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The Culture of Marriage Has Outpaced the Institution

People typically idealize marriage as the loving monogamy of two people, epitomized by the phrase “till death do us part.” This idea of marriage, ubiquitous in books, movies, and advertisements, is so ingrained in American culture that people often forget this notion of marriage is relatively new. The culture of marriage has drastically changed over the centuries, rendering previous iterations of marriage almost unrecognizable to the modern ideal. People now expect marriage–which once was designed as a sociopolitical union–to fulfill their needs of love, companionship, and self-actualization. Nevertheless, while Americans’ cultural understanding of marriage has changed, the institution itself has not; marriage is still rooted in the idea of permanent monogamy between two people. This has caused a dissonance between the culture surrounding marriage and marriage itself. The institution often fails to meet people’s high expectations of it, resulting in unsatisfactory relationships and divorce. Thus, Americans must change either their expectations of marriage or the institution itself.

Marriage has not always been for the sake of love or self-fulfillment. In fact, those are historically recent concepts. Eli Finkel, a social psychology professor at Northwestern University, conducted a detailed cultural analysis of marriages over history. He found that traditional marriages in Western cultures were seen as economic or sociopolitical strategic partnerships. From 1620 to 1850, marriages were centered around food, shelter and protection from violence. It was common practice for couples to marry without knowing each other prior to the wedding. In marriage, love was luxury, not a requisite. After the industrial revolution, Americans increasingly moved to cities, where the average person could generally meet and interact with greater numbers of other individuals than in a rural setting. Americans also increasingly had more time and money to devote to luxuries such as love. The combination of greater population densities and of greater wealth and leisure time caused a shift in the nature of marriage. As such, by 1965, marriage revolved around love, companionship and sexual fulfillment. This idea was further cemented in the 1950s with the advent of television: Shows such as Leave it to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet displayed the “typical marriage” for all of America to see. According to a historical analysis by Cabrillo College, in this “typical” marriage–often represented by the heterosexual union of two people–the couple was supposed to “create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members’ personal needs through an energized and expressive personal life.” Marriage adopted a new meaning, whereby men and women were encouraged to derive their identity and self-image from their familial role.

Now, Americans use marriage for self-fulfillment and purpose, which is a marked shift from historical marriage norms. According to Professor Eli Finkel, Americans search for a marriage that “can promote self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.” That means that people expect that one person, their spouse, will make them into a better version of themselves–to provide emotional and financial support, personal challenge, fun, intellectual stimulation, and friendship all at once. In other words, people don’t just look for someone they love, but someone that also completes them. Because general welfare has increased overtime, they now have the flexibility to find a partner that fills more than just their basic needs such as shelter and economic security. Furthermore, social movements such as LBGTI rights and feminism have contributed to changing marriage norms. A cultural analysis of marriage has shown that the purpose of marriage has shifted from (a) fulfilling economic and political needs to (b) meeting intimacy and passion needs to (c) to fulfilling personal-growth and self-actualization needs. As such, expectations for a partner, and the purpose of marriage, have increased dramatically over time.

But while the culture surrounding marriage has changed, the institution has not. Marriage is still a monogamous partnership for life. In previous decades, different people filled the functions in a person’s life: Friends for fun, family for emotional support, work for purpose, etc. Now, Americans expect their spouse to fill all of these amalgamated tasks. This is epitomized in an opinion article from the Huffington Post, which says that “you get married, your best girlfriend cannot be your best friend anymore. That’s what your husband is for…. Your husband has to be your wingman.”

While there may be some people who have found their soulmate and don’t need anyone else to be happy, they are the minority. Expecting a partner to fill all of one’s emotional, financial, physical, and psychological needs is too much to ask of an individual. As such, reasons for divorce have changed–people divorce their partners for reasons such as “they aren’t sufficiently in love with their spouse or because they feel stagnant in their marriage,” according to Professor Eli Finkel. Those rationales for divorce would not have been legally sufficient 50 years ago, but now they are commonplace. Now Americans are living longer than ever before and have a different idea of what constitutes a good marriage, yet the institution has remained stagnant. This means that the cultural change surrounding marriage has outpaced the institution.

One way to reconcile this dissonance is to reexamine the modern culture of marriage. To do so, Americans should realize that it is unrealistic to expect their partner to fill every role of social support and to be able to make them a better person. Americans are now marrying later, 29 and 28 years old for men and women, respectively, compared to the median ages of 22 and 20 in the 1950s. In the words of Professor Eli Finkel, that means that marriage has “shifted from a first major step on the transition to adulthood to one of the last steps.” Now people are marrying after getting college degrees, starting their careers, and living independently. Before, when people married at younger ages, they did so before building up these other social networks–now people acquire these networks before they are married. Couples should recognize that these other people can serve for personal growth and fulfillment to alleviate some of the pressure on the marriage. Relying on various people for social support can help bridge the gap between the expectations for marriage, and what the institution provides.

Alternatively, the institution itself could change. One option is a contract system: Whereby couples could sign a contract of partnership to last five to ten years, which they could agree to renew after that time, provided the willingness of each spouse. A contract with an expiration date has advantages over a traditional divorce : There would be less time, cost, and drama if the couple decided to separate. The low life expectancy in the 1600s meant that, “until death do us part,” was only about 30 years. Now, marriages could last twice that long. Different life partners for different stages of life could help people in their search for personal growth and self-actualization. Thus, as people change, partners could change, without going through the drawn-out divorce process.

Another option, which is becoming increasingly popular, is open relationships. Open relationships are a form of consensual non-monogamous partnership, in which both partners are truthful and open with each other as to their interests in or relationships with other partners. A 2016 study revealed that one in five Americans had been in an open relationship at some point in their lives, and about 30 percent of both men and women thought that their ideal relationship would be consensually non-monogamous in some way. Furthermore, Americans under 30 are more likely to support non-monogamous relationships than older generations. These relationships are not necessarily solely sexual in nature–people can form deep, emotional bonds with multiple partners. Furthermore, studies reveal that people in polyamorous relationships tend to maintain a wider social network, are better at communicating with their partner, and may even have higher satisfaction in the relationship.

Because the standards of marriage have changed, there is a discrepancy between the new marital culture and the old institution. This can contribute to marital issues, as the reality of marriage often fails to meet people’s ideals. Americans can accept that their expectations outpace the institution, and should turn to other people to fill various social needs in their lives. Or, even more provocatively, the institution could change, to be more embracing of having various partners during various stages of life. Bridging the gap between the marriage culture and marriage itself may help people in their search for meaningful companionship.

Photo: Gold Jewelries Marriage 

About the Author

Ava Rosenbaum '20 is a Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Ava can be reached at ava_rosenbaum@brown.edu

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