Marriage as Metaphor of a Successful Personal Life

According to a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins, getting married is a “risky proposition, and it’s “surprising how many people still marry.”

Andrew J. Cherlin, the author of The Marriage Go-Round, says that, according to demographers, 80 percent of Americans will marry “at some point in the lives” because “[m]arriage has become a status symbol – a highly regarded marker of a successful life.”

The appeal of marriage today reflects what Cherlin calls its “transformed meaning.”

The Obama administration briefs in two same-sex marriage cases before the Supreme Court reflect the transformed meaning. These briefs, he writes, “reflect, in part, the assumption that marriage represents not only a bundle of rights but also a privileged position.

“In the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Justice Department wrote that marriage ‘confers a special validation of the relationship between two individuals and conveys a message to society that domestic partnerships and civil unions cannot match.’”

Cherlin suggests that marriage marks the last step in adult certification, a kind of adult establishment. “Today, marriage is more discretionary than ever, and also more distinctive. It is something young adults do after they and their live-in partner have good jobs and a nice apartment. It has become the capstone experience of personal life – the last brick put in place after everything is set. People marry to show their family and friends how well their lives are going, even if deep down they are unsure whether their partnership will last a lifetime.”

The transformed meaning of marriage manifests itself in other ways. Young adults with a college education (the “winners in our new economy,” as Cherlin puts it) see a brighter economic future that can support marriage. “They may live with a partner first, and may postpone marriage until after earning graduate school degrees or establishing themselves in careers, but they are content to wait until married before having children.”

Beginning in the 1970s, cohabitation increased and so did divorce, and for a time it seemed “marriage might fade away.

“Four decades later it [marriage] remains an important part of American life – not in its older role as the first step into adulthood, but in its newer role as the last step one takes after becoming an adult in almost all other respects.”


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