The Marriage Myth

By: Eddie SantoPrieto

Everywhere we look we’re being told that the institution of traditional marriage is in a state of crisis!

There’s a bit of a misstatement there. And it’s not that marriage is in crisis. It’s that the institution of marriage isn’t, nor has it ever been, traditional. Human unions have gone through a number of transformations. We would be wrong to assume that it was ever a stable institution. On the contrary, marriage has always been in flux. For example, marriage has only been based on the concept of love for 200 years; before that, it was a way of ensuring economic stability and amassing political power. Historian Stephanie Coontz points out that since hunter-gatherer days to the modern era, “almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before.” So when we think of cohabitation, gay marriage, or stepfamilies as deviating from the so-called “norm,” we are wrong, because there has never really been a “norm.”

This should be a wake-up call for a country obsessed with the false perception of the nuclear family — mother, father and two kids — as the ideal. In fact, the nuclear family, as espoused by religious fanatics and “born-agains,” is actually a downsized version of the closest ideal we can say a family represented. Today’s family is a fragmented, deconstructed version caused by the exploitive effects of the industrial revolution.

We are trying to force ourselves to be something we never really were, or were for a very brief period of time. Instead, we need to be more tolerant of and open to different forms of union. People with traditional “family values” lack the skills to adapt to the social realities, such as the increased independence of women, that have changed marriage.

I would agree that many of our familial woes come from an unrealistic, idealized version of marriage. “Forever after” is (questionably) a perfect ideal in an imperfect world. I think advocating for a more liberal interpretation of marriage would help. What I am stating here isn’t new, many have had this idea before, and centuries-long historical documentation confirms it.

Coontz’s basic thesis is that what we think of as the traditional marriage — marriage based on love — was not the purpose of marriage for thousands of years. Instead, marriage was about acquiring in-laws, jockeying for political and economic advantage, and building the family labor force. If you were a farmer, you had children in order to increase the workforce, for example. Admittedly not very romantic, but very pragmatic. It was only 200 years ago that people began to believe that young people could choose their own mates, and should choose their own mates on the basis of something like love, which had formerly been considered a threat to marriage. As soon as people began to do that, all of the demands that we now think of as radical new demands — from the demand for divorce, to the right to refuse a shotgun marriage, to even recognition of same-sex relations — were immediately raised.

But it was not until the last 30 years that people began to actually act on the new ideals for beloved marriage. Social conservatives say that there has been a marriage crisis for the last 30 years, and I agree with them that marriage has been tremendously weakened as an institution. Where I disagree with them is whether this is such a bad thing. What is clear is that marriage has lost its monopoly over organizing sexuality, male-female relations, political, social, and economic rights. I agree that this shift poses tremendous challenges to us, but I disagree with the idea that one could make marriage better by trying to shoehorn everyone back into the gender roles that have been rendered obsolete. We need newer, more relevant metaphors to live by because the main things that have weakened marriage as an institution are the same things that have strengthened marriage as a relationship.

Marriage is now more optional, because for the first time, men and women have (relatively) equal rights in marriage and outside it. Women have more economic independence than in the past. This means that individuals can negotiate a marriage, and make it more flexible and individualized than ever before. So a marriage when it works is better for people, it’s fairer, it’s more satisfying, it’s more loving and fulfilling than ever before in history.

The contradiction is that the same things that make it so are the things that allow people not to marry, or to leave a marriage that they find unsatisfying. I would agree with those that say you can’t have one without the other. Therefore, we need to learn to deal with the alternatives to marriage. Alternatives to “marriage” being singlehood, cohabitation, divorce, extended and stepfamilies — and all of the kinds of alternatives to marriage that have arisen.

What we need to be doing is not necessarily strengthening the union of marriage as it’s been known for years, but adapting more effectively to new forms of marriage.

With every evolutionary leap, there arises opportunities as well as crises. The industrial revolution opened up new opportunities for many people, but it also created the havoc and emptiness of modernity. But the point is that there was no way to go back to turn everyone into self-sufficient farmers. So we had to reform the factories, and we had to deal with the reality we faced. I say that it is the same with marriage. There is no way to force men and women to get married and stay married. There is no way to force women to make the kinds of accommodations they used to make, to enter a shotgun marriage, or to stay in a marriage they find unsatisfying. In a very real way, “traditional marriage” was a form of rape. In order to evolve, w have to learn to adapt to both the opportunities and the problems growth raises for us.

It’s a fact that evangelical Christians are just as likely to remain single or divorce as atheists. And this is just one demonstration that this is in fact an irreversible revolution in personal life on the same order as the industrial revolution. It doesn’t matter what your values are. Everyone is affected by this. Even people who desire or perceive they are in a traditional marriage are not exempt from these changes. In this way, the divorce rates of evangelical Christians are the same as those of agnostics and atheists. And in fact, the highest divorce rates in the U.S. are found in the Bible Belt. Those who believe that sex outside of marriage is immoral, tend to get married early. And in today’s world, that is a risk factor for divorce. So that’s one of the reasons that they tend to divorce more. We are experiencing a revolutionary change in the way that marriage operates, and the dynamics of marriage. It’s so much more important now to meet as equals, to be good friends as well as lovers, to have values that allow you to change through your lifespan and negotiate. And a lot of people with so-called traditional values in fact don’t have those skills.

