Marriage? Maybe later

Marlon Kimpson is 42 and a law-firm partner; Kimberlyn Davis is 36 and a marketing executive. The two decided to marry, but only after establishing themselves professionally.

Brad Nettles

First things first. Marlon Kimpson would establish himself professionally, then turn his attention to personal matters.

First things first. Kimberlyn Davis would finish school and launch a career, celebrating her independence, then think about settling down.

Kimpson, now 42 and a partner at the Motley Rice law firm, and Davis, 36 and a marketing executive at Bank of America, got engaged in April and plan to wed in June.

The marriage trajectory they have chosen is increasingly common, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

Marriage rates in the U.S. have reached a record low. Barely half of all adults over the age of 18 are married, the report stated. And the median age at first marriage is rising -- 26.5 years for brides, 28.7 years for grooms.

"In 1960, 72 percent of all adults ages 18 and older were married," said the report, based on U.S. Census data. "Today just 51 percent are."

And the number of unmarried adults cohabitating, living alone or living alone with children is on the rise.

Between 2009 and 2010 alone, the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5 percent, "a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy," the report stated.

Among adults ages 18 to 29, marriage is especially unpopular. In 2010, only 20 percent of them were married, compared with 59 percent in 1960.

For Kimpson, a late marriage was a question of priorities.

"My boss, Judge Matthew Perry, always told me you have to approach law school with a single-minded focus, and you can't really be distracted," Kimpson said.

"(At Motley Rice) I entered a whole new area of practice that demanded all of my time and energy -- traveling around the country, taking depositions, appearing in court. I had to have a single-minded focus. Even during that time, I don't think I had a meaningful relationship, because my top priority was to become established in my profession."

In 2008 he became a partner. Then he found Davis.

She too didn't think much about getting hitched until her career was on solid ground, she said.

After college, Davis was ready to conquer the world, she said. "I didn't have the mindset, as some women do, to go to college to find a husband."

At the University of Kentucky, where she studied advertising and business, she socialized with other independent female achievers. "I wanted to focus on myself and my career after college, and I wanted to see how far I could go."

She went to Columbus, Ga., where she worked in newspapers; she went to Nashville, where she worked for Coca-Cola; she went to Charlotte, where she found her marketing job with Bank of America. She will move to Charleston, retaining her current position, when she marries.

"I feel so fulfilled because I've done all these things I wanted to do in my life," Davis said. "I have no regrets."

Taking time

Sonya Fields Easterling, a marriage counselor in Charleston, has observed at close proximity the evolution of marriage in recent years.

"There's a shift in priorities," Easterling said, "especially for individuals in more developed and socialized countries."

Citing recent research, she noted the emergence of a new developmental phase between adolescence and adulthood. In the past, people became adults quickly. One day, they were students or children living at home, the next day they were married.

Now, in this new phase, "people are really taking the time to discover who they are and what they want to do with their lives, and are more comfortable being independent," Easterling said. "Marriage is still important to a lot of people, but not the priority coming out of adolescence."

It is possible, she added, that more deliberate marriages have their corollary in lower divorce rates. People who marry later in life are further along in their personal development and bring more experience to their relationships, she said.

"It would make sense to me they're making more informed choices when they do get married," Easterling said.

A 2010 Pew Research Center survey revealed significant change in public opinion about marriage. Three decades ago, 28 percent of Americans said they thought the institution of marriage was becoming obsolete. Last year, nearly 40 percent agreed with that premise.

"Younger generations are more likely than those ages 50 and older to hold the view that marriage is becoming obsolete," the report stated.

"Some 44 percent of blacks say marriage is becoming obsolete, compared with 36 percent of whites. Adults with college degrees (27 percent) are much less likely than those with a high school diploma or less (45 percent) to agree that marriage is becoming obsolete."

It turned out that marriage was not obsolete for 35-year-old Karen Dhooge and 34-year-old Kenny Schindler. After five years of courtship, they tied the knot in April.

Dhooge was a working single mom with two boys and not looking hard for a husband.

"I didn't really feel like I needed to get married," she said. "I was pretty self-sufficient, pretty independent. I didn't want to settle and get married just to get married."

Schindler was an Ohio transplant enjoying his bachelorhood. A computer and networking technician, he had gone to college with a cousin of Dhooge and fell in with her brothers when he moved to Charleston.

"He had decided he wasn't going to get married," Dhooge said. People don't feel compelled to marry like they once did, she added. It's not difficult to find companionship, even raise children without getting hitched. "A lot of people don't feel the need to do it -- unless it's absolutely sure," she said.

But then love took hold of Schindler and Dhooge. "Well," she said, "I'm a good catch."

Price of permanence

The Rev. Don Flowers, pastor at Providence Baptist Church, stopped short of asserting that "the sanctity of marriage" was under assault.

"Marriage can be a sacred institution," Flowers said. "I think if you understand the way that grace is distributed, marriage can be a sacrament. ... But I know of lots of marriages that are not sacred; they're the gates of hell itself."

As a pastor, he has met with marriage-prone couples afraid to replicate the kinds of unions their parents had.

"If the couple both have parents still married, they are by far the exception to the rule," Flowers said. Probably there is a correlation between high divorce rates in the past (they peaked in 1981) and the current reluctance to marry, he said.

The biggest shift he has seen relates to cohabitation. The vast majority of couples Flowers counsels are living together, he said.

