Since the economic necessity for marriage is largely gone, the cultural trances have become more subtle, directly playing to the pursuit of happiness idea. We are bombarded with the messages that we would be happier in marriage, that our blood pressure would be lower (at least when we sleep), and that we’d be lonely and miserable if we’re single. Reality, as usual, is different than the cultural trances: Happiness and marriage are not linked and neither is blood pressure. More and more singles speak out that they’re perfectly happy with their lives and feel very fulfilled without a marital partner. That reality – there is happiness outside of intimate relationships – has helped me leave several frustrating and unhappy relationships. I am sure there are many others who made similar calls. I suspect that it has raised our expectations but also lowered our tolerance for crap in relationships. At the same time, though, healthy singles are happy because their lives are grounded in community and connections with others, some more intimate than others (see Kay Trimberger’s analysis for more information). This seems to point to new ways of relating that could inform intimate relationships: away from the insane focus on the man-woman nucleus (or the homosexual equivalent) to the integration of such relationships into a bigger network of friendships and relationships – building a new form of community. Ironically, this might make those intimate relationships more stable because we no longer expect a “soul mate” who will meet our every need. Of course, it would redefine relationships – again – but hopefully in a more rewarding way than deluding ourselves about marriage.
Reading Stephanie Coontz‘ Marriage, A History is a fascinating journey through time. Coontz’ main argument is that the shift from “yoke mates” to “soul mates” that started in the late 1700s contained the kernel for the demise of marriage. Her historical account also calls into question whether marriage itself is still serving a valuable purpose in our modern world. It seems to me that it’s time to move beyond the idea of marriage. That seems to be the logical conclusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the shift toward the pursuit of individual happiness and equality between all people. It would also accept reality: marriage is an outmoded institution. The cultural trances that are keeping marriage alive are getting onto thinner and thinner ice. Back in college, I took a very interesting class on economics and women. One of the marriage “undermining” developments we discussed was women’s increasing labor force participation throughout the 20th century. Especially once we started to close the pay gap at least a little, women had the earnings to be able to stand on our own and leave dissatisfying marriages. And we did: the divorce rates increased.