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Are today’s marriages stronger, weaker or ‘out-of-date’? Here’s what 5 years of research shows

New American Family Survey shows family stability, but rising concern about economic challenges

Matthew Grant pulls back his daughter Camilla’s hair as she plays the piano at home in Midvale, Utah, on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.
Matthew Grant pulls back his daughter Camilla’s hair as she plays the piano at home in Midvale, Utah, on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. adults are slightly less likely than they were five years ago to view marriage as crucial to forging strong families, and the number who deem marriage “out-of-date” has grown a little.

At the same time, however, most American adults favor the institution of marriage, and their view of how well families in America are doing has been largely stable over the past half-decade. They’re especially happy with their own unions, though they think marriage generally is weaker.

But Americans are increasingly concerned about how economic issues are affecting families.

Those are among trends tracked over five years by the American Family Survey, a nationally representative poll of attitudes about family life conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The 2019 survey of 3,000 adults, fielded July 26-Aug. 5, was released Thursday. A panel of experts will discuss the findings Friday in Washington, D.C.

Because “many social and political changes have occurred since the survey began, it’s an interesting time to look back,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, who co-wrote the report and co-directs the center with Jeremy C. Pope, a fellow associate professor at BYU.

Since 2015, the United States has elected Donald Trump, seen the Supreme Court uphold same-sex marriage and heard painful tales of sexual abuse and harassment as part of the #MeToo movement. The country has grappled with growing economic inequality and polarization on topics from gun control to immigration reform. Social media has changed, too. What was heralded as a tool for promoting freedom (a la Arab Spring) is now more often derided as the birthplace of fake news.

But families and relationships remain the heart of American life, with the vast majority of respondents saying their families are as strong or stronger than they were two years ago. They’re even more sanguine about their marriages, with 9 in 10 saying they’re as strong or stronger.

Nearly half of adults are married, somewhat fewer than five years ago. Marriage is more common among Republicans (63%) than Democrats (39%) or independents (40%). Those with annual household incomes above $40,000 are about twice as likely to be married as those making less, 59% vs. 29%. A larger share of white respondents are married (51%) compared to Hispanics (45%) and blacks (31%). Just over a third claim no relationship, up from 30% in 2015.

Despite the seeming stability of family life, experts say the latest survey hints at a “whiff” of change that bears watching. Family structure patterns have altered subtly, the number married down ever so slightly, while the number in no relationship has risen to a similar degree. Concern about families may be declining a little. Worries do seem to be shifting away from cultural issues to the economy.

Each year, the survey has asked respondents to choose the three most important issues facing families from a list of 12. In 2015, cultural issues were selected significantly more often than economic issues, but not in 2019: 61 percent list an economic concern, up 10 percent from 2015, while the number prioritizing culture dropped.

“That’s notable because it has occurred in a period of economic expansion,” said Karpowitz. “We see increasing concern about the economic pinch families are feeling despite the fact unemployment is low, inflation is low and by a number of indicators the economy is doing well. At least a majority of respondents feel like not all those benefits are making the economic life of families easier. The challenges of paying for a family and raising children are significant.”

Those surveyed worry more this year than in previous surveys about the cost of raising family and high work demands and stress on parents and lack of government programs to support families. Fewer of them are worried about finding good jobs.

While dwindling support for marriage hasn’t been prominent among societal changes, “marriage and families are big societal institutions, so the fact we are seeing any movement at all about those institutions is notable,” Karpowitz said.

Family by the numbers

In 2015, 62% of American adults called marriage essential for creating a strong family; 54% say the same today. The share who say marriage is outdated has risen from 12% to 18%, with Democrats more likely to say so than Republicans.

Still, when it comes to marriage generally, fewer people say marriages are weaker than they were two years ago, with only 34% saying this today, down from 40% in 2015.

American Family Survey 2019

Pessimism about families overall fell, too: 30% think they’re weaker today, while 36% thought so in 2015. Those who see families getting stronger has hovered consistently below 10%.

Most believe marriage makes families, children and society better off. That’s changed little over the years. Slightly under half have consistently said being married isn’t as important as one’s commitment to a partner. Just 15% in 2019 see marriage as more burdensome than beneficial.

But the relationship status of respondents speaks to change, even if it’s not dramatic. In 2015, just over half were married, while about 30% were not in a relationship. The rest were about equally divided between cohabiters and those in a relationship but not living together.

By 2019, the percent married had fallen to 48, while the percent in no relationship had risen to 34.

American Family Survey 2019

“That’s not a big enough change to be certain that there is a large trend,” said Karpowitz. “On the other hand, it does seem there’s some movement there. In each of the last three years, less than half of the panel reported being married.”

Time will tell, he added, if findings point to something new or vagaries of the sample, like “cohort replacement,” where older people — more likely to be married — drop off the survey.

“With 23% of those ages 18-29 married, that could be the case. It’s also true that people are marrying later in life,” he said.

About 1 in 9 currently cohabit, which is more common among young adults than others. More Democrats and independents than Republicans cohabit.

