February 14 is upon us, and though the cards, chocolates and teddy bears of contemporary Valentine’s Day may seem a far cry from the 5th century feast of a Roman saint, we still love to celebrate love. Much has changed about how we find and express love since the early middle ages—obviously. In fact, as you’ll see, much has changed in the last two decades. Modern day romance is a fluid beast, and the expectations and demands of a rapidly changing culture have transformed the landscape of love. To examine those shifts, this article draws from a number of Barna studies and demographic data, including many from Barna Trends, and takes a peek at the changing dynamics of marriage and singleness, the trends toward premarital cohabitation, the impact of online dating and the possibilities of finding love at work.
Not Alone: Percentage of Single People Continues to Grow
Barna has been collecting demographic data on the American public for decades, providing some fascinating insights into the generational shifts occurring nationwide, particularly when it comes to singleness, marriage and divorce. Overall, the segment of American adults who are currently married—though fluctuating slightly over the last 16 years—remains steady at just over half of all adults (52% in 2000 and 52% in 2016). Those who are currently divorced also remains steady at about one in 10 (10%), from 11 percent in 2000. Because of the reality of re-marriage, the currently divorced rate does not take into account past divorce, which, when accounted for, brings the proportion of American adults who have ever been divorced to one-quarter (25%), a rate that has remained steady since 2000 (when it was 24%). The percentage of single people (never married) however has increased from just over one-quarter (27%) to three in 10 (30%). This uptick is the big story here, and it only gets more pronounced when looking closely at the trends within the different age groups.
For instance, between 2000 and 2016, the relational makeup of those aged between 25 and 39 shifted dramatically. In the 16 years since 2000, the amount of single people in the 25-29 range rose 9 percentage points (from 50% percent to 59%), and the amount of single people in the 30-39 range also rose 10 percentage points (from 24% to 34%). From a different angle, during the same time period, those groups saw similar shifts in the number of those married. In the 16 years since 2000, the amount of people married in the 25-29 range dropped 7 percentage points (from 43% to 36%), and the amount of people married in the 30-39 range dropped 8 percentage points (from 65% to 57%). These are massive shifts, most pronounced among those in their twenties and thirties, toward a broader move to delay marriage among younger Americans. If you were in your late twenties in the year 2000, you were much more likely to be married than if you were that same age today. These figures are staggering considering the relatively short time period in which they occur. The census bureau statistics from 2011 corroborate these broader shifts. Americans are getting married later and later. The average age of first marriage in the United States is 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 and 20 and 22 in 1960. In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today, according to the Barna numbers, that number is just 52%.
When it comes to the faithful, there is both difference and likeness. The difference—and it is a significant one—is that practicing Christians and evangelicals are much more likely to be married than the average American. For instance, almost six in 10 (59%) practicing Christians are married (a number that has remained steady since 2000), compared to just over half (52%) of the general population. This is even more pronounced among evangelicals, 67 percent of whom are married, 15 percent higher than the general population. But where practicing Christians and evangelicals share likeness with the rest of the country is in the proportion who have ever been divorced. In fact, both groups equal the rate of divorce (both historically and currently) of the general adult population. Among both groups, one-quarter (25%) have been divorced (as of the 2016 data), compared to that very same number among all adults. So although those with strong religious convictions are more likely to be married, they are also just as likely to have experienced a divorce.
“Dating” and “Cohabiting” Are Increasingly Synonymous
When it comes to living together, the majority of adults (65%) either strongly or somewhat agree it’s a good idea to live with one’s significant other before marriage, compared to one-third (35%) who either strongly or somewhat disagree. Though it may seem that couples would live together primarily for convenience or cost-saving, almost all adults see it as a rite of passage in the path toward marriage. The idea of living with one’s significant other before getting married for the sake of convenience (9%) or to save rent (5%) isn’t as persuasive as the value of testing compatibility (84%). Though the debate has raged over whether cohabitation reduces or increases the pressure of marriage, it appears that among those who have actually done it, there was no major effect either way. A majority (62%) believes that living together did not affect the pressure to get married at all, and those who say it reduced (19%) or increased (18%) the pressure to get married were evenly split.
The most prominent cohabitation detractors are religious groups. Among those who believe living with one’s significant other before getting married is not a good idea, the biggest factor is religious (34%). The expectation of abstinence prior to marriage is a major driver here: 28 percent chose “I don’t believe people should have sex before getting married” as their biggest reason for believing cohabitation is a bad idea. Of lesser importance are issues of practicality (16%), valuing family and tradition (12%) and other reasons (10%).
Among all American adults, almost six in 10 (57%) either currently live with their boyfriend / girlfriend or have previously done so—a number very close to the 65 percent who believe it is a good idea. Older, conservative and more religious (Christian or otherwise) Americans are the least likely to have ever cohabited. Surprisingly, Millennials are one of the groups least likely to cohabit. Younger, less religious and more liberal Americans are more likely to have lived with a significant other before marriage. Interestingly, church attenders are among this group, a fact that demonstrates the pervasiveness of this cultural shift.
A Majority Still Don’t See Online Dating as an Option
The explosive growth of smartphones and digital technology has increasingly brought dating into the world of technology. Overall, almost three in 10 American adults (28%) have either tried online dating once or twice (14%), use it regularly (5%), or have used it previously, but not anymore (9%). But almost three-quarters (72%) haven’t tried it at all, and more than half (52%) would never do so. That said, of those who have never tried it, 16 percent are still open to it. Gen-Xers (7%) and Millennials (6%) are the most regular users of online dating, and Gen-Xers are also more likely to have tried it (37%) than any other age group. And interestingly, Millennials, those who have come of age in a digital generation, are not much more likely to be users than Boomers (27% vs 24%). Evangelicals tend to stay away from online dating. They were the group most likely to say they would never use online dating (75%), and only 1 in 10 have either used it once or twice (9%) or use it regularly (1%).
