The End of Marriage

The idea that marriage is under attack and needs defending is a central tenet of the so-called “culture wars”. The meaning and importance of marriage is central not only to efforts to ban same-sex marriage, but to pro-life politics, father’s rights advocacy, abstinence-only sex education, the “mommy wars”, and pretty much the entirety of contemporary conservative politics. The (wholly imaginary) good old days that conservatives want to conserve is essentially a time when (straight, lifelong, twin-bedded) marriage was the fount of all that is good in society. And everything that is bad about today’s society – teen pregnancy, street violence, welfare dependency, the spread of STDs, sexual predators roaming the Internet, even terrorism, is traced by said conservatives, directly or indirectly, to the decline and degradation of the institution of marriage.

Now, to anthropologists, the way marriage is discussed and deployed in these debates is laughable. We know that marriage as conceptualized by the American religious right at the dawn of the 21st century is neither the only – or even a particularly common – form of marriage in the world, nor the way marriage has always been in our own society. The Biblical marriage that religious conservatives hold up as their example and guiding principle would be (and is) almost universally condemned by today’s Christians. Jacob, the central patriarch of the Biblical Hebrews, would be jailed as a bigamist today; the acceptance of Utah into the Union on the condition that they outlaw polygamy is demonstration enough that we view Biblical marriage norms as literally un-American. Marriage today is drastically different than it was even a century ago, even a half-century ago. A small extremist fringe contingent apart, few Americans would consider the marriage-as-property-arrangement attitude of the 19th century to be truly reflective of our modern notions of freedom and individual fulfillment. And hardly anyone would advocate a return to the way marriage was in the 1950’s, when teen pregnancy was at its peak and fully 1 of 3 marriages involved a pregnant bride. Whatever one thinks of single parenting, I find it unlikely that most Americans would prefer marriage to be thought of primarily as something teenagers do when they get knocked up.

Be that as it may, I think conservatives are right about one thing: if the institution of marriage is going to survive, it does need defending. Not because marriage is the only or best source of truly moral living, but precisely the opposite: marriage is increasingly irrelevant in modern society. In the absence of many good reasons for marriage to even exist, those who value it as a tradition are going to be more and more hard-pressed to perpetuate it.

To understand what I mean here, it might be instructive to look at the kinds of societies where marriage is most relevant and enduring. For the most part, marriage is meaningful in societies where food-production is labor-intensive and dependent on carefully-monitored social rules, which means mainly agricultural and pastoral (herding) societies. Examples include rural Indians and Chinese, Pale of Settlement-era Jews, Central Asian tribalists, and pre-Industrial Europeans and Americans – it is probably not a coincidence that Christianity, and Christian notions of marriage, evolved in a largely peasant population. Marriage in such societies is generally not, as today’s formulation has it, a “relationship between a man and a woman”, but a relationship between extended families in which the relationship between the particular people married is secondary at best – and often simply irrelevant. Thus, in many societies (such as the Biblical Hebrews), the practice of levirate (in which a man marries his brother’s widow) or sororate (in which a woman marries her sister’s widower) allow the kinship bond between families to remain unbroken regardless of the death of a spouse – structurally equivalent, siblings become interchangeable in marriage because their function is identical. Most agricultural and pastoral societies also practice arranged marriage, which generally involves the mobilization of the entire kinship network to locate and secure a suitable mate – with suitable generally defined as having an upright, respectable family. While some effort goes into making sure the personalities of the prospective spouses mesh well, the overall goal is to make sure their families are well-matched – the fit between the spouses then acts as insurance against the dissolution of the inter-familial bond.

Marriage is so important in these kinds of society because the need for social networks through which labor and trading can be arranged is so important. A large extended family might be allied by marriage with a dozen or more other extended families. This pool of contacts gives one: resources to call on in case of natural or human-created disaster; a trading network; a body of closely-bonded men to provide defense; a labor reserve for building, planting, or harvesting; and the emotional well-being that comes of social solidarity. With stakes so high, divorce – while often allowed – is greatly discouraged, and problem resolution in marital relations becomes the business of the entire extended family. (In theory this would protect both spouses, though given the strong tendency towards patriarchy in such communities, an undue burden is often put on women to endure in silence, while men often enjoy much more freedom to divorce as well as the use of prostitutes as a source of emotional and sexual solace when there is trouble at home.)

It’s easy to see, then, why marriage is so important in this kind of society. What is difficult is to understand what function it retains in a society such as ours (“we” here being post-Industrial Westerners, especially urban Westerners) where labor and trade are organized through market, not kin, relations. Under the logic of industrial capitalism, marriage is not only unnecessary in many ways but can even be counter-productive. Unlike the agricultural and pastoral societies I discussed above, where people’s relationships to their kin remain strong throughout their lives, in Western industrial nations (and perhaps especially in the United States) a good part of the enculturation process is directed towards preparing children to eventually separate from their kin, with the end of childhood marked by leaving our parent’s houses to strike out on our own. Marriage obviously does not function to bond families together in this setting; in fact, much of our popular culture is dedicated to the proposition that in-laws are a pain in the ass, a proposition that obviously has great resonance.

