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Is Marriage an Outdated Institution?
According to the most recent statistics, the divorce rate, often quoted (even by this author in classes) as 50% of marriages, is actually closer to the low 40 percentile. (Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think, By Dan Hurley, The New York Times, April 19, 2005). But that does not negate the fact that the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world per capita. The fact that so many American marriages end in divorce leads to the question is marriage an outdated institution? I think the answer is dependent on some of your personal variables.
First, let us look at the facts: over 40% of marriages end in divorce. This does not simply infer that the in tact marriages are happy. This author attended a lecture by a respected psychiatrist, rabbi, and author who suggested that another half of the in-tact marriages were unhappy. Per capita, the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world.
The average duration of a marriage in the U.S is about 7 to 8 years. And although marriage is an institution which makes childrearing most efficacious, marriages in which there are children end in divorce with a higher frequency than those marriages without children.
Yet marriage remains an institution that many would not think of doing away with or even restructuring. Likely even the question of marriage being an outdated institution raises eyebrows. A controversial issue in this country currently is whether gays should have the right to marry, again showing the attachment to this social institution. Many young people wouldn’t dream of not getting married. In fact, many women have been dreaming about their impending nuptials since they were young children. This is not only true for women, as many men assume marriage and children are a foregone conclusion in their lives.
So what is this author’s argument that the idea of marriage might be outdated? Well, beyond the statistics above, I also believe that as the Dali Lama said, “Our purpose in life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment.” This is becoming more and more true today, as more people seek happiness. Marriage is a source of lasting happiness for some, but for others it is only a temporary high.
The first argument that marriage might be outdated is the divorce rate. Marriage has been around as an institution since, well, according to anything found in this author’s research, ancient time. It was reported as necessary for childrearing, property disbursement, and bloodline. In these times it was more necessary to have a partnership to survive. Even more than partnerships, tribes were necessary for survival. As times changed, neighborhoods became like tribes, and small communities worked together to enhance the lives of all. But Western civilization has continued to move toward a more individualistic culture. Today people are less likely to even socialize with their neighbors, let alone rely on them. It is true some areas are bound by their neighborhood, and the community works together to enhance the life of its members. But this is becoming less and less true. As an example, how many “daycare centers” for children were there 50 years ago?
As this culture becomes more individual focused, bonds with others for survival becomes less important. We now pay people to do the things we used to accomplish in a partnership. Restaurants and fast food chains, once relegated to occasional family outings, are a main source of nourishment. There are agencies that will deliver “home-cooked meals” to you or have them ready for pick-up. Cleaning staff, once limited to the rich or to businesses, are being used by the middle-class. Both parents are working, focusing on their careers, their paths toward self individuation, and more tedious tasks like yard work are being hired out. The point, partnerships are less necessary than they were 60 years ago.
That is the social reason that the institution of marriage may be outdated. But the social influence does not stand alone. These changes impact individuals and individuals make up a marriage. So what are some of the individual characteristics that may contribute to marriage being an outdated concept? First, as discussed above, it is the desire for individuation by those in a marriage. More and more often people want to have meaning in their life, beyond raising a family. We are culture whose individuals want to be different. Americans want to stand out. They want to feel they accomplished something for themselves. As such, simply supporting a partner to achieve feels inadequate to many. They also want to achieve, and to be supported in their endeavors. This alone can contribute to strife in a marriage. Whose needs come first? How long do I put my goals on the back burner to help you attain yours? When can I pursue my happiness?
Another aspect of this is the drive toward excitement and experience. For some people, experience is more important than possessions. Some people just enjoy experience, for its own sake. They may be thrill seekers, or may just place a high value on novel experiences. These people just enjoy doing new things and meeting new people. At one point in time these characters might have been explorers, adventurers, or other types of risk takers. It seems though, that this is becoming much more common as a character trait these days. And folks with this character trait are likely to find the routine of marriage stifling.
There are other reasons that marriages may fail that are related to society. For one, despite many marriages failing or being unhappy, we live in a culture that romanticizes marriage. People are constantly told they will find their soul mate, that if this relationship doesn’t workout, another will come along who might be “the one.” In reality, how often are you able to accurately predict who your “one” is? Most people getting married believe they found the one. And when that doesn’t work and they remarry, they often believe this time they found the one. And this isn’t limited only to those who marry. How many people did you get romantically involved with who at some point you thought were probably “the one”? Perhaps this concept, which shows no signs of dying despite the evidence against it, is at worst mere wishful thinking, or at best, a long-shot.
