Marriage, Then and Now


Ask someone their opinion about marriage today and you’ll not only get a variety of answers, but might even start an argument.  In many ways, marriage is simply a reflection of life in our society, so the changes in the way we view marriage simply reflect changes in society as a whole.

A hundred years ago, marriage was a contract with very clear-cut expectations and roles for each partner.  Society needed the institution of marriage to handle the raising of children and the care of the elderly and infirm.  The family unit established and defined an individual’s place in the social structure, and was also the basis for many legal guidelines in areas like inheritance.  If the partners loved each other it was nice, but love was neither a requirement nor an important reason for people to marry.  If people defied society’s expectations and did not get married, they were viewed with suspicion and never fully accepted.

Today marriage plays a much narrower role in society.  It’s can be either a legal or religious union, or both,  between two people who choose to be together.  Love is generally given as the reason for the decision, but people who are in love don’t feel the same type of societal pressure to legalize their union.  Marriage is no longer expected from everyone, nor are the partner’s roles within a marriage defined by society.  We are taught from childhood that we each have the right to pursue our own dreams and be individuals, which is very different from the expectations put upon our grandparents and great-grandparents.

In the past, marriage was viewed as the proper environment for raising children.  The number of children in a family was limited only by the parents’ fertility and periods of abstinence.  Children were supposed to be raised as productive members of society and hardworking members of the family unit.  All children were expected to do their chores, be respectful of their parents and other adults, and then to care for their parents and other elderly family members when they grew up.  In some ways children functioned like health insurance, stepping in and taking responsibility for their elders when necessary.

Today we teach our children to have fun, and tell them they have a right to be happy.   Parents focus on loving their children and giving them material things, but much less emphasis is placed on teaching them responsibility or a work ethic.  Modern parents often will sacrifice for their children in an attempt to avoid burdening them with family expectations.  Such sacrifice on the part of the parents can produce kids who feel no need or desire to provide for themselves, much less for others who might need help.  Instead of extended families living together as a unit, the elder members are shuffled off to nursing homes and cared for by paid aides.

The part of traditional marriage vows that said “till death do us part” was a serious part of the marriage picture.  Divorce was not viewed as an acceptable option, no matter the justification, and a divorced person was viewed with a very jaundiced eye.  Happiness might have been a pleasant bonus, but was not considered as a requirement in a marriage. Divorce is now so common that people who stay in long-term marriages are the exception, rather than the rule.  Multiple marriages, interspersed with unmarried relationships, are considered the norm for most people, with very few negative societal consequences.

Children born out of wedlock used to face discrimination their whole lives, right along with the parents.  No one cared that it wasn’t the child’s fault, but they were the visible result of defiance of societal rules, and made to pay the price along with their parents.  Today a child’s birth status makes no difference.  In fact, the phrases “baby daddy” and “baby momma” have become accepted parts of the language.  Many couples no longer consider marriage a prerequisite to producing children, and many weddings have multiple children of the partners participating in the ceremony.  Multiple sexual partners is no longer viewed as proof of low morals, and someone with children from multiple partners seldom feels judged by society.

Men and women were once expected to behave in very specific ways.  Men were the breadwinners, expected to provide financially for their family’s needs.  They were the head of their households in all ways, and were to be obeyed by their wives as well as their children.  Men were pressured to be successful, to choose a wife that could help them meet their goals, and produce well-mannered children that would be a credit to their roles as fathers.  Women were expected to keep the house clean, do the cooking, raise the children, defer to their husband’s wishes and be a helpful partner to him in public.  Even after women began pursuing higher education, the choice of college was frequently based, at least in part, on the potential for securing a valuable MRS degree.

In our current society, neither men nor women are pressured to fulfill gender based roles.  If men want to be househusbands, they’re free to do so.  If a woman wants to work in a male dominated career while her husband cares for the children, she’s free to do so.  Education is a highly prized goal for everyone, and each person is expected to use their education in choosing a career.

Our society values progress, independence, and freedom, which has been reflected by our marriages.  We no longer seem to value stability and commitment, but are we better off?  Perhaps the key is how we use our independence and freedom.  It’s hard to pursue your dreams when you don’t know what they are, or even who you really are inside.  Perhaps when we learn the value of introspection, we’ll be able to improve society by blending the best values throughout our history.  When we can honor independence and responsibility, as well as freedom and commitment, we’ll have something pretty special in our marriages and our society.


Kids, Life Lessons, and a snake!

I love kids, and one of my favorite things to do with them is to take walks.  Nieces, nephews, my kids and grandkids, all have been with me for extended walks throughout the neighborhoods and nearby paths.  Their ages haven’t mattered, whether they were in strollers or nearly as tall as I am, we still can find all kinds of things to see and talk about.  Kids see the world with fresh eyes, and minds full of wonder.  I always tried to enjoy and encourage that sense of wonder, while fostering a love and appreciation of living things.  Sometimes I think I took the lessons just a little too far!

Many years ago my husband and his brother used to teach windsurfing at a nearby lake.  Every single weekend during the summers we would take our kids and spend the day.  The guys spent their time renting out boards and teaching the students, while my sister-in-law and I spent the days with the kids.  Of course, when the boards were not in use by customers, we seized the opportunities to get out on the water ourselves.  One day all the boards were in use, so I was in the shade under a tree reading a book, one of my absolute favorite pastimes in life.

I was completely engrossed in the story, but the sound of a small boy running and shouting intruded, “Aunt Sharon, Aunt Sharon, you’ve got to see what I found!”

It was Christopher, my nephew, who was about seven years old at the time.  All parents know the art of multi-tasking, so I kept reading, but yelled out a response,  “Okay Chris, come show me.”

In seconds he reached me, with a huge smile on his face and his hands behind his back.  “Wait till you see what I found.  Put your hands out.”

Reluctantly, I put my book down, and extended both hands toward Chris.  Obviously I was still thinking about the book, because putting out your hands to a child with their hands behind their back is a dumb move!  Chris proudly draped a long, slender, bright green snake across my hands!

My first impulse was to throw my hands up and scream, but somehow I resisted and held steady.  After all, if I did that it would negate all that I’d been trying to teach him about the beauty of all living things.  If I truly meant that we should revere all living things and treat them with respect, I couldn’t throw the snake into the air and run.  So, a little shaky, I looked more closely at the creature in my hands, who appeared about as happy with the situation as I was.  “Wow, Chris, the scales look like jewels.  It really is a beautiful color.  Thanks so much for bringing it to me.”

He just beamed with pride.  His expression was well worth holding the harmless little snake.  “I don’t think it likes being held though, so you need to find a safe place to put it.  Unfortunately, most people are afraid of snakes and will try to hurt or kill it if they see it, so you need to find a very special place.  Try to find a spot with shade, and with bushes or tall plants so it can hide out of sight.”

Very gently, Chris took the snake out of my hands and ran off to find just the right place.  My heart was still pounding when I sat back down with my book.  It wasn’t long before he came running back, looking very satisfied with himself.  “Aunt Sharon, I found the perfect place for the snake.”

“Great, where did you put it?”

“Right under a bush next to the door of the girl’s bathroom!”

Luckily there were no screams during the day from the girl’s bathroom, so the snake and the people were all safe.  I still take walks with kids, still try to teach them respect and reverence for all living things, but have added a little about not picking them up!