Philobiblon: Why modern marriage is unrealistic, and what should replace it

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Why modern marriage is unrealistic, and what should replace it

This post grew from the response to a throw-away line when I commented on the introduction of "gay marriage" (in all but name) in the UK. And it is a subject that seems to keep pursuing me in other discussions.

So: why I don't believe in marriage (as we currently understand it).

To promise to stay together "until death do us part" now has a very different meaning to it had 100, or 1,000 or more years ago. In fact, while I doubt the data will ever exist to give a conclusive average, I suspect the current average length of marriage before divorce - 11.5 years - is roughly equivalent to the average length of marriage in early modern Europe (the area of history on which I have read most), and indeed probably roughly over the past 2,000 years. Given the historic death rates, the median length of the partnership before one or the other died, would probably have been about that.

Yet today in the UK the average age of first marriage for men is 30 and women 28. That means on average the marriage, if it is lifelong, will last 46 years, until the man dies. (Yes I know I'm simplifying the statistics, but that's broadly accurate.)

Furthermore, there is an expectation today that the marriage will be more than an alliance of families, or the establishment of an economic unit, or a means of providing for children, all things that were seen as its primary purpose in the past. Instead, marriage is expected to, or at least hoped to, meet the majority of the emotional, sexual and personal needs of the two partners.

And it is expected that they'll live together all of that time - by no means an expectation in the past, when, again using English examples, aristocratic partnerships frequently meant the women stayed in the country while the men spent most of their time in London (e.g. Margaret Paston, or Lady Alice More, whose husband was home at Chelsea no more than a few days each month.) City merchant families, and of course those of soldiers and sailors - saw a similar pattern.

Yet today it is expected that two people will meet the majority of each other's needs, for the great majority of their lives, and be more or less in each other's pockets for all of that time. I just find that utterly unrealistic. It fails to allow for the fact that people change, develop, grow in different directions, over their lives. For two people to grow for decades in matching directions might occur, but only very, very occasionally. Otherwise, one partner will have to stifle their personal development to fit in with the other, or else they'll grow apart.

Rather than that being accepted as a natural development, something to be managed gracefully, the pressure to regard marriage as being "for life" causes huge stresses and strains when the unrealistic nature of that goal emerges.

So what's needed instead? Well I'd suggest that instead, "marriages" should be five-year rolling contracts, to be renewed or adapted at the expiration of each period, by mutual negotiation between the parties. They might allow for periods of living apart (say if one person wants to travel for a year and the other doesn't; they might allow for someone setting up their own space in the house to be restricted to them for a certain times ... whatever works for the couple.)

The terms of what happens at the end of the period should be agreed at the start. Some might indeed end up being life-long - possibly even more than are now - once the terms of the agreement can be adapted to changing circumstances.

But, I hear the objections, what about the children?

Well many children experience their parents breaking up (whether or not they were formally married) and I'd suggest what causes most of the problems for them is not the break-up per say, but the bitterness and acrimony associated with the ending of something supposed to be "for ever".

About a quarter of children are living in sole-parent families at any one time. I couldn't find any figures on children living with step-parents, but I'd reckon that would take the combined figure to well over 50 per cent, so blended families are pretty well the norm anyway.

If children grow up in an environment where this is the norm, where society allows for these "divorces" and doesn't make them the site of shame or unnecessary acrimony, then they'd be a lot better off than many children are today.

So that's my proposal - a fundamental reform. You'd probably have to change the name, to avoid confusion - "personal partnerships", perhaps - but I'd suggest you'd end up with a society that would be both more stable, more harmonious, and happier.

12 Comments:

Blogger MatGB said...

Marry me? ;-)

Pretty much agree with the analysis, have thought very similarly for years. While I support the idea of civil partnerships, I'd rather we just had them, on fixed contract periods with an option to extend.

Remove any legal bits from "marriage" and make the term apply solely for religious types who feel the need to make commitments of a nature most of us understand aren't likely to last. Likely to happen in our lifetimes?

12/08/2005 08:46:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Maybe for a short trial period :-;

And well you could allow the religious stuff to contine for those who wanted it, but it should have no legal effect whatsoever.

12/08/2005 10:46:00 pm  
Blogger frankengirl said...

