faith in marriage(Photo: Chris Craymer)

You know those celebrity magazine covers, the ones with photos of a famous couple ripped apart under a headline like $290 MILLION DIVORCE! (Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher) or INSIDE HER SAD SPLIT (Heidi Klum and Seal)? They give the impression that America is in the midst of a marital crisis, which would be easy to dismiss if it were just Hollywood we were talking about. Thing is, it isn’t: A growing body of research shows the rest of us are questioning marriage too.

Exhibit A: Although the overall divorce rate is dropping slightly, it’s actually on the rise among 25- to 29-year-olds, according to the latest U.S. Census. A first marriage is especially vulnerable: One in 10 fails within five years.

Exhibit B: Fewer people are marrying in the first place. Only 51 percent of adults today are hitched, compared with 72 percent in 1960, a Pew Research Center analysis found. From 2009 to 2010 alone, new marriages fell 5 percent.

Exhibit C: In the most startling development, more than half the births to women under 30 now occur out of wedlock, government data reveal. “This is quite amazing,” says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “A hundred years ago, if you had a child out of marriage, you’d be a social disgrace. Today women feel comfortable enough economically and culturally to bring up a child without a recognized commitment from a man.”

It’s enough to make you wonder: Could marriage in America soon be history? When we popped the question to more than 2,100 women and over 1,000 men ages 18 to 40, the answer was (well, what do you expect?): It’s complicated.

Happily never after

Marriage is as old as Adam and Eve, and our survey-takers are still enthusiastic about the tradition, at least in theory. A full 92 percent say they want to get married someday. But when it comes to the reality of marriage in 2012, women are more skeptical: More than half of those under 30—51 percent—say the institution is becoming outdated. “This is really a breathtaking statistic,” says Pamela Haag, Ph.D., author of Marriage Confidential. “If you’d asked this 60 years ago, a lot of women would have been too busy making dinner for their husband or running after their children to even take the survey, and they couldn’t afford to not be married. Today there are so many other options. Marriage might still be the preferred dream. But it’s not the exclusive dream.”

Many women echo that sentiment. “At some point I would like to be able to say ‘my husband’ instead of ‘my boyfriend,’” says Melody Wilson, 26, who lives outside Washington, D.C., and has been with her boyfriend for four years. “But if I never got married, I wouldn’t feel shunned or inept at relationships, which I might have if I lived decades ago.” Vanessa Vancour, 27, of Reno, Nevada, goes even further: “Having a ring and legal documentation does not guarantee commitment, devotion, or happiness,” she says. “Weddings can be beautiful, but beyond the pretty dress and a few legal rights, I don’t see the point.”

Certainly, Wilson and Vancour don’t speak for all women; 49 percent of you feel marriage is a timeless institution. “I think it’s the ultimate sign of commitment,” says Megan Brames, 22, of Nashville. “I want to know my partner is serious about spending his life with me.” Guys are even more traditional—a full 55 percent aren’t giving up on matrimony. “Despite the myth that men are less committed, they are predisposed to desire marriage,” says Fisher. It’s evolution, she explains: “He wants to keep the mother of his children around to ensure his DNA lives on.”