Close bonds between families are precisely what you do not want in an industrial society dependent on the mobility of labor to survive. Anthropologists have long noted that modern Westerners have much more similarity to foragers such as the Ju’/huansi and Hadza of Africa than we do to our pre-industrial ancestors of just a few generations ago. Foragers are typically organized into small, highly mobile groups whose membership fluctuates as the availability of resources changes – groups may swell during times of plentiful resources, and break up into smaller when resources get scarcer. I once read (though I forget where) that a typical Ju’/huansi group might have a completely different membership when they rejoin their tribe for their annual coming-together than they had when they left the previous year’s.

Like contemporary foragers, people in modern industrial societies live in a world where resources (in our case, jobs) are in constant flux. Consider the city I live in, Las Vegas. About half the current population of Las Vegas has come here in the last 10 years, as a new wave of mega-resorts sprang up offering hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Now, when people move to Vegas or anywhere else in search of work, they don’t bring their aunts and uncles and their cousins and their in-laws and their grandparents and their uncles’ spouses’ in-laws and… No, they come alone, or with their spouses and children. The small nuclear family is well-suited to the need for mobility in search of resources.

Time was when the nuclear family – a man, his wife, and their 2 – 3 children – was the natural ideal for life in an industrial society. The needs of the household – income, procurement of goods, child-rearing, food-preparation, social involvement, housekeeping – were split up between the husband and wife, allowing the man to participate as fully as possible in the labor market while passing the responsibility for reproduction of both his labor (feeding, clothing, and taking care of him so he can go back to work the next day) and of society as a whole (creating a new generation of labor so the society can continue to function) to the woman. But this ideal was scarce – peaking at just over 50% of American households in the ’50s and ’60s and accounting for only a quarter of US households today – and dependent on a whole range of social, economic, and political interventions in the operation of the market that today are branded by many “un-American”: strong labor unions, strong government regulation of business practices, heavy government investment in education, legal limitations on divorce and adultery, government-subsidized housing development and welfare systems, and so on.

The nuclear family, propped up by New Deal-era legislation and older notions about women’s place and propriety, made industrial capitalism livable for many (though by no means all; minorities in general were largely excluded from this living standard, and it was, as noted, not particularly easy on women, either). But it was a fleeting, almost accidental configuration – America’s post-War prosperity being largely contingent on the economic and political vacuum left by the destruction of European infrastructure in WWII – and it was somewhat against the grain of the logic of capitalism (which explains why workers had to fight so hard for the supports that made it possible). Within a couple of decades these supports began to be eroded away, generally at the request of business-owners, for whom the notion of paying both wages high enough to feed a family and taxes high enough to provide the services that held everything together was considered an excessive burden on business, an obstruction to the free functioning of the market.

As wages fell or stagnated, the feminist movement experienced a victory by default: where a generation earlier women fought for the right to enter the labor force, by the ’80s women’s work had become a necessity. At the same time, the nature of work itself was changing, as our economic base shifted from industrial production to one based on information and services. Where particular regions once offered a steady supply of work – Detroit’s auto plants, Pennsylvania’s steel mills, New England’s textile mills, West Virginia’s coal mines, etc. – the information and service economy is scattered and constantly recentering (again, consider Las Vegas, whose growth is dependent on changing ideas about tourism and leisure; should those notions shift – maybe Bible Belt tourism takes off next year – then jobs will quickly dry up in Vegas while a new wave of movement to the South takes off).

In this new economy, even the minimal tie of one worker to another is beginning to seem too limiting. As academics of my generation have discovered, all-too-painfully, marriage may not just limit one’s prospects but eliminate them altogether. I’ve known a fair share of married academics that live across the country from each other, sometimes for years, as they wait for positions to open up for them. This isn’t limited to academics, though – married couples across the professional spectrum are finding that limiting one’s job search to the city in which one’s spouse lives is a sure path to frustration. Anyone with any degree of specialization may find their career needs and marriage needs at odds. Marriage is, ultimately, a limit on the free movement labor, and in the battle between emotional satisfaction and economic need, doesn’t seem like much of a long-term contender.

