Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage;
This I tell you, brother,
You can’t have one without the other.

— Cahn & Van Heusen

Really? That song from the mid-1950s, when marital ages were at their lowest and the popular consensus about marriage may have been at its strongest, still frames many of our ideals about the institution, even if they are imperfectly observed. It might be pointed out, for example, that Frank Sinatra, the man who popularized “Love and Marriage,” was married four times.

Hal Brewster *15 and Geoff Wetrosky have been married only once, and only for six months. They met in 2010, shortly after Brewster’s discharge from the Army, and got engaged four years later during a vacation in California’s Mendocino County; because both wanted to do the proposing, they counted backward from three and asked each other simultaneously. Their wedding last July garnered the ultimate coup for the upwardly mobile — it was featured on The New York Times’ Sunday weddings page.

“Neither of us is conservative in the big-C sense of the word,” explains Brewster, a Manhattan lawyer. “But we put value into family and the traditional aspects of life.”

Marriage remains hugely popular in the United States; for evidence of that, look no farther than the Class Notes section in any issue of PAW. Consider that according to a 2013 Gallup survey, 95 percent of American adults either have married or hope to marry someday. In many respects, marriage seems more robust than it has in some time, although that may leave important questions unanswered, as we shall see.

The long struggle for same-sex unions is itself evidence that marriage is not hopelessly patriarchal, heteronormative, or plain old-fashioned, to cho0se but a few of the dismissals sometimes leveled against it. Politics professor Stephen Macedo *87 has explored the many aspects of this controversial but enduring institution in his recent book, Just Married: Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy and the Future of Marriage, and for the most part, he likes what he sees.

Nevertheless, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, a record share of Americans over age 25 remain unmarried and, if trends hold, many may never marry. When asked why they never had wed, they gave three broad reasons: They had not found the right partner, they did not feel ready, or they were not financially prepared to settle down.

In Macedo’s view, marriage “is not only desired but worth desiring.” Certainly, it confers many legal benefits, and studies show that on average, married people live longer, are more financially secure, and suffer from lower rates of depression than their unmarried counterparts. These benefits, of course, go hand in hand with legal and social restrictions: Married couples can’t uncouple easily and are expected to be sexually monogamous.

Though marriage is defined as the union of two people, Macedo points out, in the larger sense there is a third party to any marriage: society. “The existence of the legal form of marriage,” he writes in his book, “facilitates the fulfillment of people’s serious desire to get married and to be married as a matter of common, public knowledge: that is, in the eyes of one’s whole society, not just the eyes of one’s church or social circle.”

Wedding vows, in other words, are unique. Couples “make a distinctively comprehensive and open-ended commitment to care for each other in sickness as well as health, in vigor and old age. The law of marriage both signals and supports the distinctive and extensive mutual commitments and responsibilities that are central to its public meaning and role in people’s lives,” Macedo says.

Furthermore, because marriage is now entered into freely between spouses possessing equal legal rights, Macedo believes it serves as a social exemplar — even if it frequently is flouted. “[F]rom the standpoint of justice,” he continues, “monogamous marriage helps imprint the DNA of equal liberty onto the very fiber of family and sexual intimacy.”

Far from undermining the institution, then, same-sex unions strengthen it by extolling marriage as the ideal living arrangement for all couples, gay and straight, Macedo argues. Put it this way: It is hard to be socially transgressive and appear on the Times’ wedding page at the same time.

Henry James Brewster *15, left, and Geoffrey Clinton Wetrosky, married since July.
Ben Schaefer

But you say it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me
Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be
You want to marry me, we’ll marry

— Carly Simon

The 2014 Pew report generated scare headlines that many millennials are doomed not to marry. Sociology professor Sara McLanahan believes the study masks deeper divisions.

McLanahan is the director of the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and is the principal investigator for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a collaborative effort with researchers at Columbia University that has tracked more than 5,000 children born from 1998 to 2000. She sees “diverging destinies” between rich and poor Americans.

More and more, Americans tread two paths. The well-educated and economically secure, she finds, are likely to get married and stay married. They report greater satisfaction with their marriages, and their divorce rates have declined to levels not seen since the 1960s. McLanahan believes that most well-off millennials eventually will wed, although the number who never marry also will rise simply because people who have not married by age 40 tend not to marry later. But those lifelong singles probably will not have children. The so-called “Murphy Brown” phenomenon of well-to-do single women choosing to have children on their own is a negligible factor in the number of out-of-wedlock births.

For those with less education and more precarious economic prospects, the situation is very different. Their reported desire to marry almost equals that of better-off Americans, and they may conceive children in the expectation that marriage will follow. But those desires are often unrealized. Instead, McLanahan’s research shows, they are much more likely to be apart five years after their child is born and to wander through serial romantic relationships. She traces the divide to the lessening stigma against out-of-wedlock births since the 1960s and to a loss of manufacturing jobs and growing wage stagnation since the 1970s and 1980s. While it has long been true that marriage rates decline during economic downturns, McLanahan is not confident that a stronger economy in the near future will reverse the trend.

What do never-married women seek in a potential mate? According to the Pew report, the top priority is steady employment. But it has grown harder for working-class men, who tend to hold traditional views of their role as family breadwinner, to achieve that. Men also are falling behind women in educational achievement, which further dampens their financial prospects.

