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Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have made headlines for all sorts of reasons during their relationship, but their latest stint on the cover of gossip magazines was for something that shouldn’t be all that shocking: their decision to marry. Why is it so gossip-worthy? For seven years, the pair had chosen to raise a family while unmarried. The personal relationships of rich and famous actors usually bear little resemblance to those of regular Americans, but in this case the couple’s lifestyle reflects a larger trend.

Only about half of Americans are married now, down from 72 percent in 1960, according to census data. The age at which one first gets married has risen by six years since 1960, and now only 20 percent of Americans get married before the age of 30. The number of new marriages each year is declining at a slow but steady rate. Put simply, if you are an unmarried adult today, you face a lower chance of ever getting married, a longer wait and higher divorce rates if you do get married. The Pew Research Center recently found that about 40 percent of unmarried adults believe that marriage is becoming obsolete.

While marriage is in decline, unmarried cohabitation is on the rise. Fifteen times the number of couples today live together outside of marriage than in 1960. Almost half of cohabiting households include children.

Why should we care about what may be a failing institution? Brad Wilcox, UVA sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project, argues that the institution of marriage still symbolizes core values important to intimate relationships.

“Marriage conveys a sense of meaning, purpose, direction and stability that tends to benefit adults and especially children. People who get married have an expectation of sexual fidelity, and that fidelity tends to engender a sense of trust and security,” Wilcox says. “There is no kind of similar solemn ritual marking the beginning of cohabitation.”

Allison Pugh, also a UVA sociology professor, has a slightly different take on it. She says that it isn’t so much the institution of marriage that is important, but rather how well a family cares for children, regardless of its structure. Children need stability, nurturing and love, but both married and unmarried parents can provide those things, Pugh says.

Is America having a “marriage crisis?” Certainly, the institution of marriage is changing and it’s worth taking a look at why and where it might end up. It’s a question that a number of researchers at UVA are trying to answer by exploring the role of women in the workforce, emotional expectations for partnership and marriage’s benefits or costs to individuals and families.

Why has marriage declined?

The answer depends on whom you ask, but almost every expert points in part to the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and ’70s. As more women earned college degrees, entered the workforce and delayed motherhood, marriage became less necessary for their economic survival.

UVA psychology professor Robert Emery says that, in the past, people thought of marriage as “more of a businesslike relationship.” Women often received financial support from their husbands and women often provided household and child-rearing labor. Marriage rates fell and divorce rates rose when people started thinking less with their wallets and more with their hearts.

“The notion today is that marriage is about love and love is about personal fulfillment,” Emery says. Mutual personal fulfillment is a complex and evolving goal, and, without the extra glue of financial interdependence, people who no longer feel fulfilled may more easily leave a relationship.

Certainly, each marriage is different. A happy couple who married in 1960 would likely stay married, even without the reinforcement of economic disparity between men and women. But an unhappy couple married in 2000 would be more likely to divorce than an unhappy couple in 1960.

Marriage has changed because the relationship between the sexes has changed, but that’s not all. Amalia Miller, a UVA economics professor currently conducting research at the RAND Corp., has published a study linking the use of the birth control pill at a young age to women’s earnings in later years. She found that women who had access to the pill before the age of 21 in the 1960s not only had 8 percent higher wages than their counterparts later on in their careers, but also ended up marrying higher-earning men.

“[Access to the pill] narrowed the gender wage gap,” Miller says. “Part of it was that the women were able to become mothers later, but part of it was that they had more confidence and control over the timing of fertility.”

Miller’s research shows that women who have access to birth control are more likely to attend and graduate from college. They can plan their families and their careers. She found that women who delay motherhood by one year increase their earnings by 9 percent on average.

“The pill as a form of technology gave a lot more control to women in general,” Miller says. As the pill allowed women to both control when they became mothers and earn higher wages, the necessity for early marriage—or marriage at all—became less compelling.

The availability of birth control is not the only social change that has transformed marriage. Beginning in the 1970s, a more globalized economy began changing the American job market with outsourcing and layoffs. Gone are the days when one could spend his or her entire career at a single company. Greater job instability and a more mobile workforce have changed the way that we live. Pugh’s research, chronicled in her upcoming book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, found that when either men or women experience insecurity at work, they tend to take it out on their partners at home.

“Low expectations for loyalty at work inoculate them from feeling betrayed at work. There’s no such protection for them at home, however,” Pugh says. “Instead, their high expectations—their sense that surely, at least here, we can fight off the culture of insecurity—led them to see and name betrayal, to feel outraged, to walk around wounded.” Wilcox’s work also shows that people who suffer from job and financial instability are least likely to marry and more likely to divorce.