If we run down the functions that anthropologists typically cite for marriage, we see that other institutions in our society meet nearly all of them, often better than marriage itself does. For instance, establishing paternity is done with almost no margin of error today thanks to fairly simple DNA comparisons. Although our legal system provides a loose framework for inheritance, this can be rather sloppy and most people who have anything worth inheriting choose to dictate inheritance via a will, rather than counting on the institution of marriage to make inheritance flow smoothly. The huge number of single mothers (and much smaller number of single fathers) show that child-rearing can be performed quite effectively outside of marriage, and much of our child-rearing is handled by schools and other institutions anyway. Sexual access has already moved far beyond the bounds of marriage, with nearly every American having sexual relations outside of marriage at some point in their lives. Finally, the emotional satisfaction and sense of security that can be provided by marriage is apparently fleeting, with half of all marriages ending in divorce, and a goodly number of marriages harboring psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Many people today find just as satisfying relationships with partners to whom they are not married, whether by legal restriction (e.g. same-sex partners) or by choice.

It is telling that few mainstream defenses of marriage appeal to any necessary function they see marriage performing; rather, the appeal is almost always a symbolic appeal to “tradition”. For instance, in his speech earlier this month backing the drive for a Constitutional amendment banning “gay marriage”, George Bush said

Ages of experience have taught us that the commitment of a husband and a wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society… Marriage cannot be cut off from its cultural, religious and natural roots, without weakening this good influence on society.

I’m reminded of a joke that went around during the Internet bubble:

  1. Give stuff away
  2. ? ? ?
  3. Profit!

Bush’s promotion of “loving and serving” each other sounds similar:

  1. Defend marriage
  2. ? ? ?
  3. Good influence on society!

Bush’s appeal is not to how “the commitment of a husband and a wife” might “promote child welfare and the stability of society” but rather to the idea that it should, because in days of yore, it did.

The symbolic value of marriage is, I grant you, still very strong (obviously, or “protecting it” wouldn’t be a tried and true election-year gambit). And there’s certainly something to be said for holding onto practices and institutions simply because they are our traditions, because they provide us with some kind of meaning. I’m not arguing against that – I just don’t think it will work. Marriage – and probably any long-term commitment – is more and more an empty form at odds with the needs of both individuals and of our society as a whole. I’m not arguing that marriage will disappear this year, or even in my lifetime, but I don’t see much future for the institution in the long-term. Stripped of any function, it is possible that people will continue going through the motions for a while, but eventually I can’t see marriage holding onto its significance, especially as it interferes with individual and group survival. And I can’t see people getting too worked up over an empty ritual that provides little or nothing of value.

One final note: None of this is meant to belittle the efforts of same-sex marriage advocates to legalize marriage for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation. That battle has an importance quite distinct from the question of what marriage does or does not do in our society.

73 thoughts on “The End of Marriage

  1. It is interesting to point out that several studies have shown that heterosexual marriage significantly increases the life expectancy of men, but has a negligible effect on the life expectancy of women.

    I’ll also add an observation from Taiwan, where nearly one quarter of recent marriages have been between Taiwanese men and overseas wives. Many of these women will work on farms or in family businesses.

    I’ve always suspected that the reason more women have children out of wedlock in Scandinavia is …. because they can!

  2. John: You don’t honestly think that only married people have stories, do you? Or that the length of the story is the only or even best indicator of the value of the story?

    I also kinda resent being told my relationships have been “rotgut”. I mean, how would you know?

  3. Sure. Everybody has stories. But stories that are shared? Passed down from generation to generation? Told over and over again on holidays and at family reunions? Focused and stimulated by the family memorabilia that make a house homey (Not my term, Grant McCracken’s, see Culture and Consumption II), the pictures on the walls or brought out in the family albums, the family recipes.

    I’ll grant you that groups of friends can share stories. Members of a club, a band, a team, a military unit can all share stories. The basic mechanisms are there for all forms of sociability. But in durable marriages and multigenerational families the processes that Berger and Luckman describe, the externalization and objectification that turn stories into social facts have time for the frequent, repeated sharing that adds flavor and ripeness. Then, becoming special and uniquely “us,” they frame and support the identity fleshed out by personal experience.

    Homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes may be a better metaphor than Scotch. Some tomatoes are picked and eaten too green. Some may rot on the vine. In a bad year the crop may be small. But a good year, healthy vines, the right amount of sun and rain. Then, nothing tastes better.

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  5. John, there’s millions of unmarried parents in the US. There’s millions of unmarried parents of unmarried parents, and probably hundreds of thousands of unmarried parents of unmarried parents of unmarried parents. Are their stories “blocked up” for lack of marriage? Lack of marriage does not equal lack of family — in communities like the poor urban African-American ones I’ve known, the instability of marriage has intensified “blood” relations — one’s siblings and mother and aunts/uncles are more reliable than the man/men who fathers one’s children.

    I’m not arguing that marriage isn’t a wonderful thing, though I am arguing that marriages like yours are rare and given the way things are now getting rarer. But there’s other social arrangements that are wonderful, too — marraige is not an automatic ticket to wonderfulness, and it’s not the only ticket out there.

