By Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera
Anyone who’s been married for more than a few months can tell you it’s tough. And it seems to have gotten tougher, considering how divorce rates have climbed over the last few decades. In our book, Making Marriage Work, we reviewed the findings of hundreds of research studies to try to understand whether and in what ways marriage has changed.
The evidence suggests that marriage has indeed gotten harder, and we posit that there are a number of reasons why. One has to do with the adoption of no-fault laws in the late 1960s, which, in a nutshell, established that breaking up a marriage is acceptable and the reasons for doing so are nobody’s business. In effect, these laws gave individuals greater freedom to choose our own paths; they also helped to remove divorce’s negative stigma, allowing couples to retain their good standing in the community.
Then there’s the movement toward gender equality. With more and better employment opportunities, women have more control over their lives and no longer need a husband for financial security. They can wait longer to get married and don’t have to stay married if they’re not satisfied. Some people may not work as hard to fix a marriage because they're better equipped to make it on their own.
Gender equality has also affected the balance of power. Prior to the 1960s, men held all the power in almost every marriage, but that’s not the case today. In some marriages, there can actually be an on-going power struggle, as one party tries to stay in control and the other fights for equality. Additionally, because both partners have an equal say in decisions, there may be more occasions to argue.
In heterosexual marriages, the roles held by men and women are no longer as clearly delineated. In the past, husbands and wives held specific roles. One was the breadwinner and the other was responsible for maintaining the home, raising children, and fulfilling other social and family duties. Because each partner filled a functionally different role, couples may have felt they had very useful reasons for staying together. Today there’s a lot of overlap as to who brings home the bacon and who manages the household. The blurring of roles means there’s less inter-dependency and that can weaken the need to stay together.
We can add to the mix more liberal attitudes toward sex and a rise in secularism. As marriage is no longer a prerequisite for sex for many people, marriage has lost one of its more popular and exclusive benefits. Religious beliefs and doctrines made divorce untenable in the past. Even today, couples who are more connected to their religion are less prone to get divorced. But many more couples today are less likely to stay together simply because their church tells them they have to.
Couples from earlier generations may have also thought differently about marriage. Many regarded the institution as sacred and their marriage as permanent, and they stayed married regardless of how each partner felt about the other. Their happiness and personal needs were sublimated to the needs of the marriage. Couples struggled with many of the same problems but they did so in silence because it was more important to keep the family intact.
In contrast, many argue that people today spend more time thinking about themselves and their personal needs. While paying attention to our psychological needs is a good thing, it can work against marriage. We might put our personal interests ahead of those of our relationship. If we then feel our interests are threatened or unsatisfied, we may be more inclined to think the relationship isn’t working rather than make adjustments in our thinking so that it works better. When things don’t go as we want or expect, we’re more prone to throw in the towel.
Considering all the issues we just discussed, some people may come to question whether marriage is actually worth the effort. Others may believe that marriage is an antiquated concept that just doesn’t fit with the expectations they have for their lives. They might believe that an alternative lifestyle, such as living together or staying single and living alone, is a better way to go. We also looked into what social scientists have to say on how marriage compares (because, frankly, we weren’t so sure ourselves). That will be our next topic for discussion.