There are many issues with modern marriage today. We live in a world in which family breakdown is more the norm than the exception. Divorce and illegitimacy are widespread. Tons of suggestions are being published on how to update the traditional family model. As a result of modern marriage dysfunction, young adults today are very confused about marriage and can we blame them?
Married life has changed a lot since World War II. Until the mid 1940s, marriage was looked at as a contract far more binding than it is now. At the time, society had a clear view of what was acceptable and this was generally based on what worked well for the family. Divorce was frowned upon by society, in particular, the church which had significantly more influence than it does now. When there was trouble in the marriage, the couple focused on holding the marriage together. “Till death do us part” was not just a phrase you said at the altar. It meant everything.
One of the issues facing marriage and the family is the fact that we've become increasingly more approving of choosing to be in long term relationships with partners without getting married. Many in our modern culture view living together as an alternative and an answer to the growing divorce rate. Most now believe that a marriage license does not constitute marriage. Without saying “I do” these couples take on the responsibilities of married couples such as dividing bills and household duties. While some couples are deciding not to get married, others are deciding to live together before marriage to get to know their potential spouse first. The issue with this approach to marriage is that it is leading to more divorces when avoiding divorce is the reason for cohabiting in the first place. The chances of divorce for couples living together before marriage are 50 percent.
Many wonder what has changed about the nature of marriage that makes it less appealing, satisfying and stable. Some researchers have blamed the ease with which we can get divorced, the general decline in Americans’ desire to marry, or the decline in respect for the institution, despite the fact that most Americans still express a desire to get married and remain optimistic about their chance about their chances for a happy union. But there is also another explanation. Maybe our expectations are too high without investing enough time and effort into our relationships to make these expectations achievable.
Many changes have taken place with regard to our expectations for marriage which may have actually set the stage for many marriages to fail, and for many remaining marriages to feel unsatisfying. Researchers argue that throughout various periods of our history, we expected our spouses to satisfy our needs for resources (income, putting food on the table, etc), safety and security and our need to feel loved and cared for. Modern marriage, which has been coined “self-expressive” marriage, adds to these existing expectations. Now, we not only expect that our spouse will facilitate our needs for closeness and connection, but also our needs for personal growth and development. And while we have become less reliant on our partners in some ways like providing a livable income, we have become more reliant on our partners to meet our needs to feel self-esteem and self-actualization. In modern marriages, our partners are expected to be our best friends, caring confidants, passionate, adventurous, our intellectual challengers and our biggest cheerleaders. Add this to the fact that many married individuals spend less times with friends and family friends than their non-married counterparts, we begin to see that the expectations we place on our marriages are quite a burden for one person and one relationship to bear. Unfortunately, too many Americans are investing less time and effort in the maintenance of their relationships. It’s not surprising that so many are disappointed and unsatisfied in their marriages.
One way we can combat this issue is by reducing our expectations. When we get married, many of us expect one person to meet an impossible volume of needs. We expect to fall in love with someone who will take care of us, raise the children, pursue a career and let us pursue ours, cook the meals, fix the plumping, mow the lawn, keep the house clean, all while being a caring, considerate friend and lover. When the reality of marriage doesn’t meet our expectations, we tend to blame reality. We expect the fairy tale. Raised on Cinderella, we’re convinced that marriage will solve all our problems, our partners will meet all our needs and we’ll live happily ever after. When the marriage or the partner fails to live up to our ideals, we don’t recognize that our expectations were much too high. Instead, we blame our partner. We think that maybe if we had a different spouse, it would be better. We have to recognize that it’s OK to turn to friends, family and colleagues for support and encouragement and not put all the weight on our partner. This will help us reduce our expectations.