I think we can start from the beginning, acknowledging that people need support systems. We live in a very unfriendly environment for families. Ironically, it’s the social conservatives — the same who like to spout empty speeches about “traditional family values — who are least friendly to families. They oppose, for example, social policies that help married couples (access to healthcare, childcare, etc.). If they’re going to keep their marriages going, couples need things like parental leave, subsidized parental leave so it’s not a class privilege to take some time with your kids. They need family-friendly work policies. They need high quality, affordable child-care. So that they don’t have to call in sick or quit a job or spend hours agonizing about their kids.

The lack of these social supports for families really stresses families. So it’s very ironic that many of the people who claim to be most in favor of marriage do not spend any time building these support systems.

My name is Eddie and I’m a confirmed bachelor…
Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, a history: From obedience to intimacy, or how love conquered marriage. New York: Viking.
Click here to go to Stephanie Coontz’ website, which offers dozens of articles by the author.

6 Comments on “The Marriage Myth”

  1. The biggest problem with marriage is that so many people think as soon that paper is clutched in their hot little hands, they think they own somebody, like owning the title to a vehicle. Unlike living with siblings or a room mate, there is a constant expectation of explaining where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing and how you spent your money. A lot of partners feel unhappy if you demand a lot of alone time; especially if the alone time you want is in burning the midnight oil. It’s annoying. Another marital pattern i’ve noticed is those who feel they must demonstrate their worst behavior for their sworn loved ones so they might know what to expect in the future. Often times this expression of exhibiting the worst first continues to the point of deterioration, so that beyond the honeymoon phase, the partner never gets to see the best in their union.

    If people would treat their marital partners more in the manner they might treat their best friends who just happen to be living with them, probably more marriages would survive. I’m a firm believer in family, although i’m not much of a believer in marriage. Families quarrel, but if the ties are close, they somehow plow their way through their differences. A strong family circle creates a mutual support system and attracts extended family members. You don’t have to be married to be part of a family unit, you just have to be committed to the well being of the members.

    It’s convenient for the government to give lip service to marriage. Marriage means incentive to plan a big wedding ($) go on a honeymoon ($)own your a home ($) have children ($) and take out plenty of insurance ($$$$). It’s not so convenient to economically support marriages (with children). Social programs receive a lot of money from counseling “dysfunctional families”, whose dysfunction is often times a lack of sufficient income, determining unfit parentage for the sake of the foster care program, and passing their saving on to landlords who jack up their rental prices for subsidized housing. Dysfunction is the cash cow and there are very few in the government who really want to change that.

  2. I concur Karlsie – I see the institution of marraige as a trap set by society fleece you down for cash (via increased spending on insurance, consumer prodcuts, education, etc… – forcing the average person to put in more time on the job than they otherwise would to support themselves) whilst having you produce a new generation of wage labor for the establishment to exploit. It’s a joke!

    This is why there’s so much concern about divorce rates (exes generally don’t produce new offspring), gay couples (who don’t reproduce at all) and promiscuous activity (as promiscuous persons take measures to avoid reproduction – never contributing the offspring society thinks we owe them). This is why Hollywood glorifies monogamy in its numerous love stories and fairy tale films with the “happily ever after” endings – spreading the myth that sexual fulfilment can only come from pair bondings accepted by contemporary society. This is why Western civilization is filled with people who are broken and disillusioned when dumped by their significant others: because that’s not how the story is supposed to end – couples are meant to be “together forever,” thus saieth the establishment’s myth machine!

    I say to hell with the institution of marraige – it no longer has any genuine purpose now that it’s not a valid means of securing wealth and political power anymore (which is the only real reason it was ever devised in the first place). We primates (yes, humans are primates) are more naturally inclined towards promiscuity than monogamy and attempting to force them into monogamous lifestyles is akin to shoving a square peg into a round hole! I for one will not participate in this repressive construct: who’s with me here?

  3. Great Job, I need to get in touch with your karnataka/Bangalore Team, My no : 9845143211, I am a professor of Mass communications and for networking. With Warm RegardsRaja Madhukar G Appaji

  4. Well, I’ve given conventional marriage a chance twice now. Once at a young age, impulsively I might add, and once with careful thought and consideration. The first relationship lasted about 4 years (2 of them married) and the second one lasted 8 years (4 married). In my particular experiences, both relationships fell to shit right after we got hitched. There was something about that piece of paper that put an instantaneous stigma on an otherwise successful relationship. I really can’t explain this phenomena but I’ve seen it happen this way in the relationships of many other people as well. On the other end of the spectrum, you can find the lucky ones who got married young and stayed married their whole lives.

    What I have learned from this is that marriage is an antiquated ritual that has degenerated in both meaning and relevance in modern society. A domestic partnership garners very little from the contractual agreement that marriage has become and the institution of marriage serves more in the terms of a financial agenda of the State than it does for the actual people involved. Hell, it costs about 4 times as much (not including any civil division of money and property) to get divorced as it does to get married.

    Personally, I am a serial monogamist… I love being devoted to one person, emotionally, physically, and even financially… I just don’t have a desire to get married again. I just wish less people subscribed to the social programming that says marriage is a necessary step in peoples relationships.

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