The changing face of marriage

A recent poll by the nonprofit Pew Research Center shows that the nature of marriage is changing to become less child-centric and more oriented toward “mutual happiness and fulfillment.” The top predictors of a successful marriage did not include any child-related issues, but were instead:

– faithfulness
– good sex
– equitable sharing of household chores
– economic stability
– common religious beliefs
– shared tastes and interests

Only one-quarter of adults said that the bearing and raising of children was the primary purpose of marriage. This is a major change even since 1990. Not ever having had children as a primary purpose of my relationships, it’s hard for me to judge exactly what this means to the American psyche and our social structure. But I do think it’s interesting from the standpoint of all the soul-searching I’m doing now about the purpose and structure of a primary partnership and whether marriage has any place in that.

Could it be that marriage as the tradition I’ve always known is going through a fundamental change, which may mean I’m not as far out of the mainstream as I’ve thought? Lately it seems in the discussions I’m having with others, there is a general agreement that we need more latitude for change throughout our lives. There needs to be some recognition that we are not the same people at 50 that we are at 25 or at 75, and our partnerships may need to grow, change, or even end and begin anew.

The cataclysmic tragedies we suffer as we learn that our life-long vows are inadequate perhaps could be alleviated by a shift in how we view marriage to begin with. Yes, this carries a risk that we will not be as committed to our partners – at least in theory. I am not sure whether this would really be true – something like whether or not teaching teenagers about birth control really leads them to have more sex.

Instead, I think it might encourage more realistic expectations of marriage and one’s partner, and perhaps less taking each other for granted and more open dialogue as we go along of what is working and what isn’t and what might need to change. This would have helped my marriage a great deal. An understanding that we have choices and may have several primary partnerships during the course of our lifetimes may actually make us work harder to keep one that we value, as well as free us mentally to move on and make the most of our lives and relationships if one is not working.

The further down the path of life I go, the more I think that an openness to change and flexibility are key to making the most of life and relationships. Of course, that’s the very thing that most of us are most afraid of, losing the one we love. Yet how often do we lose them, or end up having to walk away, because the need for change was not acknowledged?


4 thoughts on “The changing face of marriage

  1. Mike says:


    I am going to recommend this book I am reading (again): “Finding Meaning in the Second Half Of Life” by James Hollis.

    A couple of quotes:

    “The more we wish another person to repair our wounds, meet our needs, and protect us from having to grow up, really grow up, the more dissatisfying the relationship will prove over the long haul. It will swamp in stagnation. If, however, we can see that the relationship is a summons to growth, in part by encountering the otherness of our partner, the relationship will support each person risking, stretching, and growing beyond the point where they entered.”

    And this:

    “When we look at this problematic question of falling in love, we see a number of implications emerge. First, what we do not know about ourselves, or do not wish to know, has a tendency to be projected onto our “beloved.” Second, we have a predisposition to project our childhood agendas, our infantile longing, and the burden of our assignment for personal growth onto the other. Thirdly, since the other cannot in the end, and should not ever, carry responsibility for the task of our life, the projections inevitibly wear away and the relationship has a tendency to deteriorate into a power struggle.”


    Once the romantic illusions (or “projections”) of romantic love fall away, as they eventually will, we are left with another human being; in truth probably no more or less special than any other human being. One can hope that compatibility and a deep friendship remain to sustain the relationship, and that each partner allows for (and is supportive of) the other to continue to grow and change.

    This idea that “mutual happiness and fulfillment” is going to come from marriage seems like a fantasy to me. I believe that each of us is responsible for our own happiness, and that expecting another to provide it for us is wrong-headed and unfair. On the other hand, unhappy marriages that I have observed involve one or both partners doing all they can to prevent eachother from being happy or from growing. In that case, change is perceived as a threat.

    I agree with your assessment – “openness to change and flexibility are key…”

    What I am suggesting (and what I think Hollis is saying) is more than just tolerance. Change should be welcomed, rather than feared. Each partner should be committed to eachother’s growth as well as to their own development. Growth and change must be seen as positively desirable aspects of the relationship – to be cherished and sought after, not merely accepted.

  2. So, given what you’re writing above, how would you answer the question: “What is the primary purpose of marriage?”

    While I agree with very much of what you have written above, including the idea that happiness and fulfillment needs to come from oneself rather than from another, of the choices available in their survey “mutual happiness and fulfillment” came the closest to what I imagine a deep personal relationship to be all about – as opposed to procreation, financial stability, etc.

    After all, there must be some added happiness and fulfillment that arises out of our relationships with others, or we wouldn’t have them :) I can think of things that add to my happiness:

    – Someone to share things with – from the simple pleasure of a day, to an interesting conversation about something in the paper, to an adventure seeking out a new culture or experience somewhere in the world, to a deeply passionate night

    – All the benefits of someone who knows you “that well” – who can give good guidance and feedback, test your assumptions, challenge you to grow, love you even when you’re not at your best but still be proud of you when you overcome your worst

    – To be able to make another person’s day (life) easier at times, and vice versa, no matter how independent and capable you both may be on your own

    Many of these things relationships with friends can provide also (and woe be to the marriage that allows friendships to languish). But somehow there’s a degree of difference…

  3. Mike says:

    That degree of difference might itself be the purpose of marriage then, or at least lead in the direction to an answer. So, let’s think about that degree of difference that you point to.

    I would suggest that the level of commitment involved is very important. For one thing, it allows for greater trust than might otherwise be possible between two people who might otherwise be “just” friends or lovers.

    At risk of losing all sense of romance here (which would be too bad, don’t you think?), a marriage is fundamentallly a contract. I don’t think that has changed with time, do you?

    Well, then, you might ask – a contract for what? That depends on the people involved, but “…to love, honor, and cherish, until death do us part,” seems pretty good to me!

    I agree with what I think you are saying – two persons together, (and committed to eachother in trust and love) may well find happiness and fulfillment more easily than they could on their own. But the marriage will only be fully successful in that direction if the individuals involved are each capable of it.

    I guess I would say that the main purpose of marriage is the commitment itself, and that such a commitment makes happiness and fulfillment more likely for both parties to the marriage contract. But oh, boy, don’t we know that there are no guarantees!

  4. s. says:

    I’m wondering about how growth and change works in one relationship if you are talking about having several in your life… Maybe I haven’t read this clearly enough and need to again, but how do you keep growing and staying with one or know when to stay and not wonder what else is out there?
    This is something I am working on right now, so reading your words means something to me, but I’m trying to figure out what!
    (I was reading one of your books this morning and came to your site from that.)

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