"A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person."
The current low rates of marriage and remarriage and the high incidence of divorce in the United States are the bases of deep concern about the future of marriage and the family. Some have used these data to argue the demise of the family in American Society (Popenoe 1993). Others see such changes as normal shifts and adjustments to societal changes (Barich and Bielby 1996). Whatever the forecast, there is no question that the institution of marriage is currently less stable than it has been in previous generations. This article explores the nature of modern marriage and considers some of the reasons for its vulnerability.
Marriage can be conceptualized in three ways: as an institution (a set of patterned, repeated, expected behaviors and relationships that are organized and endure over time); as rite or ritual (whereby the married status is achieved); and as a process (a phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead to ultimate dissolution through separation, divorce, or death). In the discussion that follows we examine each of these conceptualizations of marriage, giving the greatest attention to marriage as a process.
Marriage as Institution
From a societal level of analysis the institution of marriage represents all the behaviors, norms, roles, expectations, and values that are associated with the legal union of a man and woman. It is the institution in society in which a man and woman are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence to found and maintain a family. For most people, getting married and having children are the principal life events that mark the passage into mature adulthood. Marriage is considered to represent a lifelong commitment by two people to each other and is signified by a contract sanctioned by the state (and for many people, by God). It thus involves legal rights, responsibilities, and duties that are enforced by both secular and sacred laws. As a legal contract ratified by the state, marriage can be dissolved only with state permission.
Marriage is at the center of the kinship system. New spouses are tied inextricably to members of the kin network. The nature of these ties or obligations differs in different cultures. In many societies almost all social relationships are based on or mediated by kin, who may also serve as allies in times of danger, may be responsible for the transference of property, or may be turned to in times of economic hardship (Lee 1982). In the United States, kin responsibilities rarely extend beyond the nuclear family (parents and children). There is the possible exception of caring for elderly parents, where norms seem to be developing (Eggebeen and Davey 1998). There are no normative obligations an individual is expected to fulfill for sisters or brothers, not to mention uncles, aunts, and cousins. Associated with few obligations and responsibilities is greater autonomy and independence from one’s kin.
In most societies the distribution of power in marriage is given through tradition and law to the male—that is, patriarchy is the rule as well as the practice. For many contemporary Americans the ideal is to develop an egalitarian power structure, but a number of underlying conditions discourage attaining this goal. These deterrents include the tendency for males to have greater income; higher-status jobs; and, until recently, higher educational levels than women. In addition, the tradition that women have primary responsibility for child rearing tends to increase their dependency on males.
Historically, the institution of marriage has fulfilled several unique functions for the larger society. It has served as an economic alliance between two families, as the means for legitimizing sexual relations, and as the basis for legitimizing parenthood and offspring. In present-day America the primary functions of marriage appear to be limited to the legitimization of parenthood (Davis 1949; Reiss and Lee 1988) and the nurturance of family members (Lasch 1977). Recently, standards have changed and sexual relationships outside marriage have become increasingly accepted for unmarried people. Most services that were once performed by members of a family for other members can now be purchased in the marketplace, and other social institutions have taken over roles that once were assigned primarily to the family. Even illegitimacy is not as negatively sanctioned as in the past. The fact that marriage no longer serves all the unique functions it once did is one reason some scholars have questioned the vitality of the institution.
Marriage as Rite or Ritual
Not a great deal of sociological attention has been given to the study of marriage as a rite or ritual that transfers status. Philip Slater, in a seminal piece published in 1963, discussed the significance of the marriage ceremony as a social mechanism that underscores the dependency of the married couple and links the new spouses to the larger social group. Slater claims that various elements associated with the wedding (e.g., bridal shower, bachelor party) help create the impression that the couple is indebted to their peers and family members who organize these events. He writes,
Slater describes the ways in which rite and ceremony focus attention on loyalties and obligations owed others: ‘‘The ceremony has the effect of concentrating the attention of both individuals on every OTHER affectional tie either one has ever contracted’’ (Slater 1963, p. 354). The intrusion of the community into the couple’s relationship at the moment of unity serves to inhibit husband and wife from withdrawing completely into an intimate unit isolated from (and hence not contributing to) the larger social group.
