Why Relationships Don’t Last Like they Used to!
Why is it that marriages long ago seemed to last a lifetime, while marriages today have less than a 50% chance of survival? There’s more than one answer…
Years ago, marriage had nothing to do with love. Marriages were arranged by the two perspective families based on what each thought the other could bring to the table. A strong man able to provide for his family and a beautiful woman able to bear children was most important. After that, other resources were sought, including land, animals, money, peace, an exchange of skills, etc… The emphasis on matching a male with a female was about the communal good of the family and not about the individual’s happiness. Because the individual’s happiness was subjugated, separation from one’s partner was rare and considered unacceptable. Marriage was a contract to be beheld and a duty to be honored.
In contrast, marriage today is almost completely voluntary with each person choosing the other for various reasons, paramount of which is love. Indeed, feeling the tingly feeling of being in love is nearly a prerequisite to any type of commitment – It is romantic love to which newlyweds aspire. Nathaniel Brandon, author of The Psychology of Romantic Love, defines romantic love as follows: Romantic love is a passionate spiritual, emotional, sexual attachment between two people that reflects a high regard for the value of each other’s person . . . the attachment is passionate and intense to some significant extent and, if not, there is some sense of being soulmates . . .” Notice the words Mr. Brandon uses to describe romantic love: . . . passionate . . . spiritual . . . emotional . . . sexual . . . intense! These words represent the ideal. How many people feel these words accurately describe their relationship? Probably very few. It is this difference between the ideal relationship and the average relationship which leads to the demise of the relational unit. Today, people are not just abiding by a contract. They have free will and are able to come and go as they please. They expect to have all of the aspects of romantic love described. Which do you think would be more difficult? Would it be harder to fulfill a marital contract wherein you were simply expected to provide for the family or bear children and manage the household or would it be more difficult to sustain a sense of passion over 50 years, be your partner’s spiritual soulmate, meet all of his or her emotional needs, sustain an appreciable sex life and maintain intensity despite the monotony of life?! As you can see, what we ask of a couple today is much greater than what was expected years ago. Hence, it is not only the increased acceptance of divorce that results in more divorces, but also the increased expectations and pressures placed upon a marriage.
Years ago, getting married and having children was seen as a person’s primary life task. As such, it was encouraged at a very young age. In the 1950s, the average age of marriage for men was 22 and for women it was 20. This is in high contrast to today’s numbers. Presently, the average age of marriage for men is 30.9 and the average age of marriage for women is 29.2. People are waiting nearly an extra 10 years before making the decision to tie the knot. Delaying marriage has much to do with a desire for education, a focus on career goals and a desire to manage college debt before incurring other monetary responsibilities. Research also indicates that because of today’s economy, children are remaining home with their parents through their late 20s and early 30s. In short, they don’t launch like they used to! Getting a late start on marriage has its own consequences. Later marriages mean the increased likelihood of premarital sex. More premarital sex results in more out of wedlock births, often causing economic distress for couples who have not yet joined their finances. Later marriages also result in planning for children in later years, causing people to assume parenting responsibilities at later and later ages – sometimes when they feel too tired to do so, adding extra stress to the aging marital unit.
Years ago, marriages were based on differences as the complement of skills was necessary for survival. Today, similarities are emphasized to insure compatibility. People seek sameness. Friendship is believed to be the basis of a good relationship and is expected to include engagement in shared activities leading to a sense of companionship. A lack of a sense of companionship often creates a sense of loneliness and is viewed as cause for alarm.
In the past, men and women had very strict roles they were to play. Each person knew their job and went about doing it. Nobody complained that the other wasn’t pulling his/her weight because the responsibilities were different and separate. Today, the roles of men and women are more fluid. Consequently, no one is quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing. This leaves the dynamics of any given marriage to be defined by the couple, which is no simple task. Today, couples argue over shared household responsibilities more than almost anything else with perceived inequity being a regular bone of contention.
