Marriage has become steadily more private and voluntary in nature. Decisions about marriage are being made in light of the prospects for personal fulfillment. The institution itself has been dethroned as a supraindividual entity that supersedes both the individual and the couple. In its place, we have another possible life choice that, if taken wisely, has something to offer the individuals involved. Rather than being the basis for compromise and sacrifice, it has been reshaped into a relational investment that can pay dividends in terms of self-satisfaction.
In this respect, recent decades have witnessed a shift from communal marriages to exchange marriages.28 In communal relationships, people are concerned about the welfare of others at least as much as they are concerned about their individual desires. There is a mutuality about communal relationships that carries the assumption that both participants are looking out for each other. As part of this, they do not feel a strong need for automatic reciprocity. When they give to the other person, it is assumed that this is making a contribution to the overall relationship. By contrast, in exchange relationships, participants are more self-focused, and thus more likely to view the relationship as a sort of economic exchange. Many such marriages revolve around the efficient management of work schedules and finances. An expectation exists that there should be a significant return from any investment of time, energy, or money into the relationship. Although traditional arranged marriages had some of these pragmatic qualities, the exchange involved was intended primarily to benefit the long-term union of two people. The "other" in a modern exchange marriage is a carefully chosen, but modifiable, component of one's life portfolio.
There is a positive side to the practice of selecting a mate realistically on the basis of an exchange. For example, entering into a relationship on a cost-benefit basis increases one's chances of financial security, while conversely reducing the risk of material deprivation. Exchange relationships also enjoy a contractual structure that allows more predictability and control than less rational love-propelled relationships. Yet one must wonder about the ability of market-style marriages to provide the intangible rewards of a blinder type of love that is not ruled by self-interest and cost-benefit calculations.29
People are finding it difficult to make the sort of emotional commitment that is necessary in order to enter into a marriage. One reason for this trend is that many of us now feel that marriage entails giving up too much. We hold off until we are convinced that the other person is the real thing, and that the marriage will be the sure bet that we demand. Until then, the "opportunity cost" of making a marital commitment is perceived as being too high.30
Modern marriages are becoming more companionate in design, and less bound to mutual commitment assumptions.31 Personal considerations have come to outweigh traditional influences and rendered obsolete the notion of lifelong devotion. Commitment has become highly tentative. Out of this development has arisen a flourishing counseling industry whose central aims are to negotiate marital relationships within the framework of the private demands of participants and to remedy the distress stemming from failed negotiation agreements. One small part of this expanding industry is the drawing up of prenuptial agreements that preserve individual interests in anticipation of marital dissolution.
The motives for divorce in companionate marriages can be quite subtle. Rather than reflecting indifference to or disregard for the partner, they seem more related to unconscious existential assessments made about one's progress with the Dream. With pragmatism no longer able to justify marital continuity, the Dream has achieved as much importance as the marital participants themselves. The modern marriage partner is expected to do his or her part in making the Dream a reality. If both have similar aspirations along these lines, some semblance of harmony will prevail, but if one partner begins to lose sight of the Dream, the other is likely to interpret this as a form of mutiny or rejection. Sometimes this is explained away with the reasoning that they have grown apart, but in reality the split has little to do with growth. With increasing frequency, marital breakdown is the result of the partners' falling out of step in their wider journeys as consumers.
The viability of marriage is always threatened by the fact that the Dream has too many variations, and too many fluctuating qualities, for it to be achieved in unison with someone else. Another problem is that a great deal of time and energy must be funneled into its quest. Among other things, it transforms the seeker into a worker who runs the continual risk of becoming invisible to the other person. The simple matter of time can account for a large number of marital collapses. Working marriages often have much more economic capital than marital capital, as a result of insufficient time to nourish a loving relationship.
Marital capital, which ultimately determines the strength of a marriage, derives from engagement in joint pursuits and activities that promote the experience of being a couple. Simultaneously, those pursuits forge a set of values and attitudes that are unique to the marriage. They give life to the relationship in which the participants are also part of a supraindividual association made up of two connected people. However, the trend is for marriages to be so individualized that they lack the necessary amounts of mutuality to generate adequate marital capital. The previously mentioned "bowling alone" phenomenon is observable in many marriages, allowing us to speak of people who have the underlying feeling that they are married alone.
The aloneness of the modern marriage experience is one reason that postmarital depression has become a common affliction for new Western brides and grooms. It is precipitated by some of the same social structures that predispose new Western mothers to postnatal depression. In particular, both new mothers and new marriage partners are assaulted by the postceremony reality that their new status has no recognition or support in the wider culture. In both cases, their new roles have no structures other than improvised ones that strive to assign meaning to the whole venture. Newly married people sense that new responsibilities are an aspect of their changed status, but they again struggle to identify a wider framework within which to comprehend and act upon these responsibilities. In many cases, it soon emerges that they are solely responsible for themselves.