  6. I am arguing that marriages like yours are rare and given the way things are now getting rarer.

    Arguing? In the absence of, you know, that old-fashioned thing called data, I’d call what you are doing assuming.

    If you’d read with some care the passage from Stephanie Coontz I quoted or the Chinese examples I described, you’d realize that I am not at all disturbed by the thought that happy nuclear and/or extended families may, in fact, have been and still be relatively rare, even while being idealized. Nor am I unaware that matrifocal families, common-law marriages, or committed partnerships between same-sex individuals can function in ways similar to conventional nuclear family units. What I am saying is that, in the absence of longitudinal data, rhetorical claims that happy nuclear or extended families are becoming rarer stand on no firmer ground than the moral panics from the right with which you began this thread. And your arguments that conventional nuclear family units provide nothing for their members that could not be easily replaced by other institutions so contradict my personal experience that they strike me as hokum.

  7. What personal experience? By your own admission you’ve never been in a long-term, committed romantic relationship that wasn’t marriage. Yet I don’t think you’re willing to argue that John McCreery has the one true way to happiness; if you can admit that people may have followed a different path and ended up just as happy, or even happier, then you pretty much have to accept that there’s institutions beside formal marriage that provide the same benefits.

    It doesn’t take much data to see that marriage isn’t meeting a lot of people’s needs. Half of marraiges end in divorce, and while half of those are Liz Taylor’s, that still means an awful lot of people are finding not being married preferable to being married. Of those that are married, some 12% or so are being physically abused — now *there’s* a story to pass down through the generations.

    True enough, though: I don’t have any data about what marriage will look like in 100 years. I’m speculating. If you want to write up a research proposal to do ethnographic research, I’ll be happy to join you in the field. There’s a Dr. Brown in Pasadena who’s doing incredible things with Deloreans…

  8. Oneman, you seem to have summed up the issue pretty well in that last sentence. For each of the benefits we’ve listed here, marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient. Close kinship ties are good; committed romantic relationships are good; multi-adult households are good. None of those say ‘marriage’ in as many words, nor does marriage necessarily provide them. The question is, what is marriage both necessary and sufficient for?

    McCreery is also right – modern attitudes towards courtship are partly to blame for the decline of marriage. People are not socialized to court; they are socialized to date. Ending a dating relationship on the slightest pretext is considered acceptable, even prudent; there is the assumption that a problematic relationship is inevitably doomed. Thus, you never learn how to work through difficulties, or that doing so has any rewards. And yet experience with this kind of relationship is somehow expected to teach you how to court successfully.

    Another thing. Everyone quotes the 50% statistic. But that’s 50% of marriages, not 50% of people who marry. What would the revised figure look like if you controlled for the serial divorcees? I heard in a long-ago sociology class that, for Canada at least, it’d be 15%. Might it encourage people somewhat if this were more widely known?

  9. Aquari — As I said, a good number of the 50% are all Liz Taylor’s, so I recognize that it’s a bit of a dodgy number; that said, since the ’70s the number of never-marrieds has grown. WHatever the final percentage of people for whom marriage isn’t the answer, the fact remains that there is a pretty large number of people for whom mairriage is not the answer.

    The question is, is that a problem? Should we be encouraging marriage? Is there necessarily something wrong with “kids today”, who date rather than court, who don’t have the discipline to work through the rough patches, who are apparently all “broken” and thus won’t ever get the vine-ripened tomato of True Love (Really, John? Vine-ripened tomatoes?)?

  10. I mentioned the 50% thing because I abhor dodgy numbers, particularly those which are popularly used to bolster dodgy arguments. But it was a departure from my argument.

    I don’t think choosing not to marry is a problem. Nor do I think there is something wrong with kids today – well, not that anyway. I do, however, know a lot of adults who wish they were married, repeatedly try to marry, have the discipline and so forth, but have been taught self-defeating cultural habits that prevent them realizing their goal. Involuntary non-marriage is a different kettle of fish from voluntary non-marriage, and as your argument appears to rest on the prevalence of the latter, I thought I ought to call your attention to the prevalence of the former. How would the picture look different if a significant proportion of the non-married did, in fact, think marriage was the answer?

    As for whether they should be married, will find true love, or what have you, I would not presume to say.

  11. We have, I submit, been involved in a discussion where two parties have strong emotional investment in the positions they have taken. The lines are hardening, and good-hearted souls (thank you, Aquari) are stepping up like Nuer leopard-skin chiefs to attempt to resolve the emerging feud before it gets out of hand.

    Now, we can all just walk away from this, retreating to the comfort of the prejudices with which the discussion began. Alternatively, we could try a bit of science, by which I mean nothing more here than systematically searching for data that bear on our hypotheses and, very likely, discomfort both sides by raising problems that neither has addressed.

