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.