04/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Love Stories: Is Marriage Necessary?

As Valentine's Day approaches, some recent, highly-publicized non-fiction debuts are sure to get you in the mood for romance: Staying True, by Jenny Sanford, chronicles the very public breakdown of her marriage to South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who wasn't hiking on the Appalachian Trail after all. Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb, the subtitle of which, the Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, says it all, accuses you of being too picky and urges you to snap up that guy who's an eight rather than waiting for the 10. And The Politician, Andrew Young's explosive new tell-all about John Edwards, details his infidelity and exposes the second family he started as his wife struggled with cancer.

Granted, and thankfully, these books don't describe the experiences of most of us. Hopefully our relationships are not all colored by messianic narcissism, bigamy, and profound cynicism about pairing off "before it's too late."

But in their own dramatic and overblown ways, these books speak a quieter, less dramatic truth: marriage isn't what we think it is, and it isn't easy. Marriages aren't doing well. While divorce rates for first marriages have settled from a high in the 1980s of around 50 percent to 43 percent according to the last Census, 43 percent is no cause for dancing in the streets. Especially when you consider that in remarriages with children, divorce rates are around 72 percent, according to one representative, 30-year longitudinal study.

Why? Much ink has been spilled and much breath has been spent and many workshop fees have been forked over in the interest of what's wrong with marriages, and how to improve them, to make them more satisfying, equitable, sexually exciting, emotionally healthy, nurturing, and harmonious. Saving marriages is a multi-million dollar industry, and we know from first-hand experience, many of us, that it can work. Marriages, some of them, can be saved.

But Marriage probably cannot.

While marital and couples therapists tell us how to save our marriages, sociology, anthropology, and human behavioral ecology suggest that it isn't so much married couples as Marriage itself, the institution, that's in trouble. The problem with marriages is really the fundamental problem with Marriage: marriages are falling apart in large part because Marriage is no longer necessary.

Sociologists and historians of marriage tell us that marriage, rather than hinging on the attraction and love between two individuals, was traditionally more a business transaction. People from wealthy families were directed to marry in order to create bonds and mutual obligations with other powerful families and between nations, as in the case of royals, for example. For the lower classes, marriage was a question of creating a labor force to run a farm or small business. Households were production-centered economies in which men's and women's labor were complementary, and kids pitched in. Marriage was necessary. And remarriage with children after the death of a spouse--a common occurrence until relatively recently--was considered the most civic-minded thing a man or woman could do. The household and all of society depended on it, after all.

But by the early 20th century, marriage historian Stephanie Coontz points out, with the rise of the notion of the individual, of liberty, equality, and the love match, marriage was a different animal entirely. Now it was expected to nurture, satisfy and support the members of the couple in a dizzyingly comprehensive variety of ways--emotionally, sexually, psychologically.

At the same time, sociologist Andrew Cherlin notes, as women came to participate more in the workforce, households changed from production to consumption-centered, and gender roles became more flexible. In addition, women had the economic freedom to walk away from unhappy unions. And the opportunity to find friendship, empowerment, and other potential partners in the workplace.

Times continue to change, and marriage, whether we like it or not, is tethered to our times and the forces of historical change. For example, marriage is no longer the only acceptable context for childbearing. Owing to women's increased economic power and the rise of reproductive technologies, more women can and do elect to have children outside of marriage.

More and more couples now elect to cohabit rather than marry (and in Scandinavian countries like Sweden these couples are less likely to break up than are married couples in the U.S.) Many are also having children outside marriage.

For those who suggest that the pair bond is part of our evolutionary history and so "right" and "forever," there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. In contemporary foraging cultures, for example, who live much as evolutionary biologists believe we did in the Pleistocene era, many mean and women "marry" nine or 10 times. The notion that the couple dyad as we now know it is timeless is one human behavioral ecologists now regard with skepticism if not outright disbelief.

As for arguments that we "need" marriages to be emotionally and physically healthy, and recent studies claiming to prove as much, there is also evidence that marriage is detrimental--the National Marriage Project found that the percentage of upper middle class white women who described their marriages as happy dropped from 74 percent to 68 percent over the last decades. Other studies find that married women are more likely to be depressed that unmarried women, and that women with stepchildren are far more likely to be clinically depressed than those without.

Regardless of our moral and ideological convictions and our public policy about what it should be and how we ought to value it, the fact is that marriage is not what it once was. Plenty of us are familiar with the argument that marriages aren't feasible in the way they used to be--because now we live much longer; because we are more mobile as a society and so the forces that kept historically helped married people stay together, forces like the church and the extended family, have less influence over us; because it's simply unreasonable to expect one relationship to satisfy us in so many ways; because, some argue, we're not "wired" for monogamy.

But people live marriage every day, and make it work. With Marriage less necessary than ever before, the challenge becomes, how do we make our marriages necessary and relevant? How do we keep Marriage--not to mention marriages--alive? And should we try?

Sources/ further reading:

Andrew Cherlin, "The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage," Journal of Marriage and the Family 66 (November 2004)

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: a History (2005)

Mavis Hetherington, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (2002)

Barry Hewlett and Michael Lamb, eds., Hunter Gatherer Childhoods,: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives (2005)

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, "The Past, Present, an Future of the Human Family," Tanner Series Lecture on Human Values, University of Utah, Febryary 27 and 28, 2001.

Brad Wilcox, The National Marriage Project, quoted by Jessica Grose, Slate, February 1, 2010

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