Love Stories: Is Marriage Necessary?

We know that marriage is difficult. Is it necessary?

Posted Feb 05, 2010

Love Stories: Is Marriage Necessary?

Just in time for Valentine's Day, some recent, highly-publicized non-fiction debuts are sure to get you in the mood for romance. Staying True, by Jenny Sanford, chronicles the very public breakdown of her marriage to South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who wasn't hiking on the Appalachian Trail after all. Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb (the subtitle of which--the Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, says it all) accuses you of being too picky and urges you to snap up that guy who's an 8 rather than waiting for the 10. And The Politician, Andrew Young's new, explosive tell-all about John Edwards, details his infidelity and exposes, for our lurid delectation, the operatic fights and the second family he started while his wife was struggling with cancer.

Granted, these books don't describe the experiences of most of us. Hopefully our relationships are not all colored by messianic narcissism, bigamy, and profound cynicism about pairing off "before it's too late."

But in their own dramatic and overblown ways, these books speak a quieter, less dramatic truth: marriage isn't what we think it is, and it isn't easy. Plenty of marriages aren't doing well. While divorce rates for first marriages have settled from a high in the 1980s of around 50% to 43% according to the most recent Census, 43% is no cause for dancing in the streets. Especially when you consider that in remarriages with children, divorce rates divorce rates may be as high as 72%, according to E. Mavis Hetherington, the respected psychologist, family researcher, and author of the lauded 30-year Virginia Longitudinal Study.

Why? Much ink has been spilled and much breath has been spent and many workshop fees have been forked over in the interest of what's wrong with marriages, and how to improve them, to make them more satisfying, equitable, sexually exciting, emotionally healthy, nurturing, and harmonious. Saving marriages is a multi-million dollar industry, and we know from first-hand experience, many of us, that it can work. Marriages, some of them, can be saved.

But Marriage probably cannot.

While marital and couples therapists tell us how to save our marriages, sociology, anthropology, and human behavioral ecology suggest that it isn't so much married couples as Marriage itself, the institution, that's in trouble. The problem with marriages is really the fundamental problem with Marriage: marriages are falling apart in large part because Marriage is no longer necessary. At least, not in the way it once was.

Sociologists and historians of marriage tell us that marriage was originally a business transaction of sorts, rather than an undertaking hinging on the attraction and love between two individuals. Historically in western culture, people from wealthy families were directed to marry in order to create bonds, alliances, and mutual obligations with other powerful families—or even between nations, in the case of royals. For the lower classes, marriage was a question of creating a labor force to run a farm or small business. Households were production-centered economies in which men’s and women’s labor were complementary, and kids they had together or brought together from previous unions (maternal mortality rates were high until the late 19th century) pitched in. Marriage was necessary. And remarriage with children after the death of a spouse—a common occurrence until relatively recently—was considered the most civic-minded thing a man or woman could do. The household and by extension all of society depended on it, after all.

But by the early 20th century, marriage historian Stephanie Coontz points out, with the notions of the individual, liberty, and equality well-established by the Enlightenment and French and American revolutions, and the subsequent rise of the love match, marriage had become a different animal entirely. Marriage morphed from institutional, in the famous formulation of sociologist Ernest Burgess, to companionate and now, something more individualistic. Marriage is now expected to nurture, satisfy and support the members of the couple in a dizzyingly comprehensive variety of ways—emotionally, sexually, psychologically.

At the same time, sociologist Andrew Cherlin notes, as women came to participate more in the workforce, household micro-economies changed as well, from production to consumption-centered. Gender roles became more flexible. Women now had the economic freedom to walk away from unhappy unions. Not to mention the opportunity to find friendship, empowerment, and other potential partners in the workplace.

Times continue to change, and marriage, whether we like it or not, is tethered to our times and the forces of historical change. For example, marriage is no longer the only acceptable context for childbearing: increasingly, couples in the U.S. elect to cohabit rather than marry (and in Scandinavian countries like Sweden these couples are less likely to break up than are married couples in the U.S.) Many of these cohabiting couples are also having children outside marriage. And owing to women’s increased economic power and the rise of reproductive technologies, more women can and do elect to have children outside of marriage and even outside of the structure coupledom entirely.

As for those who suggest that the heterosexual pair bond is part of our evolutionary history and so "right" and "forever," there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. In many contemporary foraging cultures, for example, who live much as evolutionary biologists believe we did in the Pleistocene era, men and women "marry" nine or ten times and children are much more likely to live in stepfamilies or with single parents than with two parents. The notion that the permanent couple dyad as we now know it is timeless is one human behavioral ecologists now regard with skepticism if not outright disbelief.

Many argue that we "need" marriages to be emotionally and physically healthy, and recent studies claiming to prove as much, but there is also evidence that marriage is detrimental--the National Marriage Project found that the percentage of upper middle class white women who described their marriages as happy dropped from 74% to 68% over the last decades. Other studies find that married women are more likely to be depressed that unmarried women, and that women with stepchildren are far more likely to be clinically depressed than those without.

Regardless of our moral and ideological convictions and our public policy about what it should be and how we ought to value it, the fact is that marriage is not what it once was because the world is no longer what it once was: largely agrarian, with a neatly gendered division of labor within households whose production-centered economies also centered on the production and contributions of children therein. Those who propose a return to “traditional marriages” had better also provide time machines—marriage is married to its historical moment, and we’ve entered a new one.

Plenty of us are familiar with the argument that marriages aren’t feasible in the way they used to be—because now we live much longer, and “’til death do us part” is likely to be five or six decades rather than one or two; because we are more mobile as a society and so the forces that historically helped married people stay together, forces like the church and the extended family, have less influence over us; because it’s simply unreasonable to expect one relationship to satisfy us in so many ways; because, some argue, we’re not “wired” for monogamy.

Yet people live marriage every day, and make it work. We are not all Mark Sanford or John Edwards, and Gottlieb’s anti-romantic vision will leave many of us cold, even (to judge by the reviews in the blogosphere) outraged. But with Marriage less necessary than ever before, the challenge becomes, how do we make our own marriages necessary and relevant? How do we keep Marriage—not to mention marriages—alive? And should we even try?

Sources/ further reading:

Andrew Cherlin, "The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage," Journal of Marriage and the Family 66 (November 2004)

Burgess and Locke, The Family: from Institution to Companionship (1960)

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: a History (2005)

Mavis Hetherington, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (2002)

Barry Hewlett and Michael Lamb, eds., Hunter Gatherer Childhoods,: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives (2005)

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, "The Past, Present, and Future of the Human Family," Tanner Series Lecture on Human Values, University of Utah, February 27 and 28, 2001.

Brad Wilcox, The National Marriage Project, quoted by Jessica Grose, Slate, February 1, 2010





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