The Future of Marriage

tying the knot proverbial marriage It’s not really something I expected to be talking about but the topic keeps coming up: what is marriage going to look like in 10, 20, 50 years? I tend to think about things both as they happen and afterwards, mulling on how events transpired, what I could have done differently to change or improve the outcome and how I could have reacted or framed things in a better, more positive or even just more lighthearted manner. I’m the opposite of a “live in the moment” sort of person, I guess, where I believe our past is a book to study so we can learn how to be better not just today but tomorrow too.

The geek in me wants to call this successive behavioral refinement, but I’ll try to switch back to the main topic…

It’s no surprise that having survived the painful journey of divorce and the equally painful, albeit rather different post-divorce journey of single parenting, with its ups and, for sure, downs, I have also spent a lot of time looking at how things have played out in the last 6-7 years with me, with my ex and with my children. Add to that the dozens of men and women I’ve talked with at length about their own relationships, problems they face and, often, their own experiences with deciding to divorce, divorcing and the post-divorce recovery period.

It really kinda is a jungle out there, a very difficult moment in our cultural history to get and stay happily married.

I’ve come to believe that the institution of marriage is on its way to eventual extinction. There’s no way to be gentle about it. As more women are empowered to find their own happiness, part of that mojo has produced a culture where more than 50% of divorces are initiated by the wife, and where over half of all marriages end up in divorce. Look at second or third marriages and the chances of success are even smaller. And us guys aren’t blameless either: we want it all, now, and expect our wives to grow younger and more vivacious over time, not the opposite.

This has a profound impact on us adults, of course, but even more so on our children. Mixed families are becoming the norm – if they haven’t already become the norm – and half-brothers, step-sisters, same-mom-different-dads and vice-versa are the trend of the future, whether we like it or not. Go to a typical high school class and survey the children: My 17yo daughter estimated that over 75% of the kids in her 10th grade class last year were in non-traditional situations, whether it was because the Dad had vanished, the Dad was raising the child single-handedly, because they lived in a split two-household world and swapped back and forth (like mine), or because one of the spouses lived elsewhere.

Truth be told, I find this really depressing.

When my 17yo says “I don’t think I’m ever going to get married”, I find that a sad statement. We’re social beings and there’s nothing more joyous and satisfying than being in a close relationship with someone who fulfills your needs and fills your heart. And that’s never going to change.

The problem is making it “last a lifetime” rather than the more common approach which now seems to no longer be “until death do us part” but “until an argument or major hassle do us part”. Heck, my ex and I wrote our own vows when we got married and she insisted on us removing that particular phrase. I would have been fine with an exchange of traditional vows. Retrospectively I can only now say “Hmmm…”

Imagine a new definition of marriage being “ten years and we’ll try to have a child or two” and it starts to fit demographic trends far better than the death do us part, thick or thin, sickness or health, we’re now stuck with each other forever honey, sort of fantasy that I think we still all hope to find. Problem is, that lifetime partnership where you stay together even as you grow sometimes closer together, sometimes further apart, might just be a thing of the past for our children. Or their children.

And then what are families going to look like, and what’s the experience of being a child and having siblings going to be?

7 comments on “The Future of Marriage

  1. I’m more optimistic about the institution of marriage, and you listed the reason why mid-post: “We’re social beings and there’s nothing more joyous and satisfying than being in a close relationship with someone who fulfills your needs and fills your heart. And that’s never going to change.”

    My bigger fear is what I see as a downward slope in general mental health — not mental illness, just a general mental well being. I’m pretty pessimistic on that front.

  2. Dave, I have to disagree with you. But then I come from parents who are still married after over 50 years, and I’m 20 years into mine. While I do see more non-traditional families as my daughter gets older, I still see a majority of kids with two stable parents (this is California, so they are not always “traditional”) still.

    I also think that more people are getting married later. This should mean they are more mature and able to understand what they are getting into. Marriage is for the long haul, and if both parties don’t really commit to that, then you run the risk of a breakup.

  3. I’m a long time fan of sci-fantasy fiction and in several I’ve read over there years you’ll find things such as marriage as a contractual affair that lasts for a specified term – say 10 years. At which point the two parties involved can either opt to renew the contract for another 5-10 years or part amicably.

    I think that marriage has lots it’s original historic purpose which was to connect two people (and their families) for financial or political reasons, not for the idea of “romantic love” as is the expectation in current generations.

    When you look at current times and weigh the facts that women of current generations have more independence (more rights, careers that give them financial independence, etc.); that men are more involved child-rearing; that life expectancy has doubled since the idea of “marriage” began; that both men and women are no longer limited to their own culture or community but can learn, explore, and experience many more things in their lives – it makes sense that the idea of marriage should be re-examined in future.