"Perhaps it's the old-fashioned minister part of me, but I think there is something that happens when you stand up in front of your family and friends and the people nearest and dearest to you, and promise to grow old together with your mate," he said.

"There's something about that ... public expression of covenant or promise -- (it) doesn't make it more sacred, but I think it makes it more permanent."

But permanence comes with a price, a constant negotiation and compromise, Flowers said.

"What am I willing to give up in order to keep the relationship? People are less and less willing to give anything up. It's a very self-centered world that we're living in."

Money matters

And then there are the economics.

Financial and logistical challenges have complicated marriage in recent decades. Often, men and women work, leaving less time for raising children and requiring more money to pay for childcare.

Maintaining a middle-class lifestyle has become more and more costly, demanding two incomes. At some point something's got to give, Flowers said.

"As a society, we operate under the delusion that we're still under the Cleaver family model where June is home wearing the pearls. But June isn't home wearing the pearls," he said.

Financial pressures also act as a disincentive for divorce.

"It's expensive to get divorced and expensive to go into two households," notes Easterling.

Jon Mersereau, a family law attorney on Daniel Island, is pretty sure the decline in divorce rates is a consequence of the economy. Even the court system is pushing for mediated settlements rather than divorce, because of budget constraints and overflowing case loads, Mersereau said.

Financial pressure resulting from divorce is exacerbated by the high, often prohibitive, cost of health care, he added.

"Health care insurance is so expensive. If you get divorced, under many or most policies you have to disassociate the person who's not covered."

But Mersereau said there is more to declining marriage rates than money worries. People are less inclined to affiliate with a particular person or institution or ideology.

"People just don't have a passion like they used to," he said. "It's the same with marriage, it's same with politics."

And because they hear such horror stories about bad divorces, they hesitate to marry in the first place, he said.

Shifting priorities

When Kimberlyn Davis' parents married, they inherited the values of the 1950s, she said. That was when the post-World War II American Dream of raising a family and owning a house in the suburbs was most fervently embraced.

The institution of marriage often meant that the man brought home the bacon while the woman became a full-time homemaker. One income was enough.

But times have changed.

Mary W. Hopkins, a relationship counselor in Charleston, said the shame or social stigma of "living in sin" and having children out of wedlock has diminished in recent decades. She knows of many couples who live together but don't marry.

"I guess a big reason people don't get married more, and earlier, is because they don't have to," Hopkins said. "They have other options. They see how difficult it is to make a relationship work for the long term."

By the time Davis was born in 1975, America had undergone the sexual revolution, the feminist movement was in full swing and women were increasingly asserting their autonomy.

Though members of her parents' generation tended to have children in their 20s, Davis didn't give the matter a thought until she was 30, she said.

"I was very active," Davis said. "The people around me were older. The people I was associating with at work were typically 10, 15 years older than me." She was focused on developing her career.

Today, she and Marlon Kimpson look forward to a married life together.

Kimpson said he is playing an active role in planning the wedding. The detail-attentive attorney with the Type A personality is focused on "the execution of the plan," he said.

"We got engaged on my birthday," Kimpson said. "We were planning to go to Jamaica to celebrate my birthday. She always showed me great affection on my birthday. Even though the day was really about me, I wanted to make it about her."

But there was an ulterior motive for choosing that particular day to pop the question.

"So I'll always remember our engagement date."

Useful to anyone seeking to understand the institution of marriage is Stephanie Coontz's 2005 book, 'Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage.' Here are a few excerpts from the Introduction:

'It is true that 1950s marriages were exceptional in many ways. Until that decade, relying on a single breadwinner had been rare. For thousands of years, most women and children had shared the tasks of breadwinning with men. It was not unusual for wives to ‘bring home the bacon' — or at least to raise and slaughter the pig, then take it to the market to sell. In the 1950s, however, for the first time, a majority of marriages in Western Europe and North America consisted of a full-time homemaker supported by a male earner. Also new in the 1950s was the cultural consensus that everyone should marry and that people should wed at a young age. For hundreds of years, European rates of marriage had been much lower, and the age of marriage much higher, than in the 1950s. The baby boom of the 1950s was likewise a departure from the past, because birthrates in Western Europe and North American had fallen steadily during the previous hundred years.

'... (T)he 1950s Ozzie and Harriet family was not just a postwar aberration. Instead it was the culmination of a new marriage system that had been evolving for more than 150 years. ... (T)here was a basic continuity in the development of marriage ideals and behaviors from the late 18th century through the 1950s and 1960s. In the 18th century, people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love. The sentimentalization of the love-based marriage in the 19th century and its sexualization in the 20th (century) each represented a logical step in the evolution of this new approach to marriage.

'Until the late 18th century, most societies around the world saw marriage as far too vital an economic and political institution to be left entirely to the free choice of the two individuals involved, especially if they were going to base their decision on something as unreasoning and transitory as love. ... From the moment of its inception, this revolutionary new marriage system already showed signs of the instability that was to plague it at the end of the 20th century. As soon as the idea that love should be the central reason for marriage, and companionship its basic goal, was first raised, observers of the day warned that the same values that increased people's satisfaction with marriage as a relationship had an inherent tendency to undermine the stability of marriage as an institution. The very features that promised to make marriage such a unique and treasured personal relationship opened the way for it to become an optional and fragile one.'

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