Along with this idea of marriage being romanticized is the desire to simply have a wedding. First, a wedding is a beautiful thing. The pageantry, the pomp, and the beauty of it all results in it being majestic. Everyone should have one. It just doesn’t seem they should have to stay together forever as a result. In a recent discussion with a colleague who was discussing marriage, she reported she wanted to get married. It wasn’t that she necessarily wanted to marry the guy she was with, but that she wanted to get married to someone. She discussed the beauty of a wedding, and how it would be a shame to miss out on that. Everyone wants to be Cinderella or Prince Charming for a night. This is not uncommon thinking. But does the expectation have to be that they will stay together for a lifetime? (There was an article two years ago about a politician in a European country advocating a law that marriages expire after seven years, with the opportunity to renew. Of course she was mocked and ridiculed).
Another point of discussion for why marriages may fail focuses on the fact that many people get married before having been on their own. Recently one of my students, when discussing her relationship, actually said she didn’t want to be alone for the rest of her life. She couldn’t have been more than 27, although early 20’s is more likely. For some reason this is a predominant fear in our culture (this could evolve into an existential discussion, but that is better placed in another article). There seems to be a myth that if you don’t find someone, and latch onto them, you will be lonely and miserable, possibly for the rest of your life. Many people seem to settle so they don’t have to face this fear. Ultimately, this fear becomes less predominant, and the person may leave the marriage. But the real culprit was the fear leading to settling.
Too often, marriage is an attempt to posses another. When humans love someone, they are afraid to let them go. People are afraid of loss. And what better way to secure someone than marriage? Marriage provides a false sense of security. It definitely makes ending the relationship more difficult.
But beyond just the fear of being alone is the fact that if you haven’t been on your own you are used to a cycle of dependency. First people are dependent on their caregivers. And if they go from this state to one of marriage, they have never really been independent. There has always been someone else helping out. Outside of simply being dependent, there is a level of maturation that comes from living on your own and not being in a romantic relationship. One learns to nurture oneself, to care for oneself, to be independent in the truest sense of the word. Unfortunately, many who enter marriage have never really experienced this.
This discussion of personal growth leads me to another point regarding how the changing times have altered individual’s character. These days more people are interested in their own personal growth. As people grow and change the risk of growing apart increases. When most people in their forties think of what they were like in their twenties, they can usually see the tremendous changes that have occurred. This is even truer when personal growth is a goal. And with one or even both partners growing and changing, the potential for growth in opposing directions is a possibility. And even if you don’t grow apart, there is the possibility of a loss of attraction for your partner, and growing attraction for others you meet on your path.
Attraction is one of my favorite areas of psychology. The reason one individual is attracted to another is rich with possibility. For some, there is a reminiscence of something deeply enjoyed in the past. A client recently discussed how the attraction to each of her recent relationships related to two important men in her life. This is excellent evidence of this phenomenon.
For some people they believe this person they are with is the best they will ever be able to get. Sometimes this comes from feelings of low self esteem, but this is not always the case. Often there is a bargaining process which goes on inside of us when considering a romantic partner. We have this much beauty, smarts, financial potential, humor, etc, and we want equal value. Too much value and we might be insecure. Too little, and well we are getting the short end of the stick. But beyond all of this is the most common reason one individual is attracted to another: early childhood memory. This article is not the appropriate place for this discussion, so I refer the reader to “A General Theory of Love” by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon.
In short the above book systematically provides a theory that purports that all experiences, but most importantly early childhood experiences, affect the choices we make in close relations. If we had dysfunction in our home, we continue this pattern in other relations.
This leads to another reason marriages may not remain in tact as they used to, and hence may be an outdated concept. Bluntly, pathology is less accepted now. In the past, abuse, issues of control, alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness were hidden in a closet. These days’ people are more psychologically informed. They are more aware that being mistreated is not acceptable, that it is not a reflection on them. They are less likely to tolerate behavior which contributes to their unhappiness. And furthermore, they are more likely than their predecessors to read self-help books, engage in therapy and resolve the issues that result in staying somewhere they are unhappy. They are even more likely to resolve the issues that lead to the attraction to begin with, which would result in the attraction dissipating.
So is marriage an outdated concept? It is possible after reading this article you may think this author believes so. And for many people, I do believe marriage is an outdated concept. And I am not alone, although likely in the minority (judging from the comments posted on the article “On Marriage: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” posted on MSN June 228, 2009). But I do marriage counseling, and believe marriage is right for many other people. The goal is to find if you are right for marriage. And ultimately whether marriage is an outdated concept or not is a personal decision.
Some of the things you might look at before making the decision are your motives for marriage. Are you buying into a preconceived notion of what is supposed to be, without evaluating your values? Have you been planning your wedding since you were young and do you just refuse to give up on the dream, regardless of how your personality might affect long term commitment? Are you devoutly religious, and believe that pleasing God comes before personal happiness? If you believe marriage is for you, and you have evaluated your motives, then far be it for any article to sway you. Just realize marriage is work, and it will be important to forgo your happiness at times to maintain the marriage. And keep your hope. Even if marriage is an outdated concept, everyone has the right to make the choices they make. Good luck on your path.
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