It would seem marriage has become a relic of sorts.
The downward trend in new marriages, along with the matching upward trend in divorce rates has left many people disillusioned and wary about the institution of marriage, particularly perhaps the younger generations. Fewer and fewer couples are going the route of marriage, opting instead for less traditional options.
Once Upon A Time…
Marriage at one time made a great deal of sense from a socio-economic point of view: women didn’t have the same access to income generation as men, and so needed a man to provide that security. Men wanted heirs, and women could provide those. It was a fair trade in the most basic sense. Some cultures chose to dress it up with romantic notions of love, while for others it remained an equitable business transaction of sorts.
The playing field has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, and many of the main reasons people chose to get married are no longer valid. Let’s look at some of these.
Relationships of Today
The majority of women are now able to provide for themselves financially, and so no longer require marriage as security. Having children out of wedlock is now socially acceptable where once it was shameful, and many couples and singles are going that route. Having sex might once have been a very good motivation to get married, particularly in countries where religious restrictions on pre-marital sex were heavy. Buying a house, acquiring benefits, building a retirement fund – all things that might once have required a spouse are now attainable by singles.
Now, this is not a debate on singledom versus couplehood. That’s a separate can of worms. Many people feel the costs of living as a part of a couple – the hard work, time and emotional effort required to have a successful relationship – outweigh any benefits (increased happiness and lifespan, for example).
But for those couples choosing to have a monogamous, long-term relationship (and many still are), marriage just doesn’t hold the same relevance it once did. There doesn’t seem to be much point.
Commitment, or Security?
Why then, is anyone still getting married?
For some, marriage is still the ultimate expression of commitment to one another. But this sword too has a double edge. Declaring commitment to one another in front of family and friends, and signing a legal document may make you feel more secure, but I would argue that it’s a false sense of security.
Legally speaking, in most developed countries, co-habitation guarantees you the same rights and security as a marriage certificate. That feeling of safety that many couples seek in the form of ‘I do’ is no more reliable or permanent than the paper on which they sign their names.
Marriage as Social Status
Some choose to get married out of a desire to ‘keep up with the Jones’. Despite the downward trend in the number of new marriages, there is still significant social reward for married couples.
As Andrew Cherlin wrote in The New York Times, “Marriage has become a status symbol – a highly regarded marker of a successful personal life. This transformed meaning is evident in… same-sex marriage cases… (they) reflect, in part, the assumption that marriage represents not only a bundle of rights but also a privileged position.”
Others use the marriage contract in an attempt to control one another; there is an underlying assumption that married partners are now ‘legally bound’ to one another, making it less likely that they’ll leave the relationship. This is ultimately using marriage as a means to avoid being alone. But in the same way that having children will not necessarily bring a struggling couple closer together, a marriage declaration does not guarantee a strong, lasting relationship.
In fact, some would argue that it does the opposite. For many couples, the public declarations and making the relationship ‘official’ is tacit permission to get a little too comfortable, ultimately becoming lazy, which almost inevitably leads to the breakdown of the relationship.
So, why bother getting married at all?
There may still be room for some meaning and relevance in the context of marriage. Not everyone chooses to openly commit to another person as a means of exerting control, or of securing their financial future or social status, or to ease some deep sense of loneliness or inadequacy.
Some will feel a deep desire to declare their love, their commitment, to another and to their relationship because it feels good to do so. It’s not about securing another’s affections; it’s about stating and clarifying one’s intentions to dive in, put in the effort, and see it through.
It’s not a promise of ‘forever’, but rather a promise to give it your all, to put aside a purely self-directed life in favor of one in which the road is shared.