This experience is magnified by its stark contrast to the usual pomp that precedes the occasion. The commercial hysteria that features prominently in contemporary marriages results in a demoralizing transition from consumer fantasy to relational reality. It masks only temporarily the cultural separation that young newlyweds are forced to endure in the modern age. The general isolation of modern marriage causes the couple to look toward each other for direction, guidance, and comfort. However, in most cases, the motives instilled by consumer conditioning overtake the relationship, and both soon become devoted to work and other profitable engagements. Before long, participants realize that the spouse is unable to provide emotional salvation; that recognition adds to the suspicion that marriage will be a lonely and poorly delineated experience.
Like the new Western mother who succumbs to depression as a result of perceived social abandonment, the new go-it-alone married person is predisposed in a similar way toward depressive symptoms. When this combines with the conscious awareness of disappointment and the withdrawal effects of a hypercommercialized premarital period, it is an easy step to entertain divorce as a solution to one's negative emotion.
The modern crisis of sexuality is another element that contributes to postmarital depression and the general poverty of contemporary marriage. Modernity has seen the demise of shared sexuality. The sexuality crisis that has ensued has been explained in terms of social alienation and the eclipse of intimacy.32 Without the "other" to complete the sexual act, there is little chance for intimacy. When this happens, sex becomes just another thing to have, or another commodity to consume. Satisfying sexuality requires a deep union with the "other," but self-interested participants end up with an other-less sex that has a way of fostering confusion, doubt, and variety seeking.
Social analysts have made increasing reference to the commercialization of love and sexuality. In a noncommercial marriage, love is integrated into the relationship in such a way as to provide an antidote for individual maximization.33 That is, a love union actually offers relief from the pursuit of immediate self-interest, and a redirection toward a subjectively higher cause in the form of the love union itself. It is even probable that the self-sacrifice entailed in this type of relationship strengthens the union and becomes a source of heightened attraction. Sexuality loses an essential component when both individuals are geared toward personal maximization. Fidelity and faithfulness are among the assumptions that have been ejected in favor of ones that relate to the new prerogative not to allow one's desires to be frustrated.
The loss of the presumption of permanence has an impact on "emotional insurance" and, in turn, the quality of sexual relations.34 The experience of emotional insurance is unlikely when individualistic calculation is the primary motivation underlying sexual engagement. When sexuality is perceived as a consumer right, loneliness pervades the union, and the sex act itself becomes dominated by technique. Since sexual technique cannot compensate for a loss of mutuality or bridge the gulf of loneliness, sexual incompetence is never far behind. This explains the rising rate of all types of sexual dysfunction and sexual inadequacy that feature in the modern sexuality crisis.
Estimates indicate that over 30 million American men suffer from either complete or partial erectile dysfunction. One must wonder whether the human being has ever had sexual problems on this scale. Reports are appearing about the modern "Impotency Boom" and the epidemic proportions this problem has reached in the West. This phenomenon has become a financial boom for many, not unlike the gold rush of the nineteenth century. Aprosperous drug and sex therapy industry has arisen to capitalize on this sexual problem.
Sexual desire disorders have also been increasing at a very rapid rate over the past two decades.35 The most common disorder is classified as hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a deficiency or total absence of sexual urges, which currently affects over 20 percent of the adult population. Different causes have been suggested, such as fear of loss of control, fear of pregnancy, depression, and a history of sexual trauma. Of these factors, depression is the only one that could account for the sharp increases in sexual desire disorders, but we probably need to go beyond depression as a causal agent and to look at the shifting focus of our desires. Passion that normally would be directed to the social realm is drained off as culture imbues members with the type of desire, including sexual desire, that does not promote self-transcendence or human interest.
As the market absorbs greater amounts of our emotional attention, the "other" becomes more generalized, and the strength of emotional bonding is depleted.36 Even our closest "loved ones" have become more generalized, and less capable of being circumscribed with lasting deep emotion. The inability to differentiate others from a diffuse market experience has resulted in a different definition of marriage. It has uncoupled itself from traditional societal goals and redefined itself as a personal gamble that could pay off in terms of self-fulfillment for both parties. The market mentality and the subsequent loss of the distinct other have also rewritten the meaning of divorce. Rather than being perceived as failed cultural heroics, or even as an arrangement that went wrong, divorce has become a wager that did not come in, a bet that did not work out. Consumer society has remolded marriage into a wearable consumer product that may or may not fit.
The option to divorce is a consumer's right if the product proves unsatisfactory, and if the contractors want to cut their losses. Unlike in former times when divorce was constrained by social morality, now the marital customer is always right. In this environment, there is no need for divorce to be accompanied by punishing social dramatics, lengthy self-flagellation, soul searching, or self-improvement. Instead it is thought that, in time, the market will swing in one's direction and make obvious another choice.
