evolution of marriage

Unions Then and Now: The Evolution of Marriage

As children, many of us were witness to both the inception and the demise of the quintessential fairytale wedding. Girl meets prince. Prince marries girl. Girl becomes princess. There are warehouses full of coffee table books and gossip magazines devoted to the saga of Princess Dianna. But, as we all know, even that iconic love story ended in heartbreak and tragedy. But did it stop us from believing in true love or even marriage? No, because – for better or worse – we’re all subscribers to that rampant phenomenon called hope. Still, marriage isn’t quite what it used to be. Divorce seems as common as summer vacation. Not everyone can afford one, but “escape” is often in order. We have witnessed an undeniable, inescapable evolution of marriage as we knew it.

As the US population shifts to a predominantly secular attitude on love and sex, it’s no wonder that marriage has followed suit. Primarily a religious custom, the union of marriage was created with a traditional set of morals and ideals that most people would say are somewhat obsolete in modern day relationships. Sure, there are a handful of folks out there who are still piously awaiting marriage before engaging in sexual activity, but by and large, that’s a thing of the past.

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With more women in the workforce and fewer stay at home moms in today’s society, the perceived “need” for couples to marry has diminished greatly, as well. In the past, many women were conditioned to find a husband who could provide for them. With men in the traditional bread-winner roles that shaped the male / female gender roles of the era, many women feared that they wouldn’t be able to survive, much less care for their children on their own. So although it might have been emotionally satisfying, divorce in those days was a frightening option. Not to say that many couples don’t still face the same issues, or that divorce is ever pleasant, but armed with the option of financial independence, fewer men and women stay in dysfunctional marriages these days. The shameful stigma divorce held in the past has also lessened, even to the point where it’s not out of the ordinary for men and women alike to hold “divorce parties” to celebrate the beginning of a fresh start. These simple changes in popular opinion and behavior are what shape our expectations in love and relationships, whether we’d like to admit it or not and whether or not we agree with them. Married life for modern couples, though it still parallels the past, is vastly different because, let’s face it – so are we.

While it’s not exactly a badge of honor, marriage ending in divorce has almost become a rite of passage of sorts for adults today. Everyone knows someone who’s gone through it, and when asked “why” they got married, many couples today answer similarly. “We were in love”. But most of us have been (or think we have been) in love before. I loved my high school boyfriend, but even at 16, I had a healthy aversion to the idea of being “the old ball and chain”. It’s somehow ingrained in us to look for that incandescent, Caribbean sunset of a love these days because it’s what we have learned to expect. How? I have no idea. Has anyone ever seen The Maury Povich show? I mean, really.

Perhaps as a result of our exposure to media inflated expectations, for most people, dating today is similar to perusing products on eBay. We’re spoiled to the availability and convenience of basically everything, including potential mates. But lovin’ didn’t always come so easy. From the perspective of generations past, when faced with having to “hide their love away”, marriage probably looked a lot shinier and fun-filled than it would to someone who had the luxury of letting it all hang out, so to speak. The hippies were on to something, and free love made its impact. Now, in a bustling modern day of a million proverbial hats to try on for size, it’s no wonder that we’re statistically slower to settle down. When there are no lines at Disneyland, you don’t stick to one ride—unless, of course, it’s so wonderful and enchanting that it’s the only one for you. But how can you be sure? Variety has its way of seducing us.

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It’s easy to love someone when you don’t have to see them every day. Perhaps because of this factor, or simply because they want to have lots and lots of convenient sex, according to various psychological studies on cohabitation, couples today are far more likely to “play house” by living together before walking down the aisle, and as a result, many of them decide NOT to get married and typically break up within a few years. A few decades ago, that sort of behavior was much less prevalent, and many couples’ first foray into cohabitation was permanent, as it was common to live apart until marriage. And bound to traditional values, many of them stuck it out but became bitter in the process. No wonder we’ve developed such a bad taste in our mouths for marriage. Can you imagine being legally bound to your first college roommate? At least you didn’t sleep in the same bed as that weirdo.

Despite all of the influence of the free love era, however, we’re still adhering to the traditional concepts of marriage and family, and even making strides toward a society that embraces all unions of love – gay, straight, dog, cat, etc. Why? Because as much as we entertain the fantasies of boundless sex and lust, many of us just want love. Lasting, affectionate love. Though it may sound trite, love is the glue that keeps humanity from falling apart entirely and marriage is just another way of solidifying that love between two people. When you’re legally bound to someone, it forces you to work through the petty arguments that you might otherwise let lead to the demise of a casual romantic relationship. That element was just as true in 1949 as it is now. Because it’s human to crave a safe harbor. Why do you think we like dogs so much? It’s because they’re loyal.

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Anyone who’s ever lived with another person understands that in order to have a harmonious living environment, we have to find that perfect balance. When we see couples that have found this, it’s usually when we’re pathetically single and living off of lean cuisines, so it’s easy to feel as if it doesn’t exist. However, knowing what you want and balancing that with reality is the first step.

When we aren’t in love, ideas like the possibility of a divorce resulting in financial ruin, or dealing with screaming toddlers running buck wild in a crowded grocery store loom over us menacingly, shaping our fear of commitment and allowing us to feel safe and content in our single lives as we happily congratulate our high school buddies on their engagements while silently wondering what the hell they’re thinking. And then it happens to us. We fall in love, and suddenly, it all makes sense. Sure, trusting anyone enough not to rip your heart out of your abdomen Temple of Doom style, not to mention committing your love to law takes guts, but when you’re truly in love, that sort of trust is easy. Is it foolish? That’s what the single people say. But then again, so is jumping out of an airplane. It’s not for all of us, but if you’re up for the ride, just jump. It’s not so bad.



This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of VETTA Magazine.

Rachel Madorsky, LCSW

Rachel Madorsky, LCSW is a psychotherapist and relationship expert. With over 18 years of experience in the field, her love for her work and the Austin community keeps growing with each client she serves. Rachel’s therapy practice focuses on empowering individuals and couples to have more love, more joy and more peace in their relationships and in their lives.