marriages is not known, nor is it known how persons in such marriages report their marital status in census and other surveys.



ATCHLEY, R. C. Social Forces and Aging—An Introduction to Social Gerontology, 9th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1999.

BRUBAKER, T. H., ed. Family Relationships in Later Life. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1990.

U.S. Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1999, 119th ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.





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