Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete?

First comes love, then comes marriage?  These days, one doesn't necessarily follow the other. Some 39 percent of Americans now say marriage is becoming obsolete, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. That's quite a drastic drop from 1978, when 28 percent of Americans felt that way.

Today, close to one in three children in the U.S. lives with a divorced, separated or never-married parent. Nearly 30 percent of kids under the age of 18 live in a home with parents or a parent who are either not married or no longer married--an astounding fivefold increase from 50 years ago, says the Pew report. Some 14 percent of these children have parents who were never married.

"Marriage is still very important in this country, but it doesn't dominate family life it used to," Johns Hopkins University sociology and public policy professor Andrew Cherlin told the Associated Press. "Now there are several ways to have a successful family life, and more people accept them."

The very definition of marriage is changing, with same-sex marriages becoming ever more common. It's also more likely for couples to marry, divorce and then remarry, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and's chief scientific advisor.  And today, there's much less stigma for people who don't get married.  "One hundred years ago, you weren't really regarded as a full adult if you didn't marry," Fisher says. "That's not the case today."

The glum economy also is a factor in why people wait to get married. The number of opposite-sex unmarried couples who live together skyrocketed this year to 7.5 million, according to the Census Bureau. Analysts say it's because of people who are skittish of making a commitment to marriage because of the persistently high unemployment rate. 

So will wedding bells stop ringing as often as they have in the past? "We are seeing much more flexibility," Fisher says.  But, she adds, between 85 and 90 percent of Americans will eventually marry. 

As the definition of marriage changes, the laws will need to adapt, says Paul Talbert, a partner at Chemtob Moss Forman & Talbert LLP, who specializes in family and matrimonial law. Those who live together outside of marriage don't have the same legal protection that married couples do, he explains. This could spell disaster for one or both partners should they decide to split up.

"If one partner in a couple living together sacrificed his or her career for the other, he or she has no entitlement whatsoever to any of the money that the other person in the relationship earned," Talbert says. "Say the wife takes a few years off and then wants to go back to work. She may not find it that easy to get back into the job market because you don't just jump right back into the workplace."

 If the couple decides so break up,  he says, the woman won't share in any of the division of property, he says.

Still, American love the idea of marriage, and it's not going away anytime soon, Fisher predicts. "Marriage is not dead and never will be dead," she says. "But when and where we marry is definitely changing. We will always have marriage. It's just changing its stripes a little bit."