    In this spirit, I did a little Googling and, in something less than five minutes came up with a 2002 report from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) titled Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States and National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 53, No. 21 Births, Marriages,Divorces,andDeaths: Provisional Data for2004. In the former, I find the following discussion that bears on the question whether marriage offers benefits not found in other arrangements.

    Compared with unmarried people, married men and women tend to have lower mortality, less risky behavior, more monitoring of health, more compliance with medical regimens, higher sexual frequency, more satisfaction with their sexual lives, more savings, and higher wages (1–3). The differences between married and unmarried people may reflect a causal effect of marriage or a selection effect. Healthier people may be more likely than others to find mates and marry. Research has suggested that the benefits of marriage may be partially due to a selection effect and partially due to true benefits to be gained from being married as opposed to being unmarried (3,4). A lower mortality risk among the married has been shown to persist even after health in early adulthood was controlled, suggesting that at least part of the benefit of being married is not the result of selection (4).

    I also found the following summary of the trends we are discussing.

    Our data show an increase in the chances that first marriages will end (in separation or divorce) for marriages that began in the 1950s through the 1970s. From the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the rates of breakup were fairly stable. The probability of remarriage following divorce has decreased slightly, and the probability that the second marriage will break up has risen from the 1950s to the 1980s.

    Data from the second source for the years 2002, 2003, and 2004 indicate that rates of marriage and divorce were, statistically speaking, stable at 7.9, 7.7, and 7.8 for marriage and 3.9, 3.8, and 3.7 for marriage during these three years. Given these figures the imminent demise of conventional marriage seems a bit unlikely.

    The ball is now in the other court.

  12. It might be interesting to look at data associated with the wedding industry – worth $120 billion per year and growing (i.e more than Coca cola, Microsoft, Motorola, American Express combined). A survey by Conde Nast Bridal Group (attempting to drum up advertising revenue, obviously) reported that in 2006, 2.3 million Americans will get married. There will be: 44,230 weddings every weekend, 23 million bridesmaids and groomsmen, almost 380 million wedding guests. Average wedding expenditure has doubled since 1990. I certainly wouldn’t bank on the symbolism of marriage losing favor any time soon.

    Of course this is separate from arguments about the decline of the family vis a vis Capitalism such as those pointed out in the tortuous labyrinth of thinking evident above. Such pronouncements of imminent decline have been with us since the 1800s.

  13. That’s two times in the space of two comments — I never said “imminent”. And, frankly, wouldn’t see the loss of marriage as much of a “decline” — it’d just be what it is. But this isn’t really an argument about how many people will get married this year, which isn’t much of an indicator of anything. Every one of them could divorce in a week without changing the figures Tim cites. It also is most definitely not about the disappearance of the family — in fact, I would predict that, as has happened among some African-American communities, the absence of strong marriage would be accompanied by the strengethening of sibling and parent-child relationships.

    For the billionth time (or fourth, somewhere in there) this is not an attack on anyone’s marriage. Yay, John. Yay, Rex. Yay, that dude who pitied my nonexistent childhood trauma. I’m trying to push folks, myself included, to think about what marriage does for us in thes times. I very, very much doubt that people get married because it makes us live longer — and I doubt very much John wants to suggest that marriage is a key factor in the absence of any consideration of a screwed up health-care system that makes it increasingly likely that the only health supervision you’re gonna get is going to come from a spouse.

    But here’s the concession: I don’t think marriage is going to disappear. I just think it’s going to change into something that the folks who are up in arms “defending marriage” (when I put it in quotes like that, John, it doesn’t mean you) wouldn’t recognize. And I think that, as I said, many of the sanctions the state offers married couples will either be withdrawn (e.g. the right to adopt, which is already pretty much gone) or extended to wider groups of people (e.g. the right to see a domestic partner in the ICU). I expect to see less and less lifetime marraiges, and more and more shall we say “middle-term” commitments, as well as an even wider array of alternatives than we already see. The mistake I made here was treating marriage as if “it” were “a practice”; it’s already many, many practices, even within mainstream American society, and I expect to see a multiplication of those practices.

  14. The mistake I made here was treating marriage as if “it” were “a practice”; it’s already many, many practices, even within mainstream American society, and I expect to see a multiplication of those practices.

    Suppose I were to say, following Stephanie Coontz, that marriage always has been many, many practices, even in mainstream American society, and asked what you mean by multiplication and why you expect it to happen?

    Are you, for example, expecting changes in the legal framework of marriage, a move, for example, toward legitimation of term-limited contracts, with options of renewal or no-fault dissolution, possibly involving more than two persons, legalizing, for example, the sort of relationships that Robert Heinlein described in Stranger in a Strange Land?

    Or, another possibility, are you envisioning substantial multiplication in what Clifford Geertz might have called “models of” and “models for” marriage, cognitive models that might be precursors to legal change?

