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

Gender Equality and the Decline of Marriage

Marriage is a complicated institution, one that used to unite lovers, forge alliances, and create family loyalties. Throughout history, it has been both sacred and purely secular in purpose. A lifelong partnership that evolved through various manifestations, marriage has meandered in and out of love, business, betrothals, and politics, finding its way back to freely chosen unions in modern America.

Consequently, the definitive development of individual choice now plays the most significant role in how marriages are conceived, perceived, made, and broken. At the same time however, dominant cultural ideologies guide collective expectations and romantic fantasies.

During the era of baby boomer conception for example, the specific rules and dynamics of marriage were imprinted on the mass consciousness in omnipresent ways. One could hardly escape the romantic and peaceful vision of the heterosexual couple as they nurtured the iconically functional, healthy, moral, and nuclear family. With white picket fences, such couples were happy -- or at least they pretended to be.

Now, over a half century later, we find that our perspectives on marriage are more complicated than ever before. For what may seem like mysterious reasons, divorce rates are disconcertingly high while the younger generation delays marriage and other traditional commitments, often avoiding them indefinitely.

Yet, there are a great many of us who hold a torch for marriage: the ones who continue to believe the romantic dream -- the ones who crave everlasting monogamy and commitment. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals still want it, embrace it, fight over it, and honor it in their own way.

Strangely enough however, men and women just can't seem walk their talk and maintain harmony (or the appearance thereof) like they used to. Somehow, we are no longer able to contain ourselves. Yet the battle of the sexes is nothing new, having raged since before we can remember, with or without the presence of a ceremony or document. So what, exactly, has changed? Can we attribute our dysfunction to greater social acceptance for divorce and alternative lifestyles? Or is marriage dissolving for other poignant reasons?

As some overzealous political commentators and pundits had feared, feminist advances may be associated with the decline of marriage, though not in the negative way they originally projected. Many a misguided individual had once charged that feminist progress would encourage women to abandon their children and husbands to embrace lesbianism and abortion. And that would be the future of family dynamics: we would find ourselves in a pit of chaos steeped in selfish, unseemly, unholiness.

Though some women may choose this unlikely path on rare occasions, feminism has actually facilitated more of a subtle impact on the institution of marriage. Having supported our equal rights to freedom and opportunity in the private and public spheres, feminist progress has helped to slowly change women's goals and expectations. With a wider range of options available in the realm of reproductive choice, sexual identity, career, politics, and social interaction, the definition of a successful woman inevitably mutates. Consequently, the docile happy housewife / mother becomes a relic of the past while the new woman pursues self-sufficiency and autonomy, conducting herself with the same sense of entitlement as men.

Likewise, as women gradually occupy jobs and pastimes that were formerly attributed to the bread-winning male head of household, men find themselves ejected from their previous comfort zones. As women defy notions of femininity and embrace sexuality with a newfound reckless abandon, men are forced to challenge double standards and old belief systems about the gendered nature of promiscuity.

Who is the girl next door now? He may wonder.

As the rules of courtship shift according to developing social norms, former romantic gestures become conceivable insults, as some women prefer to open their own doors.

Yet paradoxically, many newly empowered women, despite oceanic trends toward change and social progress, find themselves yearning for the qualities of the traditional man. The traditional and the modern man -- all in one. A veritable hybrid that may not exist perfectly in the way many women would like to envision. A savior prince charming who is somehow socially and politically correct. A tough, strong, dignified, confident man . . . who cries.

Built on a foundation of increasing equality and continuous social transition, women's expectations are similarly thrust into a state of transition -- with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Similarly, men have developed new perspectives and expectations for women based on evolving power relations in juxtaposition to previous ideas about what constitutes womanhood and manhood.

The result of social progress as it collides with residual fairy tale mythology, you wonder?

A great deal of confusion, uncertainty, and insecurity about how to handle seemingly opposing demands from a mate.

So is marriage difficult? Definitely. More difficult than before? Probably. Will it consequently fade into the abyss of failed human experiments?

Let's hope not!

Though times are unstable as we continue to change, hope springs eternally. Motivated by love and courage, many individuals wade through frustration and disappointment to reach the pinnacle of romantic connection and understanding. Creating legendary bonds and unbreakable unions, the lucky ones still persist and proliferate -- perhaps proving to everyone else that there is a way to find everlasting marital balance.