What is Marriage For in the Twenty-First Century?

Article 4008: What is Marriage For in the Twenty-First Century? (imageid1)When the Pew Research Center asked Americans in a 2013 survey what the top reason for getting married was, 88% of respondents answered love. Love trumped lifelong commitment (81%), companionship (76%), recognition of their relationship in a religious ceremony (30%), financial stability (28%) or legal rights or benefits (23%).

This, of course, is a quite modern ranking. As historian Stephanie Coontz documents in her fascinating Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, marrying out of love is only not a traditional reason for marriage or, therefore, not an appropriate part of the hype known as “traditional marriage,” but today’s marriages are fragile not because Americans have become more self-centered and career-minded, but because we expect more from marriage than any previous generation.

Until only a few centuries ago, politics and property were the bases for marriage. Even the Church for over its first millennium didn’t officiate at marriages.

The Church merely took a couple’s word for it. Early popes along with later Puritans, in fact, warned against marriage based on love, “carnal pleasures,” and anything else that could detract from love and devotion for God.

Today, Coontz argues: “Marriage has become more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history. At the same time it has become optional and more brittle. These two strands of change cannot be disentangled.”

When LGBT people argued for the marriage equality that the US Supreme Court granted them in 2016, it’s notable that they and their allies thought they should be able to marry the person they loved in order to receive the legal rights and benefits that came with the government recognition of their relationships. It was not to prove that they loved the partners they had loved and been committed to for, in many cases, decades, but to gain security and mutuality in the areas of politics and property.

Traditional, non-love dominated marriages might have been better for societal stability, but personal happiness, individual fulfillment, mutual respect, and even romance have become the hopes piled onto contemporary marriage. The danger, of course, is to expect that marriage will provide these if there isn’t a basis for them in its members’ self-concepts and their pre-married definitions of the relationship.

The fragility of marriage is found in such questions as: Can marriage give all it’s hyped up to be? Is it the best institutional expression of love?

Are there not many other ways to express the same love that we allow between friends, family members, and other acquaintances? Have we expected marriage to actually increase our love for a partner rather than just be one possible institutional expression of it?

In terms of love, have we told ourselves we are missing out of if we aren’t married or aren’t planning to do so? Do we feel personally left behind or even rejected without marriage?

As the Pew Research Center also points out, 7% of US adults were cohabiting in 2016. The number of Americans living with an unmarried partner rose to about 18 million that year, up 29% since 2007. About half of cohabiters, Pew found, are younger than 35 while cohabitation is rising most quickly among Americans aged 50 and older.

So, while “love “ is now the number one reason given for marriage, more and more are also realizing that marriage is not the only way to institutionalize love. It is, in fact, however, currently better for establishing those property and legal rights.

So, when we ask what marriage is for, the answer isn’t as easy as “to solidify” or “to express” our love. In fact, in our modern society, where “love conquered marriage,” it’s just one possible way to express and legally solidify love.

Those who remain unmarried, who are divorced, who have not found the right partner to wed, can be just as loving and can experience love without the institution. The problem is, will those around them that are still wedded to the idea of marriage as the ideal loving relationship love and support them just as they are.

Contributed by

Bob Minor

University of Kansas
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies
A national resource for information on gender issues and gay/straight relationships for organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and media outlets such as NBC and USA Today, Bob Minor, Ph.D. …

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