Marriage today

Busy attorney Matthew Grant doesn’t let work overwhelm family life. He and wife Laura have six children, spaced every two years from age 2 to 12, with a baby due in December. No matter how hectic life is, the Grants try to eat at least two meals a day together, and weekends and evenings revolve around family activities in their Midvale home, from playtime to side-by-side chores.

They’re not atypical. The survey found most families regularly eat meals (more than 80%) and do chores together (more than 60%). It also asked how often family members attend each others’ activities, go to movies, worship together and argue. It is clear from all five years that Republicans and Democrats may disagree on many things, but family lives are remarkably similar, with one notable exception. Democrats are less likely than Republicans to worship together at least weekly (26% vs. 45%), and the gap is growing.

That pattern could impact more than daily workings of family life. America has seen a rise in what the Pew Research Center calls “religious nones,” who don’t identify with a faith or, in some cases, believe in God. A 2018 Harvard study found kids who regularly go to religious services, pray or meditate are better off into adulthood. They’re happier and make better decisions about risky behaviors like drugs and sex.

The fact that there aren’t generally partisan patterns to how families live and love each other doesn’t surprise the Grants, who keep politics in perspective. They regularly discuss politics and current events, he said, because they want their children to understand and think critically about many things. “I don’t know that we care they adopt our exact viewpoint as much as understand we are engaged in the political process and care about it,” said Grant, who calls himself “pretty conservative” but not a partisan loyalist.

Structural shifts?

When it comes to trends in family life, Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, is especially watching whether Americans cohabit longer and whether cohabitation long term without marriage is becoming acceptable.

The surveys find the number of cohabiters largely stable through the years, but they don’t indicate how long they cohabit or if those in other family structures cohabited first.

American Family Survey 2019

Cherlin said research suggests patterns are changing. America’s cohabiters have typically split fairly quickly or gotten married, but the average length of living together has increased in the last 20 years. “In Europe, living together lasts a long time for many couples and some never marry. We’re not there, but perhaps we are seeing a bit of movement toward the more European pattern of cohabiting as an acceptable substitute for marriage, not just a prelude to it.”

Studies say American children have fared best when their parents are married, enjoying greater stability, which is good for kids. Even if some advantage disappears because cohabiting relationships last longer, Cherlin said marriage has benefits like allowing parents to invest in their homes and children with less fear relationships will end “before they see the fruits of it.” There are legal benefits, too, like being able to file joint income tax returns.

Dawn O. Braithwaite, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, researches family formation. She isn’t surprised a growing number of people think families can flourish without marriage, not just with. When her research asks people when they felt they became a family, “very rarely do they set the date at marriage, if they married at all. It’s often quite a bit before that.” Feeling like family may precede or follow marriage or cohabitation. Married people who don’t have children consider themselves family, too.

She doesn’t think the different paths to family life devalue marriage. But she worries “strident politics will harm family. I am worried about that. Families have to figure out ways to navigate that.”

Survey co-author Pope doesn’t think marriage seems likely to disappear. “Marriage is very popular and people still want to get married, they’re happy with their marriages and they’re happy with their families.”

Economy or culture?

Family structure issues have always ranked high among survey respondents as big problems for families, but are down 8 points compared to 2015. The perennial favorite, how other parents discipline children, drew considerably less concern than usual as some instead chose economic issues.

Economic worries like the high cost of raising a family have gradually surpassed cultural ones over the years, with fewer worried about substance abuse and sexual permissiveness.

Pope said a “hyper-divisive” era in politics may have created wedges instead of uniting people around societal challenges. Conservatives and liberals worry about family differently.

Democrats typically focus more on economic threats to families, while Republicans worry about cultural issues. “My own opinion is both are probably right,” said Pope. “They need to listen to one another more and accept there are threats to the family coming from multiple directions, even if they are overblown to some degree.”

Cherlin said economic concerns may be gaining ground because tricky financial times pull focus closer to home. Parents may be more concerned about economic realities of raising children than about cultural issues.

Proximity changes views, too. He said when enough young adults choose alternatives to marriage, parents and grandparents may be more likely to accept those paths, another possibility for “why cultural issues are fading.”

Braithwaite thinks many low- and middle-income families are struggling with day care, health care, rising housing costs, higher food bills and other money challenges. “I don’t think it’s a great economic time for most families and that just puts more stress on them.”

Cherlin sees economic inequality creating stress. But he also sees growing consensus among conservatives and liberals who want to help families’ finances, including supporting programs like paid family leave.

Concern about economic well-being also spills over to contentious political issues, said Braithwaite. “The economy has become both hallmark and battering ram. Even with immigration, people arguing in the public sphere ask, ‘Does it help or hurt the economy?’”

While it reveals challenges, studying the American family reveals much to celebrate, Karpowitz said.

“One piece of good news is people love and care about their significant others and about their children,” he said. “And they are trying to take care of those relationships. Those identities — as family, as people in relationships — are really at the core of what people care most about.”

Correction: A graphic in a previous version incorrectly stated the 2019 share of respondents who think marriages are weaker than two years before. Thirty-four percent, not 42%, said marriage is weaker.

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