There are ample studies available that, at first glance, make it seem like marriage in the U.S. is heading towards extinction. In the last 100 years, the number of marriages per 1,000 people has steadily declined (outside of the postwar bump of the 1950s). Over the same time period, both men and women who do choose to tie the knot do so at an increasingly older age, while the number of people cohabiting, coparenting, and raising children solo have all climbed. These might seem like depressing statistics to those in favor of traditional coupling, but we’d like to make the case that the institution is alive and thriving.
A few hundred years ago, marriage was a necessity, not a luxury for those in love. It was much more transactional in agrarian societies, as people paired off in order to have someone to help work the land and bear children who would do the same. This was long before the days of HR — if you wanted a solid staff, you had to make your own! After the industrial revolution, more men left the homestead to seek work in the cities, necessitating someone stay put to tend to household chores and raise the family. During these times marriage was less about satisfaction and more about survival, economics, and forward progress.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the concepts of physical and sexual attraction became part of the marriage equation. The world had advanced to the point that people began to want something from a spouse other than the working partnerships that had become commonplace in the previous generations. This led us to the “perfect” marriages depicted in the 1950s in shows like “Donna Reed” and “Leave It to Beaver.” The working husband came home to a beautiful wife with pin curls, makeup, a dress and heels, the house and children sparkling clean, and a hot dinner on the table.
At the same time, a new generation of youth were being raised in an era where many women had been expected to go to work when their male counterparts went to war. The growing acceptance that women had the option to work outside of the home and not rely on a man to provide for them financially was eye-opening. The ’60s and ’70s ushered in free love and helped remove the stigma of having sex outside of marriage — just for fun! The ’80s brought the glorification of the working girl, eventually leading us to today, when women feel confident and encouraged in their ability to survive and thrive without the help of a life partner.
So why get married? Modern marriage is much more about happiness and gratification rather than sustainability. We get married because we want to, not because we need to or because it’s expected of us. We’re free to date and live with multiple partners until we find one that we want to spend the rest of our lives with, without the judgment of society (but maybe with some stern looks from our grandparents).
The dating population is encouraged, first and foremost, to take the time to get to know themselves before finding a life partner. Instead of focusing on our biological clocks, we have the privilege and societal support to focus on our mental and physiological health, desires, and expectations. Once we fully understand our own needs, it becomes easier to look for someone who is our equal in whatever capacity we’re seeking, be that intellectually, emotionally, socioeconomically, or otherwise. A partner that not only makes us want to be the best version of ourselves, but is willing and able to help us on that path.
Additionally, there are many potentially beneficial marital behaviors that at one time were considered rare or even taboo, but are becoming increasingly commonplace. As women have gained hardfought emotional and financial independence, we bring to the table insights and opinions on finances, budgeting, and investment that put us on equal footing with our partners. Acknowledging that your relationship is struggling and speaking openly about individual and couples therapy is not only socially acceptable, it’s encouraged. The legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court opened matrimonial doors to many who previously didn’t have the option, and in general, more people feel free to explore the unique relationship format that works best for them.
Marriage may not be for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary for a happy, fulfilling life. But if it’s a route you choose to pursue, don’t let statistics spewed by your disgruntled aunt discourage you. There are more avenues to a successful marriage than at any time in history, and more opportunities to settle into one that feels just right to you. There’s no rush, and no right or wrong answer. Put a ring on it… or don’t. You do you.