    Or, another possibility, are we talking about changes in actual practice within existing frameworks, e.g. the kind of thing that I have experienced, a renegotiation of spousal relationships in a more eqalitarian, collegial direction than what George Lakoff would call the patriarchal model allows?

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

  15. Well well
    I have recently seen marriage to be primarily a religious institution, defining it as a RELIGIOUS contract bring G-d into a couple’s sex life (basically), and being non-Judeo-Christian I thus decided I wasn’t interesting in getting married. Not very anthropological, but very college punk. However, it’s damn well likely that I’ll still be in and interested in a long-term cohabitation monogamous relationship. Just keeping the Church out of it.
    So that’s my necessary background information before commenting.

    1. Small fidgety detail: in an above comment, oneman wrote that non-traditional marriages, such as two-career marriages, are still strugging for recognition. Now, if by career you mean consistent job (vs. picking up odd jobs whenever possible or of course not being employed), I honestly do not know any ONE-career marriage, with the exception of one, which started out two-career until the husband, a computer programmer, lost his job, and never took another serious job. The marriage broke up partially as a result of it. So many two-income households are stretched to the bone, it’s hard to imagine a single-income household functioning.
    2. The GENERAL argument here seems to be that marriage is not benefitting the state anymore – and I agree for the most part. However, I see certain consumerist benefits of marriage to the state. Most of our consumer society is in some way or another structured around mate selection (if not “marriage” in the legal/religious/contractual sense). How many products are designed directly or indirectly just to make us more “attractive”? How many movies/books/SONGS are about love-stories? I don’t know how much marriage is suited to our current economic/labor system, but our economic/purchase system is thriving on the symbol (see wedding industry numbers above).
    Also, the pressure of consumer culture means that marriage doesn’t only have symbolic value, it has pop value. It’s “cool.” Marriage is seen as “what normal people do” which, I imagine, will maintain the organization despite other functional deficiencies.

  16. Ariel,

    1) I agree, and think I said something to that effect up there somewhere — but the “normal” marriage still assumes the mle breadwinner and female tag-along. Hardly anyone can afford to live like this, but a lot of the public discourse about marriage assumes that people should /want/ to live like this.

    2) I was thinking before that a good deal of pop culture, especially movies, that deals with marraige in some way comes in two “flavors”: those that end with a couple getting married, and those that start with a couple already married. In the first, marriage is almost always a Good Thing, the end-all-be-all of human experience, the culmination of the protagonists lives. In the second, marriage is almost always a limitation to be gotten over or around. Sometimes it’s resolved with the marriage intact (e.g. _The Seven Year Itch_, _Casablanca_) and sometimes with a divorce (e.g. _Kramer vs. Kramer_). Some movies integrate all three (e.g. _City SLickers_, where at the end one character seems set to be married, another manages to escape from a horrible marriage, and the third re-embraces marriage.

    I would say that the vast bulk of romantic comedies, as well as pop music, chick lit, etc., falls into the first category, but this is not so much about marriage per se as it is about courting and dating and essentially consumption. The protagonist “gets” the pretty girl, or the hunky guy. They don’t even have to marry — marriage is just a good way for popular culture to say “and they lived happily ever after”.

    While I agree that a good part of consumption is about making us appear more attractive, I would suggest that it does so in a way that is fundamentally opposed to the requirements of a lasting marriage. Look at those romantic comedies again: if the hero is going to get cold feet, it’s almost always going to be because he cannot imagine spending the rest of his life sleeping with the same woman. Of course, he might substitute other consumer goods in explaining this fear, most likely Corn Flakes (and oh how the marketing folks at Kellogg’s must love that particular brand identity!). As I said above, a big part of consumerism in our society is /not/ having to live with consequences — you just change brands. But marriage strikes me as a choice with major consequences, and a commitment to living with those consequences “for better or worse”. This aspect almost never comes up in popular culture — I very much doubt we’ll see a 4th /American Pie/ movie called /American Divorce/ or /American She-Got-Fat-and-He-Slept-with-Their-Babysitter-and-Now-They’re-Locked-in-a-Cold-Loveless-Marriage-Neither-of-Them-Wants/. And either one of those movies would be about a thousand times more likely than /American Day-to-Day-Life-of-a-Married-Couple/. There’s not a lot of movies about ordinary married couples just getting along — nor many pop songs, or novels, or other pop culture. That doesn’t mean that there’s not much “just getting along” out there, but that it doesn’t fit well in the kind of consumerism that pop culture largely caters to and relies on.

  17. I must admit that I am disappointed in oneman’s apparent disclination to engage the data to which I provided links.

    There are some interesting thoughts in what oneman has had to say. I think, in particular, of the idea that what business increasingly wants from both customers and workers is rootless individuals. His last observation that popular culture focuses either on the path to “They lived happily ever after” or the dramas that arise when relationships fall apart but ignore mundane lives is also a line worth pursuing.

