As Valentine’s Day approaches, a host of women are hoping for a proposal and an engagement ring that will lead to marriage — for a second or even third time.
Many of those hopefuls will be planning their first wedding. But according to the Pew Research Center, the overall marriage rate has declined since 1960, while the rate of remarriage and cohabitation has risen. The numbers of those who have never been married also has climbed.
Christian counselors believe the church must help people learn to develop and sustain lasting relationships.
One Pew analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data indicates the remarriage rate tripled since 1960. But the overall marriage rate fell from 85 percent in 1960 to 70 percent in 2013. In 2012, one-in-five adults aged 25 and over had never been married, compared to one-in-10 adults five decades earlier.
The Pew Center attributed the change to several factors — marrying later in life, shifting public attitudes and cohabitation.
In a related analysis, Pew researchers determined that 24 percent of young adults ages 25 to 35 who have never married cohabited in 2014. That study relied on a combination of census data from 1960 through 2000; the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2010, 2011 and 2012; and a Pew survey in 2014.
Rachel Shannon, assistant professor of psychology at Judson University, believes lack of faith in marriage as an institution is a driving force in the statistics.
“For most of us, if we were told there was a 50 percent chance of something very negative happening to us, we would be very hesitant to engage in that behavior,” Shannon said.
People long for connection, she added, and nothing can adequately substitute for marriage. “[I]t is a relationship different from all others, as God ordained it to be…. God created us to want to be in relationship, and we are the most connected ‘disconnected’ people ever in history.
“We know what is going on in the lives of people we haven’t seen in 30 years [through social media] and it gives a false sense of connection to them.”
She pointed to research that indicates brain chemistry changes when people are physically present in the same place. “People have an innate longing to be with others,” she said.
Shannon believes social media has contributed to the increased number of never-marrieds. “This generation from the beginning has had the Internet, and while that increases the sense of connection, it doesn’t actually increase connection,” she said.
The church itself may contribute to the rise in remarriage, believes Amy Hartsfield, counselor and assessment consultant at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. The church exerts a “norming” pressure on members because it generally operates from a family-unit perspective and ministers primarily to couples, she said.
That desire for connection continues to push the remarriage rate.
“Remarriage is high because people believe in marriage,” explained Diana Garland, dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work. “They just have experienced a dissolution of one relationship, not their commitment to the institution.
The Christian faith promotes finding a partner and sustaining relationships, which “seems to be a push to a legitimate…legal…marriage.” Believers marry because it’s the “comfortable” preference in the faith family, Hartsfield explained.
“There is a very real structure [family units] that is supported,” she said. “It was never said overtly, but you knew you were odd” if unmarried.
That unstated push leads many people to remarry after divorce or death of a spouse in order to feel a part of the church family.
Hartsfield believes that often churches are “more committed to the structure” and fail to offer the tools and support to help individuals become “as fit as possible physically, emotionally and financially” to sustain another marriage.
History and American society’s perception of the family are key factors, noted Richard Olson, professor of pastoral theology at Central Seminary and co-author of several books on the family.
As urbanization spread, families lost their influence on communities and their own needs changed. It was common practice for rural families to choose spouses for their children.
The concept of spouses as “best friends” altered family dynamics, Olson explained. No-fault divorce made the legal process of ending a marriage much easier. Birth control and in-vitro fertilization improved, and society’s mores changed as the fear of pregnancy lessened.
Changes in mores and societal instability have contributed to the rise in cohabitation, some experts believe. Sometimes cultural beliefs influence Christian attitudes and behavior.
Young adults have a different understanding of sexual mores, partly as a result of cultural shifts, Ruth Rosell, CBTS assistant professor of pastoral theology for pastoral care and counseling, said. Living together outside of marriage is one result.
The culture outside the church often views cohabitation as a step to marriage.
“Public opinion changed…and sexual mores have changed a lot,” Rosell said. “There is more expectation for sexual involvement…. It takes more strength and conviction not to be carried away by that.”
The commonality of divorce also has influenced acceptance of cohabitation, Rosell said. “For adults who watched their parents go through divorce, marriage doesn’t seem more permanent.”
Fear of failure often leads couples to live together. A single man in his 40s shared with Hartsfield that he “needs to be sure [his current relationship] is going to work” before he decides whether to marry his live-in girlfriend. He has two children from other such relationships.
“People want some type of assurance that the union will work, and they want to determine: What is my commitment?” Hartsfield said.
Although individuals desire the security marriage can offer, they still question whether they will be able to sustain a marriage relationship, she added.