Has marriage lost its luster?

Published: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 10:41 p.m.
Fifty years ago, nuclear families gathered in front of black-and-white TV sets to watch the cookie-cutter Nelson family on ''The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet'' tackle how to deal with school bullies and burned casseroles. The doting Harriet spent her days ironing Ozzie's shirts and vacuuming in elegant gowns during a marriage-centric era when more than 96 percent of adults were married and four out of five people believed that remaining single was ''immoral.''
Today, half-siblings and openly gay couples watch rocker Ozzy Osbourne of ''The Osbournes'' chastise his children for using drugs, and his wife, Sharon, curse their son for stealing the car.
The beloved Ozzie of the past wouldn't last an episode today, when the majority of marriages end in divorce and a record number of young adults are altogether swearing off an institution that was once thought to be a pillar of civilization.
In the face of gay marriage laws and increasing cohabitation rates, society has paused to re-examine what was once considered a one-size-fits-all romantic institution. Conservative social scientists reference grim statistics to project the moral decay of the American way of life. They call for stricter divorce laws and constitutional amendments limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
Others argue the relational freedom that sprang from the sexual revolution and women's movements of the 1960s and '70s transformed an institution traditionally driven by economics and obligation into one defined by fulfillment and friendship.
While clergy and policy makers struggle to define the ever-changing force that is marriage through church doctrine and constitutional amendments, for many couples it has come to signify the bond between two people and their ability to conquer the ebb and flow of life and love.
''Marriage used to be much more institution based. People were committed to the ideal that marriage was good for society,'' says Preston Dyer, a professor of sociology and social work at Baylor University who, when growing up in 1940s Georgia, was not allowed to play with the children of divorced parents. ''Today the commitment is about the relationship, and it is much easier to break a relationship with a person than one with an institution. The marriages that will last in the future are those based on realistic expectations and being best friends, sexy best friends, but still friends.''
Dyer said relationship experts consider the reduction in the number of marriages and growing tendency to cohabit as the trends that most threaten the institution of marriage, even more so than the 60 percent divorce rate.
The Alternatives to Marriage Project, a national organization for unmarried people, found that 11 million American households consist of unmarried partners, a statistic that has grown by 1,000 percent since the 1960s. Nearly a quarter of unmarried women live with partners, a lifestyle relatively unheard of until about 30 years ago.
What's more Dyer said that more than 40 percent of unmarried-partner households include children, causing many marriage specialists to worry about children's perception of marriage as a committed social, legal and spiritual contract.
Researchers and policy makers fear the overwhelming number of failed marriages has fostered a rejection of the concept, jeopardizing the stability of future generations, Dyer said. A high divorce rate is troubling, but it indicates that people still hold a belief in the institution.
The latest research from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the number of marriages in the United States has reached an all-time low of 85 percent. Dyer said the number of marriages in the United States had remained above 95 percent for most of the past 35 years he taught courses on marriage and family dynamics, and only took a nosedive in the past few years.
''It seems logical that people who live together before marriage would be more likely to have stable marriages, but the research shows just the opposite,'' he said. ''The greatest question is what effect constantly changing home environments will have on children because children are likely to perform better in stable households and go on to have more stable adult lives.''
A number of societal advancements and economic shifts have contributed to the evolution of marriage. Nancy Cott, author of ''Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation,'' told Harvard Magazine that women's acquisition of economic independence from joining the workforce, the introduction of the pill during the reproductive rights movement and the loosening of divorce laws from state-defined divorce to couple-defined ''no fault'' divorces are the three phenomena that have had the greatest impact on the shifting state of marriage.
The institution has become less essential in American culture, she said, and the scarlet letters of divorce, premarital sex and unwed motherhood have become more acceptable lifestyles.
Marriage is no longer a rite of passage to adulthood, but about the freedom to choose and be chosen. The majority of Americans now believe a single person can have a fulfilling and complete life without saying, ''I do.'' Only 9 percent of adults were single and living alone in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, a record 44 percent of adults in the United States have never been married.
Pursuing a career and playing the field for the right spouse has pushed the average age of marriage up from 22 for men and 20 for women in the mid-1950s to 31 and 28, respectively.
''Certainly people putting off marriage until their 30s gives them a shorter time clock in terms of reproduction, but it also implies a re-appreciation of the institution,'' said Dyer, who has been married for 45 years. ''They view it as the big step that it is and don't want to rush into it as many of their parents did.''
Dyer said he doesn't think people are less committed than they were 50 years ago, just less wed to the social constructs of marriage and a family. A divorced person wouldn't win an election for town dog catcher in the 1950s, Dyer said. Now, divorce is an option and people are less willing to remain in troubled relationships for the sake of staying together. Adults searching for successful lasting relationships is not a bad thing, Dyer said, but many young adults who were raised in a selfish culture of instant gratification are falling prey to the fallacy that a fulfilling marriage just falls into place. They jump from relationship to relationship in search of a perfect fit, which doesn't exist.

