Nov 8, 2017 in Compare and Contrast

Contemporary Marriage

Marital partnership has been around for hundreds of years and is an important component of life for many societies and cultures around the world. American marriage, which grew out of European marital values, is as old and integral to our society as the founding of our nation itself; however, marriage roles and expectations (and our conceptions of them) have drastically changed over the last several centuries. Whereas men and women once married due to money, dependence and conception, partnering primarily to “regulate sexuality and parenting or organize the division of labor between men and women” (Coontz, “For Better, For Worse”, 2005), men and women today marry each other for many different reasons that include true love and companionship -- a contemporary aspect of marriage that some argue have caused its decline (Wilson, “The Decline of Marriage”, 2002).

Prior to the 1790s, when love became a factor for marriage (Coontz, “For Better, For Worse”, 2005), men and women married primarily for money and stability. Famous 18th century novels like Pride and Prejudice describe traditional marriage in terms of convenience -- arranged marriages and money dowries, for example, were common in those days, because these things insured a practical union between a man and a woman. In contemporary America, the bride-to-be’s family is not required to pay a sum to the groom’s family, and men and women aren’t paired up by family members for practicality or business purposes like the once were in Jane Austen’s time. Today, men and women choose their own partners out of love and companionship. If two people meet, fall in love and establish a deeply personal, intimate connection, they often choose to marry. Long gone are the days when a groom picked a bride based on the monetary gift she came along with, and long gone are the days (in American society) when men and women were paired together by their elders based on class status. Today, people from different class, ethnic and economic backgrounds get married, which was unheard of several centuries ago in Western society.

Another reason men and women used to get married was due to dependence. Prior to the women’s rights movements over the last hundred years, women could not easily get a job and support themselves in society. They had to be supported by men. In the traditional marriage of the pre-modernist era, women thus sought a husband primarily for stability and support. Likewise, men married so that they had a woman to oversee domestic work, which was solely the woman’s role in antiquity. Women (and not men) were expected to cook, clean and raise the children, while men went to work and brought home the money. Today, by contrast, women are fully-integrated members of society and are just as able as men are to have careers outside of the home, earn substantial income and fully support themselves (and oftentimes, their family). Stability is no longer as predominant a driving factor of marriage as it once was. In fact, today, “the working class and the poor . . . increasingly steer away from marriage” (Harden, “Numbers Drop for the Married with Children”, 2007). This finding indicates that while financial dependency was once a primary factor of marriage, it is, by contrast, now less of a factor than it ever was before. Since men and women can now enjoy single life or even “cohabitation” without marriage (Harden, “Numbers Drop for the Married with Children”, 2007), these things are not only a difference in why men and women do marry today, but are also a possible reason why marriage rates have dropped. Children are another important clue about the decrease in marriages today.

Children were and still are another important reason why men and women get married; however, the role children play in decisions to marry has differed over the last century. In the olden times, children were an expectation of adult men and women. Procreation was an express purpose of marriage, as was money and gendered labor roles. Additionally, reliable contraception was not available. Even unreliable contraceptive methods were often judged as morally wrong or forbidden in accordance with ethical and religious beliefs. Single motherhood was a social stigma that was severely looked down upon and even punished, all the way up until around 1970. (Harden, “Numbers Drop for the Married with Children”, 2007). If a couple accidentally conceived, their only option was an immediate marriage, to avoid social backlash (particularly to the mother). Today, reliable contraception is widely available and it is possible to maintain a sexual relationship without conceiving. Even if a couple does conceive out of wedlock, it is much more socially accepted than ever before, in large part due to women’s emancipation and men and women’s ability to single-handedly raise a child. Furthermore, with women now able to enjoy professions and careers, many couples today decide to marry with no intention of raising children, contrary to the goals of marriage as early as a hundred years ago.

In conclusion, it can be stated that the main reasons why men and women marry today vary widely from why men and women married in the past, regardless of what these contemporary reasons may be. While marriage had functional, practical and moral purposes in the past, marriage today seems to be chosen first and foremost out of love and a desire for companionship. Some say this is for the better, while others have argued that love is “the death of marriage” (Coontz, “For Better, For Worse”, 2005). Whether or not love has increased or decreased the value of marriage is ultimately, however, up to the modern couple.

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