    Just now, however, over on Anthro-L, Mike Pavik has posted a list of lessons from anthropology that he teaches in his introductory course.

    1. Culture is a Total Lifeway – not just a superficial set of customs. It largely shapes how an individual feels, perceives and behaves. It also shapes how an individual adapts to an environment.

    2. Every culture is a system – and a cultural system is an interconnected series of ideas and patterns for behavior in which changes in one aspect generally lead to changes in other segments of the system.
    3. Every human cultural system is logical and coherent in its own terms, given the basic assumptions and knowledge available to that society.

    4. The customs and beliefs of peoples are often more understandable by studying them in the terms of the social interrelations among types of individuals and groups – status and role in social action.
    5. The customs and beliefs of peoples are often more understandable if we examine them from individual psychological and cultural perspectives.

    6. Analysis of the implications ( or manifest functions ) of cultural behavior must take into account the explicit beliefs and intentions of the people involved; but analysis must also be made of the unnoticed, unintended further consequences ( latent functions ) of particular actions and beliefs. In anthropology, this is called the emic and etic approaches.

    7. Humans everywhere shape their beliefs and behaviors in response to fundamental human problems.

    8. Explanation of human behavior is essentially one sided and incomplete unless it takes into account the biological, cultural, social psychological,geographical and historical information that surrounds that behavior.
    9. There is no evidence of significant differences in abilities or intelligence among the people of the world. We are all anatomically modern humans, of one species.
    10. No human biological characteristics are unaffected by lifeway and environment, and vice versa.
    11. Practically all significant differences of behavior among human populations are learned cultural patterns.

    If items 4-8 are essential for anthropological understanding, our discussion to date has, I submit, failed to reach this standard.

  18. John, while I could deal with the extract you posted, a series of life crises has kept me too busy to do much mroe than react the last couple of days. As it turns out, I’ll be moving in 8 days, so you can imagine how little I’ll be able to pursue any further research. I do hope you’ll take a look back over some of the comments here — I don’t think I’m saying what you think I’m saying. I may not even be saying what *I* think I’m saying. I’ve already conceded a pretty serious flaw in my reasoning above — I don’t think it invalidates everything I’m saying, but it does suggest that the prediction that marriage might disappear is not a very strong one.

  19. Ouch. Take care, move safely and smoothly. The data will wait until crises are past. Me, too.

  20. Oneman, I hope everything resolves itself okay. Best of luck.

    One final comment out of me, re: the narrow picture of marriage pop culture presents. A song occured to me, a single solitary counter-example, but a favourite one. Livin’ On A Prayer, by Bon Jovi. Reading over the lyrics with this discussion in mind, I couldn’t help smiling.

  21. Thank you to Mr. McCreery and Oneman for their debate on past/present/future function of marriage. I am a 28-year old female in a healthy, committed relationship, who happened upon this site while searching Google for marriage-free topics. I often question myself what function marriage will serve me and my partner. I have no anthropological training nor strong ties to tradition, so your arguments have been quite informative and will most definitely provided an avenue for deeper discussion between my partner and I.

  22. Pingback: Wa Salaam
  23. A point that has always intrigued me regarding both marriage and divorce is the onset of effective, low cost, and readily accessible birth control. As a factor in the declining rate of marriage, and the increase in divorces, I would suspect that it ranks very high. Women can decide their own agenda for reproduction, and as such empower themselves as individuals. Would that not effectively change the dynamics of marriage…at least at some level?

    While it would comforting to assign broad motivations to what is in essence a personal choice, are we then ignoring the impact of birth control in allowing individuals to reassign the importance of marriage in their lives?

  24. I arrived at this discussion a few years late. Very interesting article. I do take exception with some of the comments, particularly John MCreery’s comment “Compared with unmarried people, married men and women tend to have lower mortality, less risky behavior, more monitoring of health,”

    Here is a different study’s results: “Men’s health boost from Marriage Disappearing”

    However I do want to address the point Oneman brought up: He hinted about our increasingly mobile information society making marriage difficult and being single more likely. My case in point: I make far more money as a consulting moving from city to city once a year than I would as an employee of a Fortune 500 company.

    I onlly started consulting ten years ago at the age of 41, unfortunately, and if I knew about how great this field is back at 31 I would be much further ahead and independently upper middle class by now (i.e. permanently upper middle class without having to work anymore). I have obtained fullfillment in my engineering career.

    As to the link in marriage, I had a non-marriage (cohabitation) the three years immediately before becoming a high tech nomad, (if you will). And this relationship crumbled at that transition point. My access to sex was greater of course in that relationship because the girlfriend held out hope that I would eventually marry her. And she knew I was averse to marriage. But I have become friends with more people coast to coast, albeit not close friends. I think I am a trendsetter. I think mobility is going to be far more important in the future, and it’s going to be cross-national mobility that is important for survival of the high income lifestyle, as well as expert multi-lingual skills. As mobility becomes more important, marriage will become even less important.