In the short term, McLanahan advocates strengthening the social safety net for single parents, working to prevent unmarried pregnancies, and reducing the rate of incarceration, which exacerbates family breakups. The need for action is urgent, McLanahan says, because fragile families tend to perpetuate themselves.

“Relationship dissolution is only the first step toward household instability,” she wrote in a co-authored 2010 study for the Brookings Institution, and is linked to lower test scores and behavioral problems in children, especially boys. “With unstable and increasingly complex home environments, and with children’s development already moving off track by age 5, it is difficult to be optimistic that most of the children of unwed parents will grow into flourishing adults.”

In a world that seems to be increasing in conformity
It’s harder and harder to be who you want to be
It takes a lot of courage to stand up and get what you need
Ah, lots of us are happy in a different kind of family

— Gaia Consort

Ariana Myers, a graduate student in history and president of Princeton’s Queer Graduate Caucus, is transgender; she is in a romantic relationship with a partner who is nonbinary — that is, not identifying with either gender. Myers objects to what she calls “mononormism.” “Humans form all kinds of relationships,” she explains. “Especially those involving more than two people — the fact that they are not respected and are viewed as subversive is a big problem.”

From the 19th-century Oneida Community to the 1960s San Francisco communes, Americans always have experimented with different types of domestic arrangements. But should those relationships be recognized as marriage? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and others have suggested that, if same-sex marriage is legal, anything goes. Ryan Anderson ’04, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of the new book Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, believes that although there are no broad-based popular movements to recognize other nontraditional romantic arrangements as marriage, the logic behind the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision has stripped courts of a sound constitutional basis for denying them.

“It’s unclear, as a logical matter, what sort of limiting principle would now apply,” Anderson says.

Nevertheless, Macedo — who will debate Anderson on this topic at Notre Dame in February — resolutely stands athwart Scalia’s slippery slope. Sound policy considerations, he insists, justify limiting marriage to two people and two people only.

Polygamy has a long history, he writes, but almost always tends to empower wealthy men while leaving those of lesser means without partners, deprives women of a mate’s sole attention, and promotes jealousy and conflict at home. “While same-sex marriage helps us secure equal basic liberty and fair opportunity for all,” he concludes, “substantial evidence suggests that the spread of plural marriage would undermine these same values.” Accordingly, society is entitled to withhold recognition.

A related question is whether society ought to recognize a much broader array of committed relationships. Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Arizona State University, calls the modern rules of marriage “amatonormative,” privileging unions based on romantic love between two people as the preferred social arrangement. She wishes to see marital benefits extended to people in non-traditional relationships, such as roommates who share living expenses or a young person caring for an elderly neighbor.

Macedo agrees that there may be reasons to make it easier for such people to care for one another — but without redefining marriage. “It is not invidious,” he says in an interview, “at least after the inclusion of same-sex couples, for our law to support a form of commitment as widely sought and esteemed, as useful, and as flexible as marriage, even if a considerable number of our citizens are not able to take advantage of it, and a smaller number do not wish to have anything to do with it.”

It’s a beautiful night,
We’re looking for something dumb to do.
Hey baby,
I think I wanna marry you.

— Bruno Mars

Marianne and Jim Farrin ’58, married for 55 years.
Courtesy Jim Farrin ’58

Far from being a hidebound institution, marriage is always changing. Same-sex unions aside, consider how different it is today compared to a century ago. Couples get married later and divorce more easily. They are more likely to live together first. Women have equal property rights and often keep their birth names. Unions between people of different religions and races no longer raise an eyebrow. Marriage evolves and endures.

“I don’t think love is any less popular than it ever was,” observes Margot Stein ’83, a Reform rabbi in Philadelphia.

But as society has changed, the rituals associated with marriage have changed, too. Many couples now write their own vows, and few women promise to “obey” their husbands. The ketubah, the Jewish wedding contract, is now often worded to ensure a woman’s rights in divorce (to counteract Jewish law, which gives the power of divorce to the husband alone). “We try to find language within Jewish tradition to uphold Jewish values,” Stein says.

K. Jeanne Person ’84, an Episcopal priest and counselor, sees much the same trend in her Brooklyn congregation. “Making a lifelong commitment to someone is something humans yearn to do,” she says. Even many devoutly secular couples seek to sanctify their unions in a religious ceremony. “They come out of a sense of tradition and family,” Person says. “The ritual is meaningful to them, even if they don’t know what it is.”

However, today’s couples also feel more freedom to pick and choose what they want in their wedding ceremony, says Kathryn Hamm ’91, the president of and a consultant for the online site WeddingWire. More and more, Hamm says, a bride may have a man of honor rather than a maid of honor, or male as well as female attendants. If a wedding involves two grooms or two brides, they may walk down the aisle together.

With modern marriage so different and yet so familiar, the best perspective may come with time. Jim Farrin ’58 has been married to his wife, Marianne, for 55 years. They met when she was an undergraduate at Stanford and he was in business school, and have raised five children while living in 10 countries. Once their youngest left for college, Marianne decided to get a master’s degree in social work and became a licensed therapist. She then got a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, which brought the couple back to Princeton to live.

Asked the secret to a long and successful marriage, Farrin cites several things — listening, supporting each other, being flexible, and not losing sight of why you married each other in the first place — but he boils it down to one simple admonition: “Persevere.”

“Let’s face it, none of us is perfect,” he says. “But for me, the prize has always been to stay married to Marianne.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.