Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage, Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage…
– Song lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (Copyright Barton Music Corporation)
Mommy, What’s a Housewife?
For much of the 20th century young women dreamed of little pink houses, white picket fences, two (or maybe more) kids, and a cute, cuddly, calendar-worthy pet. And, of course, a faithful, clean-cut, high earning husband. Or so the story goes. In other words, young women were expected to have a “steady,” get pinned, get engaged, get married, get pregnant, and become a stay-at-home mom, at which point they could experience the joys cooking, cleaning, and generally catering to the needs and whims of their busy husbands and children. Barefoot and pregnant, educated just enough to make interesting dinner conversation, yadda yadda yadda.
Try selling that to the young women of today.
By the 1970s at least a few women were openly rejecting this Father Knows Best version of womanhood, taking to the streets, burning their bras, and demanding equal rights, equal pay, and equal say. And even though much of the traditional “establishment” (including many women) mocked these feminist activists, much was accomplished and their march toward equality continues to this day. So perhaps it should not be surprising that over the course of the last half-century or so the idea of a “traditional” marriage, where the woman stays home while the husband earns a paycheck, has largely become the relic of a bygone era – at least among younger couples.
For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than recent research on young people’s attitudes toward marriage. In one study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Gen Y and 43 percent of Gen X said they view the concept of marriage as “archaic.”i And young people are backing up this sentiment with real world behavior. Only 26 percent of people currently in their twenties are married – whereas 68 percent of people in their twenties were married in 1960. So clearly, among young people, marriage is no longer the be-all, end-all it was thought to be a mere half-decade ago.
The REAL Marital Tradition
The supposedly “traditional” model of coupling up – two heterosexual people falling in love and marrying with the male as sole breadwinner and head of household – was popularized in the mid-20th century by television shows like The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, and the aforementioned Father Knows Best. However, this nuclear family fantasy is actually quite far from the reality of traditional conjugal relationships. In fact, marriage throughout the ages has almost nothing in common with this “modern” conception of a legal, social, and religious bonding of a woman to a man. The truth of the matter is that for thousands of years marriage was primarily an economic (and occasionally political) contract that was negotiated and organized not by the two people involved, but by their families, communities, and churches. Essentially, back in the day it took more than one person to make a household or family business thrive, so a mate’s skills, resources, and participation as a household/business partner were valued every bit as much as that person’s personality and physical appearance. Things like love and sexual attraction did not factor into the equation. Period.
As Stephanie Coontz writes in her enlightening book, Marriage, A History:
For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention.ii
Thus we see that sexual attraction and romantic love as primary reasons to marry is a relatively recent invention, brought about in large part by the evolution of a meaningful middle class – which, by the way, reached its apex in the mid-20th century when, for the first time ever, just about any regular guy could earn enough money to support an entire family. This meant that women, also for the first time ever, didn’t need to farm, clean, cook, sew, and work in the family business to keep their spouse and children fed, clothed, and adequately housed. And because of this of this, love and attraction as a reason to marry became possible. Unfortunately, the role of women in this newfangled scenario turned them into part maid, part ornament. The mantra seemed to be: as a wife, your function in life is to look pretty and keep your husband and family well-fed and happy.
Interestingly, the educated young women of today appear to be turning away from both models of marriage. They are not enthralled with the concept of being a platonic business partner, nor are they interested in being a living, breathing, house-cleaning Barbie doll. As far they’re concerned, they can bring home the bacon and they can darn well eat it, too. So why settle?
If Not “Traditional” Marriage, Then What?
For the first time in history, single young women in America are more successful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to attend college, more likely to graduate from college, and they typically make more money.iii For the most part the young women of today are far less interested than their predecessors were in finding Mr. Right. This is because they’re a lot more motivated and encouraged then previous generations of women to immerse themselves in things like school and career. In other words, the young women of today are as every bit as likely as most guys to say to a date, “This has been nice, but please be gone when I wake up because but I have to get back to the important stuff in my life.”
Although this romantic and sexual nonchalance is an attitude one typically associates with self-centered young men, it is nowadays serving young women quite well. In fact, the burgeoning casual hookup culture, fostered in large part by smartphone apps like Blendr, Skout, Tinder, and the like, is consider by some to be a prominent contributor to the ever-increasing economic, social, and political success currently being experienced by young women. As Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, recently wrote in The Atlantic:
To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women – not men – who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.iv
It is interesting to note that this attitude is the exact opposite of what women were taught to want from men, college, and dating a mere generation ago, when it was typical for a young woman to be more focused on finding a man and settling down than evolving a career. Given this, it is possible that the casual sex hookup culture is in some ways the logical outcome of feminist dogma’s merger with modern technology.
The Brave New World
In today’s increasingly digital universe, social upheaval (the feminist movement) combined with technology has created a sea-change in young women’s attitudes about all sorts of things, including marriage. What the young women of today are seeking from sex, romance, and long-term relationships has transformed in ways that were almost inconceivable fifty years ago. Basically, monogamous relationships are now thought of by many educated young women in terms of what you lose rather than what you gain. For them, marriage is seen as a restriction on personal freedoms, including the freedom to do what they want, when they want, with their education, career, and sexual autonomy.
Does this mean marriage is going the way of the 8-track tape? Perhaps, but probably not. More likely we are simply witnessing the evolution of human relationships relative to economic, cultural, and technological advance. And, as is the case with all forms of evolution, the change will be good for some, bad for others. Some young women will likely go overboard with causal hookups, never finding a meaningful connection, and others may become so turned off by the lack of intimacy that they withdraw entirely. Most, however, are using and will continue to use the app-driven hookup culture as a stopgap way of meeting their “intimate” needs without sacrificing their longer-term life goals. For these women, marriage and children will come, in time, after they’ve established themselves as thriving adults – just as men have always been able to do.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. He also founded the Stimulants and Sexual Disorders Program at Promises, Malibu. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found onFacebook at facebook.com/RobWeissMSW and Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.
iPew Research Center, The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1802/decline-marriage-rise-new-families (Dec 19, 2010).
iiStephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, (London : Penguin Books, 2005) 15.
iiiBelinda Luscombe, Workplace Salaries: At Last, Women on Top, Time Magazine, http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2015274,00.html (Sep 1, 2010); Paul Wiseman, Young, Single Childless Women Out-Earn Male Counterparts, USA Today, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2010-09-01-single-women_N.htm (Sep 2, 2010); and Heather Boushey, Are Young Women Earning More than Their Boyfriends?, Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2010/09/are_young_women_earning_more_than_their_boyfriends.html (Sep 7, 2010).
ivHanna Rosin, “Boys on the Side,” The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/boys-on-the-side/309062/?single_page=true (Sep 2012).
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Last reviewed: 5 Apr 2013