Among users, the most popular site is match.com, which is frequented by more than one-third of users (34%). The next most popular sites are OK Cupid (21%), and eHarmony (19%), with Tinder coming in at just over one in 10 users (11%). Match.com is the most popular site or app among each age group except Millennials, who prefer OK Cupid and Tinder. But whatever site or app is used, it seems there’s still a deep level of uncertainty about the medium. Among those who have previously or currently use online dating, a plurality (39%) have had a mixed experience. Almost three in 10 (29%) have had a very positive (13%) or mostly positive (16%) experience, while almost one-third (32%) have had a very (15%) or somewhat negative (17%) experience. But people are still finding love online. Among users of online dating sites and apps, one in 3 (29%) met their current partner online, and on average, 2.4 of their friends also met their current partner online.
One in Four Sense Coworker Chemistry
So where else do people usually find love? The workplace is rife with romantic (or simply sexual) chemistry: one quarter of all adults (25%) believe a coworker or supervisor was attracted to them, and a further 16 percent actually had that coworker or supervisor tell them they were attracted to them. Even more (18%) had a coworker ask them out on a date, but fewer (6%) had supervisors do the same. When it comes to water-cooler conversation, a large 44 percent of employed adults heard men discussing the physical attractiveness of female coworkers, and one-third (33%) heard women discussing the physical attractiveness of men. But that attention is not always appreciated. For instance, 13 percent had unwanted sexual or romantic attention from a coworker, and 4 percent from a supervisor. It may seem obvious that these numbers would increase for single Americans. But that’s not the case. Married adults are as likely to have unwanted sexual or romantic attention from a coworker (14% compared to 12% of singles), to have a co-worker tell them they were attracted to them (18% compared to 15% among singles) or have a supervisor ask them out on a date (7% compared to 6% among singles). They are also as likely to have a co-worker ask them out (both 19%).
Today’s world demands that men and women interact at unprecedented levels. They are co-workers, friends, supervisors, partners and more. The social narrative has often been that men and women cannot be in a relationship without sexual tension getting in the way. However, most Americans’ lived experience does not that bear that out. The majority of Americans say they have never felt unspoken romantic tension with someone of the opposite sex. Of course, there are understandable expectations: Younger Americans and those who are single have experienced more sexual tension with co-workers, casual acquaintances, close friends and casual friends, than their married counterparts and other groups. The most likely relationship for anyone to feel such romantic tension: casual friendships (20%), close friends (19%), co-workers (17%), and casual acquaintances (16%).
What the Research Means
“The state of romance is complicated,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group. “But when hasn’t it been? Since the Garden of Eden, humans have been trying to puzzle out love. Where does it come from? How do you really know if this person is the one? Why does it hurt so very much when love breaks? None of these questions have disappeared in the 21st century, people are still falling in and out of love, there are still hundreds of love songs and heartbreak songs being written every year. Romantic love isn’t going anywhere. But the state of romance—the reasons and mechanics for how we date, the when and why of getting married, the places we find love—has changed dramatically in a very short period of time.
“Marriage itself has seen the greatest impact,” continues Stone. “While once viewed as the primary end goal for romantic relationships, the institution of marriage now seems to be under great scrutiny. People are getting married later and later in life, they are dating and breaking up with more people before they commit to a life-long relationship. The ‘trials and errors’ of dating now include living together as an assumed, final hurdle before marriage. In 2014, we found that while 82 percent of Millennials want to get married some day, they want to wait until they feel more fully developed as a person (70%), are financially established (69%), and have lived together (60%). A full 30 percent of Millennials aren’t so sure about marriage at all—they express doubt as to whether or not they even believe in the conventional form of marriage. An understandable attitude when you consider that nearly 40 percent of them did not grow up in two-parent homes. Millennials and Gen-Xers were children when divorce rates hit an all-time high, and their cautious approach toward marriage is the likely result.
“These relationship shifts have significant impact on churches,” points out Stone. “Many churches are built around a family model. They are most comfortable ministering to families and have developed an infrastructure to support couples and children. Single and dating young adults move around more often, they switch jobs more frequently, and their social lives often take precedence over institutional commitments. Yet if young adults are waiting longer to get married, the church can’t afford to simply hope they’ll come back once they get married and settle down. People’s twenties are a critical part of their formation—people shape identity, habits and beliefs during those years. They are important years to be part of a church community.
“Pastors and spiritual leaders must take a look at the ways they are reaching out to young adults,” says Stone. “Are your ministries set up to meet the fundamental needs of that age group: career building, personal formation, social activities, friendship and the complexities of singleness and dating? Do you talk about the benefits and risks of online dating? Are you having frank conversations about sex? Are you able to offer a believable reason for why people shouldn’t live together before marriage? Churches are often afraid to address these questions outside of youth group—but increasingly, young adults need this kind of guidance. They are skeptical that the church is relevant to their lives—or that faith has answers for them. Dating, sex and love are opportunities to show that the church can offer meaningful guidance through the minefield of modern day romance.”
About the Research
The data comes from four separate studies, mostly from Barna Trends with 1000 interviews each, conducted online with a random, representative sample of U.S. adults, ages 18+. The error rate is + or – 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier
Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian
Born again: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Evangelicals: meet nine specific theological criteria. They say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2017