There is no doubt that the American marriage is changing. Laws and social norms established over the last century allow any two consenting adults regardless of social status, race, or sexual orientation to marry.

However, marriage equality does not always equal quality marriages. Many marriages will fail and end in divorce. While everyone knows that marriage is changing, not everyone knows that divorce is changing too.  According to a study by the CDC the number of divorces has slowly decreased from 944,000 in the year 2000 to 813,862 in the year 2014. The question people are asking is what has changed in society to result in fewer divorces.

The simplest explanation for the falling number of divorces is that the number of marriages is falling as well.  Logically if people are not getting married then they cannot get divorced. The CDC reported 2,140,272 marriages in 2014. This is a significant decrease when compared to the year 2000 when there were 2,315,000 marriages. From these figures, we can expect that the number of marriages and divorces will continue to slowly decrease over the coming decade.

Another growing trend that we see connected to marriage and divorce is that an increasing number of couples choosing to forgo or postpone marriage in favor of cohabitation. Cohabitation is when a couple chooses to live together outside of marriage. Some couples view cohabitation as a precursor to marriage. Others view cohabitation as an alternative to marriage.  

Couples who choose to live together with eventual marriage in mind view cohabitation as a way of testing whether or not they are compatible enough to live together long term. Cohabitation provides couples with an easy out if the relationship does not work out. It allows them to avoid the high expense and social stigma of divorce.

Despite the hope of many couples that cohabitation helps to decrease the risk of divorce, some experts believe the opposite may be true. Millennials on Twitter were asked if they believed couples who lived together before marriage were at a greater risk of divorce. The results were consistent with current trends in the United States. 57% of responders believed that couples who lived together were at a greater risk of divorce. This means that 43% of responders believed that couples who choose cohabitation are not at a greater risk of divorce.

 Harmon Caldwell has been a divorce lawyer in Atlanta for nearly 38 years. During his many years of experience he has found that “…that couples who lived together before marriage had more than a 30 percent greater chance of divorcing than those who waited to move in – when the couple’s  age wasn’t a factor.”  If the number of couples who chose to live together before marriage continues to increase, we may soon see an increase in the occurrence of divorces.

At the same time other couples believe that cohabitation is a viable alternative to marriage.  Traditionally people have viewed marriages as having religious significance. Christians believe that when a couple marries they become “one flesh” before God. It is immoral in the Christian worldview for an unmarried couple to live together. To those who are not religious marriage does not have the same meaning. While many secular couples continue to get married for their own non-religious reasons, others do not see a point in getting married.  Instead of seeing marriage as a spiritual union, marriage is seen as nothing more than a  piece of paper.

A hundred years ago this way of looking at marriage would have been taboo. As values have changed in the United States this way of thinking has become more acceptable. It is no longer a major scandal when an unmarried couple decided to live together. In the future it is possible that this way of life will become the social norm.

Another reason why the number of divorces is continuing is that many millennials are waiting longer to get married. Pew Research Center has found that the average age of marriage has been slowly going up over the past 50 years. “In 2011, the median age at first marriage is an estimated 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women. That means half of men don’t marry until at least about age 29, and half of women don’t marry until at least about age 27. In 1960, the median age at first marriage for both men and women was in the early 20s.”

Gone are the days where getting married after high school was the social norm.Instead people are choosing to seek higher education and get started in their careers before settling down and getting married. For many people waiting to get married is a good thing. Most high school graduates are not mature enough to get married. Going to college before getting married allows teenagers to mature and figure out what they want to do with their lives. Often times what a person wants in a significant other at age 18 is completely different than what they want in a partner at age 25.

Over the next few years we will continue to see the American marriage evolve. If current trends continue,  fewer and fewer people will see the value of marriage.  It is likely that more people will choose to cohabitant with a significant other before they decide to get married. We as a country will need to decide what if any role marriage has in our society.