The evolution of marriage: a timeline

  • Prehistoric - Marriage basically turns strangers into relatives, decreasing tribal tensions.
  • 3,000 B.C. - Marriage first becomes the way the upper classes conclude business deals and peace treaties, cementing socio-political alliances. Ancient societies experiment with polygamy - and in the case of Egyptian royalty, incest among siblings - to forge strong bonds of civilization.
  • 500 B.C. - Short-lived experiment in democracy in ancient Greece actually worsens the status of women. Love is honored - but among men only. In marriage, inheritance is more important than emotional bonds: A woman whose father dies without male heirs can be forced to marry her nearest male relative, even if she has to divorce her husband first.
  • Circa A.D. 550 - Emperor Justinian tries to enact a requirement for a wedding license, but the unpopular measure is revoked. (He, meanwhile, managed to get a law passed that allowed him to marry a ''penitent'' former actress, Theodora ).
  • A.D. 800 - Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne outlaws polygamy. Germanic warlords, even baptized Christians, still acquire wives for strategic reasons.
  • 900 - The Roman Catholic Church tries to require people to obtain the church's blessing of sexual unions, but is reluctant to thereby create millions of ''illegitimate'' children whose parents don't obey the edict. The church, however, wins a battle by denying royalty the right to divorce on a whim.
  • 1000 - Catholic clergy are no longer allowed to marry. Upper-class marriages are often arranged before the couple has met. Aristocrats believe love is incompatible with marriage and can flourish only in adultery.
  • 1200 - Common folk in Europe now need a marriage license to wed. Ordinary people can't choose whom to marry, either. The lord of one manor decrees in 1344 that all his unmarried tenants - including the widowed - must marry spouses of his choosing. Elsewhere, peasants wishing to pick a partner must pay a fee.
  • 1500-1600 - Protestant moralists elevate the status of marriage over the Catholic gold standard of celibacy, but enact even stricter controls over annulments.
  • 1769 - The American colonies, basing their regulations on English common law, decree: ''The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.''
  • 1800 - Marriage for love, not for property or prestige, is gaining wider acceptance. But women are still completely subjected to male authority.
  • 1874 - The South Carolina Supreme Court rules that men no longer may beat their wives.
  • 1891 - England's Parliament passes a law that men cannot imprison their wives (or deny them freedom of movement from the home).
  • 1900 - By now, every state in America has passed legislation modeled after New York's Married Women's Property Act of 1848, granting married women some control over their property and earnings.
  • 1920s - The Roaring Twenties bring about the biggest sexual revolution in marriage to-date and divorce rates triple. The Supreme Court upholds people's right to marry someone of a different religion.
  • 1965 - In Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns one of the last state laws prohibiting the prescription or use of contraceptives by married couples. Seven years later, the right to use contraceptives is extended to unmarried people.
  • 1967 - Interracial marriage is decriminalized in all states when the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Virginia's anti-miscegenation statutes.
  • 1968 - The Supreme Court upholds the rights of children of unmarried parents.
  • 1969 - California adopts the nation's first ''no-fault'' divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent.
  • 1970s - Most states overturn rules designating a husband ''head and master'' with unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife.
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