As divorce has been embraced by consumer dynamics, it has achieved a new respectability that liberates participants from restrictive social dominion. The whole process of divorce, from initial fantasy through to new partner shopping, is becoming a type of consumer distraction that somehow compensates for the barrenness of actual relationships. Despite the emptiness and social craving that intermingles with modern divorce culture, permanent marriage is largely unfathomable, and already quaintly unfashionable, to the new generation of the interpersonal consumer. Historically, children have represented a reason for disregarding or delaying the option of divorce, but the swing toward viewing children as an optional extra to marriage will make divorce an even easier course of action in the future.
We are all familiar with the statistics about the rising divorce rates. In some parts of the Western world, more than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. In the United States, nearly 10 million children currently live in single-parent families: a sixfold increase over the past four decades. The divorce rate is rising steadily all over the Westernized world, even in countries like Israel that have a deep tradition of family unity. There are a few exceptions where the percentage of marriages ending in divorce has stabilized for the time being, but the assumption of impermanence continues to permeate the marital contract. There is an implicit background expectation that the time will come when the relationship will no longer be worth it to the contractual participants.
Although modernity has shortened the lifespan of marriages, some aspects of modernity appear to enhance marital satisfaction. In one study in Israel, for example, researchers assessed quality of marriage in relation to a number of modernization variables, including education, maternal employment, and equality of conjugal power.37 These factors were found to correlate with increased marital satisfaction, despite the overriding fact that contemporary Israeli marriages are more precarious than traditional ones. This was the case for both males and females. The investigators concluded that the growing voluntariness and equality of modern marriages in Israel, which produce instability and vulnerability, have the effect of improving the quality of marital relations. Therefore, the truncated lifespan of marriages today does not automatically imply diminished marital satisfaction during the actual course of the relationship. A divorce option may be especially liberating for women who have run the historical risk of marital imprisonment, and the exploitation and oppression that this has entailed.
There is some evidence that, under certain conditions, features of modernization can lessen the likelihood of divorce. In Islamic Southeast Asia, for example, decreasing rates of divorce have been explained by social changes that allow greater freedom to make personal choices about marriage partners, as well as greater opportunities for women to receive an education and thereby postpone marriage to a later age.38 The greatest advantage of these alterations to traditional practices is that the person can reduce the risk of an unsatisfactory marriage. In contrast, Western countries give primary emphasis to the dissolution of disappointing marriages.
Research still identifies money matters as the number one reason for marital disintegration in contemporary Western society. Concerns about money and all things material has actually become a greater determinant of marital well-being even though we live in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. It is common even for couples basking in vast surpluses of wealth to identify money matters as the primary reason for divorce.
Other frequently cited reasons for divorce include loss of mutual respect, waning feelings of love, and conflict of various sorts in addition to those related to money, but an interesting trend that has appeared is that increasing numbers of divorces unfold without any obvious signs of conflict. Nearly one-third of divorces are now of this conflict-free variety, in which one or both partners simply experience the feeling that they would be happier elsewhere.
The upsurgence of friendly divorces is proving especially troublesome for the children who must come to terms with this type of breakup. In addition to whatever other emotional problems they face because of the divorce, they struggle with a profound puzzlement. The children cannot understand why their seemingly happily married parents would choose to divorce. In the absence of a plausible explanation, they frequently turn the blame onto themselves, despite reassurances from their parents. Not surprisingly, research shows that the postdivorce adjustment of such children is less favorable than that of children who go through parental divorces that are characterized by open conflict. In general, divorce culture has created many new mental health challenges for children today.
Alarge body of research has chronicled the potential ill effects of divorce on children. Some types of postdivorce custody arrangements are quite difficult for children. For example, girls in paternal custody and boys in maternal custody have been found to be especially disadvantaged in terms of deficiencies of prosocial behavior, impulse control, anger management, and self-concept.39 The loss of wider sources of social support, as well as a deterioration of the quality of living environment, can add to the problems of children in divorce culture. These harmful effects can be assuaged partially when supportive networks and adequate physical resources can be maintained after the divorce.
Beyond the potential psychological pitfalls of divorce, marriage as an institution has lost so much social credibility that it is vanishing as a prerequisite for childbearing. Throughout the modern world, the number of children being born to single mothers and unmarried parents has nearly matched the number who find themselves outside dual-parent families as a result of divorce. In the United States, one-third of children are being born to unmarried mothers, and the same trend is occurring in other Western countries. This has many complex mental health ramifications for growing numbers of children who are being raised in alternative family environments.
Children reared in single-parent arrangements are not necessarily destined to suffer psychological ill effects, but childhood stress is more likely as a result of the multiple transitions often accompanying this situation.40 Children who undergo numerous transitions, as well as exposure to changing care-giver patterns, have reduced educational success and a greater risk of emotional difficulties. Inconsistent and contradictory socialization practices are among the reasons cited for the deleterious impact of some styles of family organization and for the inablility of parents to meet the socioemotional needs of children. Even in traditional family designs, we find that parents are making smaller and smaller socioemotional investments in their children. This affects in a negative way the self-image, coping ability, comfort level, and overall adjustment of the children who find themselves victims of this increasingly common form of deprivation.
Was this article helpful?