    When we look back at our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents lifestyles in most cases they married young, within their own village or community, settled into domestic life with children, worked the same jobs all their lives (and often those were the same as those of their parents) and that was that. This is not the experience of the current generation or the generations to come. Culture and lifestyles have changed and with it the reasons for marriage (the original historic reasons of financial or political alliances) are no longer valid.

    Do I think couples can stay happily married for decades? Sure some definitely do, but I think it’s rare. I see a lot of people who stay together but are bitterly unhappy.

  4. Dear Dave (Abbey) while the facts against marriage lasting as long as “was common back in the days” I refuse to believe there is no hope of finding that partner, that soulmate to spend the rest of your life with. Perhaps my being a hopeless romantic has set me up for the fairy tale dream and I want that. I think people give up too easily, it’s hard work to keep a relationship alive, but if you don’t believe in the fairy tale, the happily ever after, if you don’t honor that commitment you make when you pledge yourself, then you will give up, you will find it easy to walk away. Our society with a ten second attention span has made marriage disposable, we are “Googlized” to not get the right answer, resubmit, upgrade and trade them in. As you know my friend I have been married not once but twice, hurt beyond anyone’s imagination but I will never let that steal my dream for happiness, my belief that two people can love the good parts and understand the other parts that make their partner who they are. I am gun shy now and myself say I will never get married again but my heart knows I must be open to love or it will not find me. Let’s be a society not of quitters but of people who work things out, let us teach our children to expect love, to deserve love, and to honor love of themselves and the partner they choose.

  5. I don’t think pair bonding is going to end. That has been around since the beginning of our species and is seen in the primate world. The institution of marriage is constantly evolving. When you say that marriage is on its way to extinction, I’m not sure what that means. Which marriage institution? There are so many! What we call “marriage” has changed tremendously in the last century. What I think is happening is that marriage is crumbling under the weight of the tremendous expectations put on it. According to Esther Perel, author of the best-selling book _Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence_, “traditionally, marriage gave people family, children, social status, companionship, and economic stability. Now, on top of everything else, we want our spouses to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us, to be our best friends and trusted confidants and passionate lovers to boot. And we live twice as long as we used to. Our demands are contradictory: Give me predictability; give me surprise. Give me comfort; give me life on the edge. Give me familiarity; give me novelty. Sex toys and lingerie alone are not going to help with all that.” She further ponders whether couples who divorce aren’t the true idealists: “they believe in a model of one person who can provide them with everything: they think just chose the wrong person, and they’ll do better next time.”

    I have been married twenty years. I realized pretty quickly that this was not the fantasy I had dreamed of. I dug in deep and made compromises. I did finally let go of some of my own expectations and reached beyond the relationship to fulfill some of these needs and desires. The most important concept about marriage I let go of was “the one and only to fulfill all my needs.” What’s left is sort of back to the traditional concept of marriage as family, stability, companionship. Hopefully, we’ll toss in some fun sex, but it’s not at all the bill of goods our cultural sells us, and I do think that relationships simply crumble under the societal pressure of their marriages being the be-all-end-all.

    Esther Perel (author of Mating in Captivity), Adam Phillips (author of Monogamy), and Octavio Paz (author of The Double Flame), and Stephen Mitchell (author of Can Love Last?), all address issues of related to marriage and our expectations of it. Marriage standards are vastly different in the United States as they are in other parts of the world as are attitudes about sexuality, eroticism and romantic love.

    In many ways, what has ruined marriage is love. Author Stephanie Coontz has written about this. When we brought sex into love and needed to be happy to boot, this really shifted our attitudes about relationships. Happiness used to be for heaven. Sex for reproduction (a surprise if it was also pleasurable). Now, as you’ve said, women used to have to sacrifice their own goals and desires to preserve the family. As many as 90% of divorces among college-age couples are the woman’s idea!!! This tells us that marriage is not working out for women.

    I don’t think marriage will become extinct, but I think our expectations of it will change. For example, what may become extinct sooner is our fixation on infidelity. Most gay couples at least understand that monogamy needs to be negotiated — it is not a given. Our language about marriage and the fairy tale we present it of it will change. Our sense that our partner is going to help us transcend our existential aloneness will fade, so that people create multiple attachments with people (not necessarily love partners but other friends and relationships), so that they can see themselves reflected by many people — not just their spouse.

    In talking about the future of marriage, you need to define what you mean by “marriage” and what specifically you think will go extinct about it. The statement you’ve made is too general, and this is a very nuanced phenomenon. There is no black and white. We can learn a lot by talking in depth about the various aspects of marriage and what works and what doesn’t and whether our expectations are realistic (which they aren’t), and what changes to our concepts of marriage might change in order to be more sustainability. When we live by a myth, at some point, we will be disillusioned. And the myth of marriage and all it can provide and should provide to you has grown as big as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

    What we need is both more realistic expectations and fluidity in our relationships over time.

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