    Having frequent sex is very costly, as it either will require marriage (and stunt your career) or it will put one in danger of contacting a STD. Being healthy and single is far better. And the article in the link I provided (or you can google “Men’s health boost from marriage disappearing”) indicates single men are more aware of STDs, nutrition, drug abuse, and other excesses these days than the single men a generation or two ago. And we are being more careful as a result.

  25. Men’s issues do affect women and the whole society in general: while there are misogynists and misandrists around, the majority of the population is not. I love women so much – I cant live without them – they are the fairer sex and I have a weakness for them too – but I also have a brain which can think. This is not a post to beat down women but a legitimate thought as in this highly feminist western society women support their own cause and many men support women’s cause as well. Also when a very large number of people start supporting a trend: that is shift of balance against marriage: it begs the question why:

    Marriage has nothing in it left for the higher income partner, and in most cases MEN, especially if the income gap is big – this is based on one way or the other some screwy laws designed against men – these include highly unfair community property (and in some states “equitable assets division”) and alimony laws. Initially these laws were designed so that the cheating partner who was identified largely as the male would deter from breakup and lose at least half of his assets and pay support for a long duration in the future so that women have their security. However statistics clearly show that 50% of the cheating spouses and even 40% of domestic violence is initiated today by women. The abuse of this law is immense as divorce is imminent and higher income partner is going to lose. And furthermore to protect the women when they are the higher income partner is “domestic violence (DV) ” and “child support (CS) ” laws – so that women when they are the higher income partners have an easy “out” or better “negotiation” most of the times if a legal battle is fought – claiming one of the 2: a frivolous case of “DV/abuse” or “CS”.

    Remember most (I would claim 80%+) men DO NOT have a problem in supporting children or paying for them whether they stay with them or not. This is especially if the fatherhood was willingly adopted by them and it was not a case of either forced fatherhood by trick or deception – BUT CHILD SUPPORT IS NOT DESIGNED THAT WAY – IT IS DESIGNED TO REALLY SUPPORT THE EX-WOMAN AND THE CHILD, NOT THE CHILD ALONE- so that she can survive with the child support payments. Otherwise why is their no ACCOUNTABILITY to how these child support payments are used- I myself know very many women who are using that child support money to live 20 years of their life without a job or sometimes a very small part-time/recreational/voluntary job and continue to leach on the poor dad – who gets nothing in return for 20 years of payments – only verbal abuse that he was a jerk that is why she divorced him and took away his kids.


    Further Men have no rights whatsoever in choosing whether to become a father or not – but have been burdened with duties for 18-22 years depending on where they live in the western societies. Most men would not want to voice what they are going through because of at least 4 reasons: 1. In feminist society any issues that men bring forward are met by contempt. Men are considered heroes for supporting the cause of women and complete jerks/looked down upon if they don’t or try to voice their own issues- just look at the posts of some women in response to a very legitimate posts by men – most women will not support men – but the issue is many men also do not.

    2. Men traditionally are supposed to not complain or “bitch” as this post even may sound like- that is a right women proudly claim to be theirs –

    3. Men have a weakness for women –they want to see the best for women and the children- even giving up everything they have and their own lives is considered the right thing to do to protect the women and child. In this highly feminist western society where women support their own cause and many men support their cause as well – while such efforts of chivalry maybe individually appreciated – a man who does not follow that chivalry norm is baulked upon – and considered selfish and jerk – with so much disrespect and disdain of men in general and every law designed against men – how do women expect any chivalry to survive in general – majority of men will become extremely insecure and highly suspicious of commitment which is the reason for decline.

    4. And many men in this highly competitive society with lack of time with their constant rat race and fight amongst men themselves – find that other men are their only enemy – they lack the awareness that they are severely overburdened in social duties because of women and society – unless they themselves go through it – to discover as to how much the system is designed against them.

    Remember the entire society will go down – this awareness will take another 2 decades when majority men will individually realize after having gone through the pains – the pendulum certainly has swung the other way heavily in favor of women in the last 4-5 decades that some men do not have the pride and the self confidence left and some of them have gone through immense pain as to live and love has become difficult for many -explains the decline of marriage – the decline of population in western societies. Feminism and even more importantly support of feminism among men, explains not just the decline of marriage and population but also why all beggars are men (nobody would take care or support the cause of a weak man who needs help) and why men die 5-10 years earlier in “advanced societies”. Men wake up and vote for changing the laws – does not mean you hate women -stand up for what is right and dont tolerate this system.

  26. Good article. It seems clear that marriage is on history’s exit ramp, and ultimately we’ll all be better off for it once it’s gone.

    It’s not hard to imagine 75 years from now, when marriage has gone the way of Jim Crow laws, we’ll wonder what took us so long.

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