WASHINGTON — If the decline in marriage is to be reversed, the Church, families and society must do a better job educating children about its value.

That’s the message noted marriage and family experts have in response to a recently released survey showing the percentage of married couples in the U.S. has dipped below 50% for the first time.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 49.7% of U.S. households in 2005 were married-couple families. This is a half-percentage point less than the 50.2% of married-couple families reported in 2004.

“The marriage rate has gone down about half since 1960. The proportion of households that are married has declined from 76% in 1957 to below 50% now. The number of non-family households has climbed,” said Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. “These are massive changes, and marriage as an institution is in decline.”

Proliferation of no-fault divorce, glamorization of extramarital sex, and normalization of out-of-wedlock births are some of the blows to traditional marriage that Carlson sees as being responsible for the current situation.

“I think we fundamentally have to realize that we’ve let heterosexual marriage deteriorate over the past several decades, and we shouldn’t be surprised if people are running away from it,” he added.

Experts with varying viewpoints on marriage and family agree that while the data reports a drop in the proportion of married couples in the United States, the majority of Americans will marry at some point in their lives. Both Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, agree that between 85% and 90% of Americans will marry.

The new census data mean that of the 111 million households in the U.S., 74.3 million are family households and the remaining 36.7 million are non-family households. Of the 74.3 million family households, married couples account for about 55.2 million of them, about 74%, according to the Census Bureau’s data.

The remaining 19 million family households represent single parents with mother-only households accounting for more than 70% of that total.

The proportion of married couples per state ranges from a high of 61.5% in Utah to a low of 21.8% in the District of Columbia.

Not in Minority

But Gallagher points out that marriage is actually not in the minority.

“While there is a clear and worrisome trend toward a decline in marriage in the U.S., the suggestion that marriage has become a minority institution is still false,” she said.

While the current proportion of married couples is dipping below 50%, the actual number of married couples continues to climb, and the experts on both sides have pointed out that a solid majority of Americans, 85% to 90%, will marry at some point in their lives.

Gallagher points out that, while the proportion of married couples may have dropped in the latest Census snapshot, it does not necessarily translate into fewer marriages or mean “most people are not getting married.”

“However, there’s no question that marriages are weaker than they were 50 years ago, despite a slight decline in the divorce rate over the past 20 years.

“The big question we face is: Are we going to transmit a stronger, healthier and more loving married culture to the next generation, or are we going to sit by and watch our community suffer as marriage dwindles away?” she said.

Not everyone shares Gallagher’s concerns. Some organizations, like Unmarried America and the Alternatives to Marriage Project welcomed the news of the new “unmarried majority.”

“We celebrate these numbers because they should speed the emergence of policies and practices that are fair and reflect the true diversity of households,” Alternatives to Marriage Project Executive Director Nicky Grist said in a recent news release.

Coontz chalks up the recent statistics mainly to a delaying in the age that people are getting married rather than an abandonment of the institution.

“Marriage isn’t dying out, and in many ways, it is more valued than ever,” she said. “However, it feels less compulsory, and it organizes far fewer of the major events in people’s lives. When we factor in divorce, Americans now spend, on average, half of their adult lives outside marriage.”

Rather than working to reinforce the values of traditional marriage, Coontz argues that society needs to adapt to the changing demographics.

“The social weight of marriage in the culture, the economy and in social life has been reduced. We need to adjust our emotional expectations, our sex education, and our old ways of assigning medical benefits and legal rights to the reality that many obligations are now incurred outside marriage, and that marriage is no longer the only place where dependents get taken care of,” she added.

Unlikely Source

In Carlson’s view, the ongoing debates and referenda on same-sex “marriage” may actually help draw attention to the efforts to rehabilitate traditional marriage.

“The same-sex ‘marriage’ debate is forcing us to focus on what are the real purposes of marriage. We kind of let them slide, and it’s time to focus on them again. We have to undo the damage that’s been done and restore marriage as a real institution,” he said.

According to Gallagher, it’s a fear of divorce and a desire to be self-sufficient should a marriage end rather than an obsession with materialism that is part of the reason why people are delaying marriage until their later years. And everyone — especially parents and the Church — must do more to instill the value of marriage in children at an early age.

“Parents have to focus that as important of a goal of raising (their children) to be law-abiding citizens and good students is communicating how important marriage is,” she said.

“What are our Church communities doing to help people live out the sacrament of marriage?” she asked.

Parish Takes Action

For an answer, Gallagher might take a look at Our Lady of Loreto parish in suburban Foxfield, Colo., outside Denver. Owen Vyner, director of marriage and family, is on the front line of efforts to ensure engaged couples are spiritually prepared to enter into the sacrament of marriage.

The parish’s marriage preparation begins with an initial meeting even before a wedding date is set. The program is a minimum of nine months, and includes 15 classes focused on the theology of marriage, life skills and natural family planning, all of which are based on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Vyner is also working to develop an enrichment program for married couples.

Vyner, a native of Australia who studied at the Franciscan University at Steubenville and the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, said a major challenge he encounters among engaged couples is a high rate of cohabitation.

Despite these challenges, Vyner has seen some cohabitating couples undergo a conversion and abstain from sexual activity for the remainder of the engagement, a result he attributes to the New Evangelization and the personal nature of his parish’s program.

“We’re seeing that when the preparation process is grounded in theology of the body and in Scripture, when it’s backed up by the priest and deacons, and when couples have an opportunity to develop friendships with the mentoring couples, that’s where you’re going to see conversion happening,” Vyner said.

While fear of divorce, a focus on materialism and general cynicism about marriage are cause for concern, Vyner has faith in the power of conversion.

“I think ultimately people’s hearts need conversion more than anything, and they need to understand the best way to live marriage is as God intended it to be lived,” he said. “Our goal is to bring couples to conversion and allow them to make the best opportunity to enter into marriage.”

Nick Manetto is based in

Reston, Virginia.