Equal rights for women has had a trickledown effect on almost every aspect of the heterosexual relationship. Women have come into their own sense of power and have learned to enjoy it. Subsequently, most no longer seek or desire male leadership and patriarchy. So, who’s in charge? Does someone have to be? These are very good questions with which couples today wrestle, leaving power struggles as another source of conflict.
Today, marriage is no longer a man’s decision – He doesn’t get to choose his bride. They have to agree and being a decent provider will no longer get men what it used to. Women may want a man, but they don’t necessarily need one – at least not for economic reasons. The employment statistics for women are impressive. Approximately 75% of all women work and there are 74.6 million women in the civilian labor force. Almost 47 percent of U.S. workers are women. While women continue to earn significantly less than men (In 2019, women earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men), they are earning – able to support themselves as well as their children. Hence, they can choose not to marry or to leave if they want to.
We cannot talk about relationships or the institution of marriage without considering gay marriage. Gay marriage became legal in the United States in 2015 with an estimated 74% of people approving of it. This is very meaningful for the estimated 4.5% of the American population that is gay/lesbian and who wish to have their relationship sanctioned. Sanctioning gay marriage has resulted in more households comprised of same sex couples.
In the past, it was a man’s world and a product of that was the sanctioning of polygamy. Because women were viewed as objects and possessions, having more than one, much like cattle, was viewed positively. Because polygamy once was popular, it was a small stretch to accept a man stepping out of his marriage. Today, infidelity is viewed harshly by men and women alike and commitments are expected to be kept. That said, infidelity hasn’t gone to the wayside. Today, there is a rise in infidelity for both sexes with 70% of men and 60% of woman acknowledging at least one episode of lack of faithfulness during a committed relationship.
With the passing of time, also has come the surgency of technology. Today, people use websites and apps, like Match.com, to meet one another, allowing them to meet people in other parts of the country and/or world, thereby causing the need to navigate cultural differences as well as long-distance relationships. Long-distance relationships come with their own set of issues, including the financial commitment it takes to travel and maintain separate households, less frequency of physical contact, less face-to-face contact prior to moving in with one another, and more complicated situations when the decision to join is made. Another by-product of technology is that communication between significant others has become less personal. People don’t want to pick up the phone and make a call (that takes too long). Instead, they shoot a quick text, impersonalizing the interaction. With the average person’s phone time per day being 2 hours and 51 minutes people, when together, spend less quality time with one another. Technology also has changed how people manage conflicts. During conflicts, people tend to text. Without the nonverbal cues, a greater number of misunderstanding occur. When people are unhappy, they need only download an app to meet another. One swipe in the right direction places a person in another’s arms, making infidelity even easier. Even without swiping, the mere presence of the millions of people on dating sites leaves one to believe that choices are many. For the unhappy mate, with increased options may come a weaker commitment. Finally, people are using social media/texting to terminate relationships, even when those relationships are long-term. Needless to say, the partners of such persons find this to be a particularly insensitive and hurtful way to end.
On a final note, fewer people today in this country are married. At the time of this writing, 48% of the adult population is unmarried. That is nearly half! Americans today are choosing alternative ways to be in relationship with others. With monogamy and living arrangements and the desire for children no longer certain, Americans are taking advantage of their flexibility. 79% live together before getting married and 14% of American don’t ever want to get married. People who choose to remain single can now make that choice without labels, such as spinster, meant to be demeaning.
For those who do choose to get married, the associated expense has become astronomical. A long time ago the groom’s family would offer the bride’s family a token of exchange, such as a few goats or cows to meet their obligations and be done with it. Today, they often are expected to pay for the wedding. With the average American wedding costing $35,329, not including the honeymoon, the price is no small offering.
All of the above changes make relationships more difficult to manage. It is not surprising that the divorce rate is what it is. Navigating the ins and outs of a relationship is no easy feat! This means that, while your grandmother is still allowed to boast about her 65-year marriage, she does so a bit unfairly. Comparing marriages of yesteryear and today is like comparing apples with organic meat!