No Need to Marry, Have Kids to Be Fulfilled: New Survey

Marriage: Is it possible that Americans just aren’t into it?

Posted Dec 03, 2018

Ivanko80/Shutterstock
Source: Ivanko80/Shutterstock

Fewer than one in three adults in the U.S. believe that it is essential to marry in order to live a fulfilling life, and only 36 percent believe that having kids is essential to fulfillment. The findings are from a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, together with Deseret News of Salt Lake City. Participants were 3,000 adults whose characteristics resemble those of the general population. They were questioned in July of 2018, and the results were reported in the last week of November.

Of the five potential components of a fulfilling life that participants were asked about, the one viewed as most essential, by far, was having a rewarding job. More than twice as many people said that was essential than said that being married was essential (65 percent versus 31 percent). Also regarded as more essential than marriage or children was community engagement (47 percent) and religious community (40 percent).

More men than women said that marriage and children are essential to a fulfilling life

Stereotypically, it is supposed to be women who care more about marrying and having children. The adults in this survey, though, did not concur. Many more men than women said that being married was essential to living a fulfilling life (37 percent versus 24 percent), and more men than women said the same about having kids (40 percent versus 33 percent).

Americans do not think there are more advantages to being married than to being single

In another remarkable rebuke to the relentless cultural messaging about the supposed benefits of marrying (not supported by research), adults in the U.S. are not buying it. Asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “All in all, there are more advantages to being single than to being married,” only 30 percent disagreed. Another 31 percent agreed, and the others said they neither agreed nor disagreed.

Consistent with what has become a cultural cliché, Americans see marriage as hard work. In fact, of all the survey items that asked about attitudes toward marriage, none elicited such near-universal agreement as the statement, “happy marriages require hard work.” Only 3 percent disagreed, while 90 percent agreed. (The others neither agreed nor disagreed.)

Americans do not feel obligated to stay in an unhappy marriage

In response to other questions, too, Americans indicated that marriage just isn’t their be-all and end-all. For example, when asked directly whether getting married is more important than having a successful career, only 19 percent agreed that it was. And no matter how they were asked, the survey participants said that people should no longer feel obligated to stick with an unhappy marriage. For example, 63 percent agreed that “personal happiness is more important than putting up with a bad marriage.” Only 25 percent agreed that “marriage is for life, even if the couple is unhappy.” More people agreed (45 percent) than disagreed (38 percent) that “it is okay to divorce when a person’s needs are no longer met.”

Survey participants did not see marriage as outdated

Not all views of marriage were negative. For example, 64 percent agreed that “marriage makes families and children better off financially.” This is demonstrably true, in part because many laws financially benefit only those people who are legally married. The majority (59 percent) agree that “marriage is needed in order to create strong families.” Just barely more than half (53 percent) agree that “when more people are married, society is better off.”

Even though 90 percent of the participants agreed that “happy marriages require hard work,” only 14 percent believed that “marriage is more of a burden than a benefit to couples.” The same small percentage agreed that “marriage is old-fashioned and out of date.”

Marriage and children were ranked last as criteria for having become an adult

Marriage and children are no longer seen as markers of adulthood. In the survey, participants were asked to rate seven criteria for becoming an adult; getting married and having a child came in last. By far, financial independence from parents was considered the most important indicator that a person had become an adult. Living somewhere other than with one’s parents was also considered a marker of adulthood by more than half of the participants. The other signifiers of adulthood considered more important than marriage or children were the ability to support a family financially, completing formal schooling, and being employed full-time.

Stereotypically, marriage and children are supposed to be especially important to womanhood and less so to manhood. The researchers tested those stereotypes. Participants were asked how important each of the seven criteria were for becoming a woman and for becoming a man. Again, the stereotypes were shattered. As shown in the detailed reports of the findings at the end of this article, marriage and children were ranked dead last as criteria for both womanhood and manhood.

Interestingly, slightly more people said that completing formal schooling was important to becoming a woman than becoming a man (44 percent versus 40 percent). Although more people said that the ability to support a family financially was a criterion for manhood (66 percent) than womanhood (47 percent), and more people said that full-time employment was more indicative of having become a man (55 percent) than having become a woman (34 percent); again, all of these criteria were considered more significant than being married or having children.

Details of the findings

Percent who agree that experience is essential to living a fulfilling life.

  • 65 percent rewarding job (68 percent of men agree, and 61 percent of women)
  • 47 percent community engagement (47 percent of men agree, and 46 percent of women)
  • 40 percent religious community (40 percent of men agree, and 39 percent of women)
  • 36 percent having kids (40 percent of men agree, and 33 percent of women)
  • 31 percent being married (37 percent of men agree, and 24 percent of women)

Attitudes toward marriage

Percent who agree. (Percent who disagree is in parentheses; the others neither agree nor disagree.)

  • 90 percent (3 percent) — Happy marriages require hard work.
  • 64 percent (11 percent) — Marriage makes families and children better off financially.
  • 63 percent (18 percent) — Personal happiness is more important than putting up with a bad marriage.
  • 59 percent (24 percent) — Marriage is needed in order to create strong families.
  • 53 percent (15 percent) — When more people are married, society is better off.
  • 45 percent (33 percent) — It is okay to divorce when a person’s needs are no longer met.
  • 44 percent (38 percent) — Being legally married is not as important as having a personal sense of commitment to your partner.
  • 25 percent (56 percent) — Marriage is for life, even if the couple is unhappy.
  • 19 percent (52 percent) — Getting married is more important to me than having a successful career.
  • 14 percent (64 percent) — Marriage is more of a burden than a benefit to couples.
  • 14 percent (70 percent) — Marriage is old-fashioned and out of date.

Comparing single and married life

Percent who agree. (Percent who disagree is in parentheses; the others neither agree nor disagree.)

  • 31 percent (30 percent) — All in all, there are more advantages to being single than to being married.

Importance of each of these experiences in becoming a woman:

Percent saying the experience is “extremely important.” (The number in parentheses is the percent saying “not important.” The others chose “somewhat important.”)

  • 62 percent (7 percent) — Financially independent from parents
  • 54 percent (11 percent) — No longer living in parents’ household
  • 47 percent (14 percent) — Capable of supporting a family financially
  • 44 percent (18 percent) — Complete formal schooling
  • 34 percent (22 percent) — Be employed full-time
  • 21 percent (43 percent) — Get married
  • 20 percent (40 percent) — Have a child

Importance of each of these experiences in becoming a man:

Percent saying the experience is “extremely important.” (The number in parentheses is the percent saying “not important.” The others chose “somewhat important.”)

  • 73 percent (4 percent) — Financially independent from parents
  • 66 percent (7 percent) — Capable of supporting a family financially
  • 66 percent (8 percent) — No longer living in parents’ household
  • 55 percent (9 percent) — Be employed full-time
  • 40 percent (16 percent) — Complete formal schooling
  • 20 percent (41 percent) — Get married
  • 17 percent (46 percent) — Have a child