The earliest indicator of society’s response to shifting ideas about marriage was a spike in the rate of divorce. Although the divorce rate has fallen since the 1980s, when it was at an all-time high, it is still twice as high as it was in 1960, currently hovering around 50 percent.

Emery says that from a psychological standpoint, the high divorce rate has partly caused the decline in marriages today. “It makes young people today less secure in the idea of committing to and being in a lasting marriage,” Emery says. “Much of the rise in cohabitation as an alternative to marriage is actually an alternative to divorce. If you never make a commitment, you are never going to divorce.”

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Marriage diagnostics: College counts

For some sections of the population, there is no marriage crisis. If you are college educated, you are much more likely to be in a long-lasting, stable, happy marriage, and much less likely to divorce. Between the ’70s and the ’90s, the divorce rate among the college educated fell from 15 to 11 percent. In contrast, the divorce rate among those with only a high school education rose from 36 to 37 percent.

Wilcox sees evidence that marriage among the higher socio-economic classes is going strong, but about 70 percent of the country does not fall into that category. But is marriage the answer to the multitude of economic and societal problems that plague Americans in the lower socio-economic range? Is a more married America a better America?

In some cases, a drive to marry may cause more instability in the lives of children and parents. Pugh says that the way a family provides for children is more important than whether it is based upon a marriage. She puts particular emphasis on family transitions, when family structure changes with marriage, divorce or remarriage.

“Family transition is what matters, not family structure,” Pugh says. “If we get on the pro-marriage bandwagon, we send the wrong message, particularly to single mothers who are anxious about what has been termed ‘father need.’” Pugh refers to single mothers who may not choose the best marriage partners because they feel pressure to provide a father for their children at any cost. Households like the one she describes may go through several different marriages, which only decreases family stability.

Emery is in the midst of research that addresses this question: Does marriage make people happy or do happy people marry more than unhappy people? He is comparing the marriage experiences of identical twins. He uses twins to control for genetic variables that might contribute to unhappiness, so that he can study the environmental aspects of marriage and happiness.

Initial results suggest that marriage often does make people happy and happy people are more likely to marry. “We know that a particularly happy marriage is associated with all sorts of psychological benefits: you are less depressed, less anxious, less likely to be in trouble with the law, less likely to be engaged in drinking or drug use and you live longer,” says Emery. “We’re finding evidence that marriage is both a cause and an effect of happiness.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that all people outside of marriages are less happy than people in marriages. Emery is quick to point out that some married people exhibit negative psychological outcomes. Single people often reap benefits from their status as well. But most scholars agree that there is something about marriage that benefits a large portion of the population.

The future of marriage

In countries in northern Europe, marriage rates are even lower and cohabitation rates are even higher than in the U.S. Sweden has one of the lowest rates of marriage in the world, and three times as many couples cohabit there as in America. There, cohabitation is quickly becoming the norm, as there are almost no government benefits favoring marriage and no taboos against unmarried cohabitation among religious or cultural institutions.

“We’re not exactly moving to Sweden’s model,” Pugh says, “but I do think we’re making up new ways to be together. Maybe the way we’re coming together has changed, but we still want to be together.”

It turns out that people do want to be together, despite the declining number of marriages. Of the 40 percent of people who agree that marriage is obsolete in the Pew Research Center study, half still want to wed.

“We’re seeing people innovate culturally in response to massive social changes, and some of those cultural innovations we should welcome. We should make the lives of young people easier and provide them with the support they need to be able to commit to each other for the long term, rather than have them invest all of their hopes in this institution that has not proven flexible enough to handle the demands of modern life,” Pugh says. “Maybe we’re asking too much of traditional forms of marriage to be able to absorb all these changes.”

What about cohabitation? Like marriage, cohabitation has changed in the last 50 years. These days, living together precedes more than half of all first marriages. The No. 1 reason couples say they live together is to learn more about their potential marriage partner.

Emery encourages his students to “go outside the notion of just romantic marriage and think about arranging their marriages.” He suggests that people consider not only how they feel, but also the logistical considerations of a long-term partnership. Does a potential partner have compatible values? Or the interpersonal skills to resolve conflict?

Wilcox says that there’s no reason to give up hope for good, healthy marriages, but that people should take it slow.

“[We are] focused so much on education and work. [We communicate those values in the] kinds of messages we’re giving to young adults,” Wilcox says. “Yet when we’re looking at what really predicts global happiness, it’s our core relationships with family and friends—including spouses—that tend to matter a lot more in our lives.”

Marriage has changed because America has changed. We can’t return to the model of marriage from the mid-20th century because we no longer live in the culture or the economy that created it. And some would argue that we wouldn’t want to return to it even if we could. Both men and women have greater choice than they did 50 years ago not only in regard to whom they marry, but also if they do and what kind of family they want to build. And, if the experts agree on one thing, it is that these choices are some of the most important we make for our own happiness.