Do we expect too much from marriage these days?

Nov 14, 2006
Stephanie Coontz

Wedlock was never meant to satisfy all our social needs. It’s time to find new ways of making friends

A frequent lamentation about modern marriage is that couples no longer invest the emotional energy in their marriages that they used to. But for most of history, people did not expect marriage to meet all their needs for intimacy, to come first in their loyalties, or to be the main place they gave or received social support.

Indeed, people who invested too much emotion in their marriage were considered to be selfishly disregarding their wider ties to kin, neighbours, and society at large.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church deemed marriage inferior to unwed celibacy because it diluted people’s people commitment to the larger community of believers. Until the mid-19th century, the word love was applied as often to relations with friends, kin, and neighbours as to
In the 1950s, women were told that total fulfillment could be found only in marriage spouses. In Victorian times, most men and women experienced their deepest intimacy with same-sex friends.

But as modern economic and political institutions spread, traditional social dependence on neighbours and relations receded. Marriage became more intimate, passionate and fulfilling than in the past. Society came to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and urged people to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with the nuclear family for time and attention.

The narrowing of intimacy and obligation accelerated during the so-called Golden Age of Marriage in the 1950s, as a new norm of early, universal marriage emerged. Women were told that total fulfillment could be found only in marriage. Men were encouraged to rely on their wives for access to the emotional side of life.

This attempt to find all meaning within the nuclear family led to deep discontents. But the 1960s and early 1970s seemed to offer a new balance - an extension of male-female equality that allowed for fairer, more intimate marriages alongside a social and political life outside the home.

Unfortunately, a speeded-up global economy has destroyed that balance, eating away at our time and energy for nurturing ties beyond the home. The United States is the extreme example. Americans work more days and weeks each year than people in any other affluent country. The average two-earner couple now works 82 hours a week.

Time spent socialising with people off the job has fallen by 25 percent since 1965. Between 1985 and 2004, Americans experienced a sharp decline in the number of neighbours and friends with whom they discussed meaningful matters. The number of people depending solely on a spouse for important conversations almost doubled.

When people lose the wider face-to-face ties that build social trust, they become more dependent on romantic relationships for intimacy, and more vulnerable to isolation if a relationship breaks down. Often, we even cause the breakdown by loading the relationship with too many expectations.

Yet, now, with a higher age of marriage and divorce rate, people spend more of their lives outside marriage. Not surprisingly, the number of Americans saying they had no close confidant nearly tripled.

The solution to this social isolation is not for us to ramp up our dependence on marriage even more. Nor is it, as social conservatives propose, to lower our expectations of marriage so that more people will enter and stay in less-than-satisfying relationships.

Instead, we need to raise our expectations for other relationships, recognising that marriage is not the only place where we meet our needs for intimacy, or the only place that we incur obligations. In our work policies, our social institutions and our individual lives, we must find ways to nurture other social ties.

Paradoxically, we may strengthen marriage more by helping people develop social networks beyond marriage than by trying to revive the failed experiment of making marriage the only source of meaning and commitment in people's lives.

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