When Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown announced her engagement in April this year – it sparked a major debate on social media. Much of the outrage stemmed from the fact that Brown is only 19 and that she’s too young to be making these decisions. But many argued, that despite her age she’s rich enough to afford whatever consequences arise.
Brown is one of many young celebrities taking a step in this direction – but among the masses, marriage is a luxury for the majority, that they can’t afford. And this is only part of the reason why women across the world are rejecting the institution of marriage.
More and more women are choosing not to get married for reasons including infidelity, increasing career opportunities and independence, and finding more security living with their parents and siblings. Historically, the institution of marriage has never really been in favour of women. Marriage’s primary purpose was to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs. Through marriage, a woman became a man’s property. Over time, of course, this has turned into a sort of equal partnership – at least on paper. The reality in many parts of the world begs to differ.
Marriage is in a long decline in many countries. In Japan, a record number of men and women aged 18-34 don’t intend to marry, according to a 2021 survey by The National Institute of Population and Social Security, Tokyo. This has had consequences for Japan’s birth rate as it faces the prospect of dramatic depopulation and a shrinking workforce and economy.
In the USA as well, the marriage rate has dropped by nearly 60 per cent over the last 50 years. Taxes and some other legal structures still give an advantage to married couples, but the formal benefits of marriage are diminishing, said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins. And the societal pressure to marry has eroded dramatically. Social and financial pressures on singles have lessened. Perhaps this means fewer marriages. But perhaps that isn’t a problem.
With the rise in cohabitation, the way we think about marriage is changing – and women especially, don’t feel the need to get married.
In South Korea, emerging feminists are tired of the rampant sexism that is so normalised in the country’s patriarchal culture – that they are renouncing marriage and motherhood in what they call the 4B movement. This movement began in 2019 and has since spread, in the hope that the conservative government of Yoon Suk-yeol will adopt measures that promote gender equality.
In India, too, there are more single women today than at any time in recorded history. There is a growing demographic in modern-day India: women over 30 who choose to be single, despite societal expectations. The dating trend ‘Consciously Single’ is becoming more popular in the country according to Bumble, as single people, particularly women, are consciously choosing to remain single and not compromise on their preferences while being more deliberate about who and how they want to date.
But people’s romantic choices are their own business. Unlike what many older people think, these rising trends are not evidence of a crisis.
“I can see why so many young women are giving up on marriage,” says Akanksha, 24. “I don’t really entirely reject the idea– but I’m not in a hurry. The conservative attitude in my family thankfully doesn’t extend to my parents, so they’ve left it entirely up to me. It’s more like I’m not actively pursuing it. If it feels right, it feels right – be it at 25, or 35 or 50.”
Prajakta, 22, echoes her sentiment, adding that women are just realising their worth more now. “I see so many of my girlfriends who started dating young, with boys who were nowhere near their intelligence level. A college acquaintance of mine almost threw away her 4 years of law school for some guy who failed out of a local college. Thankfully she was young and realised sooner that it just wasn’t worth it. More women now want partners who can match their standards and won’t settle for less.” I do believe this is part of the reason for declining marriage rates. We’ve always held men to such low standards, they never work on themselves, while women have to be the‘ perfect’ – we just won’t put up with that anymore.
This might also be a reason why among older millennials, divorce rates are on the rise. Although the divorce rate in India is less than two per cent, the trend of divorce among Indian youth has been increasing rapidly. In some Western countries, divorce is becoming easier; the UK, for instance, recently legalised no-fault divorces, which means couples now have a quicker and more straightforward route to break up. This change in rules could open the door for even more women – who might have been hesitant before – to file for divorce.
“I feel there is still a pressure on women to marry among most middle-class families. But from what I’ve noticed, if the women around me had a choice, they would have chosen differently. Maybe not marry as young as they did.” said Mrinal, adding, “I have a boyfriend, whom I love – but there’s a mutual understanding between us that marriage won’t define our love. We have the privilege to move abroad for our studies next year, where things are less conservative, so we’ll probably just end up living together. Maybe one of those civil partnerships for legal reasons. ”
Financially independent women are clearly more likely to choose to divorce or stay single, across most cultures.
Marriage has long been, at least in part, a deeply gendered economic arrangement, so it’s natural that growing economic opportunities for women would transform the meaning of marriage. In particular, it has made women choosier about their partners.