For the first time, traditional marriage has ceased to be the preferred living arrangement in the United States. Seventy-five years ago, married couples accounted for 84 percent of American households. Now they account for just less than half.

It appears that when it comes to traditional values, the U.S. is quickly falling in line with western Europe. Marriage rates there have been falling for years. Now, new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that for the first time, the number of marriage households in America has fallen below 50 percent.

Out of roughly 111 million family households, more than 14 million were headed by single women, another five million by single men, and a startling 36.7 million belonged to a category described as "non-family households." That is a term analysts say applies primarily to homosexual or heterosexual couples cohabiting out of formal wedlock.

The news service Agence France Presse (AFP) quotes Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute who says it is difficult for the traditional family to emerge unscathed after three-and-a-half decades of divorce rates reaching 50 percent, and five decades of out-of-wedlock births. "Change is in the air," Besharov said during a recent interview. "The only question is whether it is catastrophic or just evolutionary."

Besharov predicts the social landscape is likely to be dominated for years by cohabitation and temporary relationships. He also sees a move towards a "much more individualistic society" over time. "[W]hat I see is a situation in which people -- especially children -- will be much more isolated, because not only will their parents both be working, but they'll have fewer siblings, fewer cousins, fewer aunts and uncles," he says.

An official with Focus on the Family, reacting to the census findings, tells the New York Times he believes the trend in fewer married couples reflects more of a tendency to delay marriage than it does a rejection of the institution. Steve Watters, director of young adults for the Colorado-based ministry, says the numbers show "a lot of people are experimenting with alternatives" before they marry -- but he admits concern that those who wait "are going to find fewer models" or may find that they have "gotten so good at being single" that it will be difficult to be in a relationship with another person.

Interestingly, the census report indicates significant differences in household composition based on geographic location. For example, married households in one Utah county accounted for almost 70 percent of all households; whereas Manhattan, New York, has a smaller share of married couples than almost anywhere in the country (26 percent). AFP notes that unmarried couples "gravitate" toward big cities (e.g., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco), but traditionalists are drawn farm states in the Great Plains and rural communities of the Midwest and West. The highest percentages of homosexual couples were found in San Francisco (male couples; almost two percent of all households) and Hampshire County, Massachusetts (female couples; 1.7 percent).

Those demographics coincide with an observation made recently by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins describing what he called the "marriage and fertility gap." In relation to the make-up of the U.S. House of Representatives, Perkins says that "gap" clearly demarcates that Republicans overwhelmingly hail from districts that have high percentages of married people and lots of children; whereas districts represented by Democrats are stocked with more people who have never married and those who have few children.

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