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The Big Question

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Bill Denison
Q: If Americans are so focused on their own individual happiness, why do they still bother getting married?
A: "Because the meaning of marriage has shifted. It isn't as necessary to be married as it was in the past, but it has become the prime symbol of a successful personal life. People want to get married so that they can show family and friends — and themselves — that they have their personal life in great shape. It's almost as if marriage has become the ultimate merit badge — the marriage badge — and everyone still wants to wear it.

"It used to be that marriage was the first step into adulthood, but now it is often the last. Today you may live with your partner, get your career going, save up for a down payment on a house, and maybe even have a child together, and only then, if everything is going well, do you get married. And when you do, you have a big wedding to celebrate.

"Once Americans marry, however, they tend to evaluate their marriages in terms of their own individual happiness, their sense of personal fulfillment. And if the marriage isn't living up to these standards, they feel justified in leaving. We have one of the highest marriage rates but also the highest divorce rate of any wealthy country."

Andrew J. Cherlin is a professor of sociology at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round, released by Alfred A. Knopf in April. He has authored or co-authored four other books on marriage and the family.
— Interview by Michael Anft

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