This post immediately brought to mind Jill Ker Conway (first woman president of Smith College). I remember - in her farewell speech to students - she said (forgive the paraphrasing) that her husband gave her these last ten years to do this; exactly what she wanted to do, and the next ten years would be his. The give-and-take of marriage often depends upon the expectation of time together.

You make a great point that the length of marriage is much longer than it used to be. Perhaps we need to find better ways to adapt to this, but I wouldn’t want to have to deal with formal negotiations and paperwork every five years(!). Each day is a kind of negotiation.

And life-long partnership seems to work for many. For others, marriage feels constricting. The choice not to marry (just like the choice not to have children) should be totally acceptable in our society. The long-standing convention of “coupling” shouldn’t be imposed upon anyone socially or psychologically.

Just some thoughts.

12/08/2005 11:49:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Yes, I've read Ker Conway's memoirs, and posted on them. You can't but admire the enormous distances she travelled in her life, and I'm not talking about geography.

12/09/2005 12:10:00 am  
Blogger coturnix said...

I have written something similar a couple of years ago. I got some history wrong (I have read my Stephanie Coontz since then), but the general gust remains...

12/09/2005 02:59:00 pm  
Blogger Ricia said...

The last stat I read, is that 53% of all N. America's children are being raised in the home by one parent.

Of the dozen+ weddings I've attended in the past ten years.. Only one used the phrase "'til death do us part". Two couples were wed in a church, one wore bride wore the white traditional garments. The rest made it what they wanted it to be, with personal address / ritual / celebrations.

I think this is an indicator that, a) most couples don't view marriage in the same terms in which it's still reputed or b) I run in reeeeally unusual circles.

12/11/2005 06:29:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Possibly a bit of both Ricia!But seriously, I think people are trying to evolve towards a more sensible arrangement, but the law and social custom are powerful forces to take on. And they should be taking the lead in offering choices.

12/11/2005 09:28:00 am  
Blogger Badaunt said...

Years ago when I was doing my undergraduate degree my history professor said much the same thing, during a lecture in which he was demolishing the 'golden past' myth of large happy families. Some of the more religious types in the audience were pretty upset.

I was just sitting there having my mind blown open. It was great. I'd recently escaped a fundamentalist cult myself, and hearing people talk sense (for the first time in my life) was exhilarating.

I'm all for removing the religion from marriage. It's like that here, in Japan. For The Man and I it was a political and economic decision - we got married because I needed a visa and with a spouse visa I wouldn't have to get sponsorship from employers (and thus give them power over me). That was the ONLY reason we got married. We couldn't see the point, otherwise.

But here religion is totally separate from the marriage - you get married by signing papers applying for permission at City Hall, and the religious ceremony is separate and optional. We didn't have one. Some people have the ceremony first and get legally married after the honeymoon.

12/11/2005 01:26:00 pm  
Blogger Ryan Clark Holiday said...

I was absolutely disgusted by this: you can see my thoughts on the post here:

Horrible.

12/14/2005 10:49:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I suspect Ryan there's not much you and I would agree on. It is just I am grounded in reality. I'm not sure where you're grounded.

12/14/2005 11:23:00 pm  
Blogger Ryan Clark Holiday said...

I'm not sure if your liberal pessimism and lack of faith in the nature of love would be an accurate description of reality.

This is what you elitists never quite understand--which by the way is why your message continually fails--: People want and will hold on to hope. It has got this nation thus far and its not about time to let it go.

Nor does anyone appreciate being underestimated. Marriage has had its flaws, and no one would argue it's currently an insitution of great respect, but it will make a come back. It will continue to act as the moral structure and foundation of society.

It's not change people fear, its respect for something greater than themselves.

12/15/2005 07:42:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I'm not sure how this is a "liberal" view.

But no, I don't believe in "love", if you mean by that the "happily ever after" "one man destined for one woman" "total soulmate" view. For one person to meet all of another's needs for life is wholly unrealistic. Not to mention if there is one person meant just for you, what happens it you never meet?

I would argue that the foundation of society is respect for others and their personal liberty and bodily integrity, which means providing an open framework and allowing people to get on with their lives as they see fit.

Society is the people that make it up and their relationships; nothing more, nothing less.

12/15/2005 01:13:00 pm  

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