Martin Whyte (1990) noted the lack of information on marriage rituals and conducted a study to help fill this gap. He found that, since 1925, wedding rituals (bridal shower, bachelor party, honeymoon, wedding reception, church wedding) have not only persisted but also increased in terms of the number of people who incorporate them into their wedding plans. Weddings also are larger in scale in terms of cost, number of guests, whether a reception is held, and so on. Like Slater, Whyte links marriage rituals to the larger social fabric and argues that an elaborate wedding serves several functions. It
Marriage as Process
Of the three ways in which marriage is conceptualized—institution, rite or ritual, and process—most scholarly attention has focused on process. Here the emphasis is on the interpersonal relationship. Changes in this relationship over the course of a marriage have attracted the interest of most investigators. Key issues studiedby researchers include the establishment of communication, affection, power, and decision-making patterns; development of a marital division of labor; and learning spousal roles. The conditions under which these develop and change (e.g., social class level, age at marriage, presence of children) and the outcomes of being married that derive from them (e.g., degree of satisfaction with the relationship) are also studied. For illustrative purposes, the remainder of this article will highlight one of these components, marital communication, and one outcome variable, marital quality. We also address different experiences of marriage based on sex of spouse: ‘‘his’’ and ‘‘her’’ marriage.
The perception of a ‘‘failure to communicate’’ is a problem that prompts many spouses to seek marital counseling. The ability to share feelings, thoughts, and information is a measure of the degree of intimacy between two people, and frustration follows from an inability or an unwillingness to talk and listen (Okun 1991). However, when the quality of communication is high, marital satisfaction and happiness also are high (Holman and Brock 1986; Burleson and Denton 1997; Gottman 1994).
The role of communication in fostering a satisfactory marital relationship is more important now than in earlier times, because the expectation and demands of marriage have changed. As noted above, marriage in America is less dependent on and affected by an extended kin network than on the spousal relationship. One of the principal functions of contemporary marriage is the nurturance of family members. Perhaps because this function and the therapeutic and leisure roles that help fulfill it in marriage are preeminent, ‘‘greater demands are placed on each spouse’s ability to communicate’’ (Fitzpatrick 1988, p. 2). The communication of positive affect and its converse, emotional withdrawal, may well be the essence and the antithesis, respectively, of nurturance. Bloom and colleagues (1985) suggest that one important characteristic of marital dissatisfaction is the expectation that marriage is a ‘‘source of interpersonal nurturance and individual gratification and growth’’ (p. 371), an expectation that is very hard to fulfill.
In the 1990s many studies focused on the relationship between communication and marital satisfaction (Burleson and Denton 1997). The findings from this body of research suggest that there are clear communication differences between spouses in happy and in unhappy marriages. Patricia Noller and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick (1990) reviewed this literature, and their findings can be summarized as follows: Couples in distressed marriages report less satisfaction with the social-emotional aspects of marriage, develop more destructive communication patterns (i.e., a greater expression of negative feelings, including anger, contempt, sadness, fear, and disgust), and seek to avoid conflict more often than nondistressed couples. Nevertheless, couples in distressed marriages report more frequent conflict and spend more time in conflict. In addition, gender differences in communication are intensified in distressed marriages. For example, husbands have a more difficult time interpreting wives’ messages. Wives in general express both negative and positive feelings more directly, and are more critical. Spouses in unhappy marriages appear to be unaware that they misunderstand one another. Generally, happily married couples are more likely to engage in positive communication behaviors (agreement, approval, assent, and the use of humor and laughter), while unhappy couples command, disagree, criticize, put down, and excuse more. Recently, Burleson and Denton (1997) explored the complexity of the communication–marital satisfaction relationship and found a variety of moderating factors: skills in communicating (realizing the communication goal, producing and receiving messages, social perception), the context or setting in which communication takes place, and the cognitive complexity of each spouse. They suggest that communication problems are best viewed as a symptom of marital difficulties and should not be seen merely as a diagnostic tool for distressed relationships.
Communication patterns may be class linked. It has long been found that working-class wives in particular complain that their husbands are emotionally withdrawn and inexpressive (Komarovsky 1962; Rubin 1976). Olsen and his colleagues (1979) assign communication a strategic role in marital and family adaptability. In their conceptualization of marital and family functioning, communication is the process that moves couples along the dimensions of cohesion and adaptability. In another study the absence of good communication skills is associated with conjugal violence (Infante 1989).
Differences between the sexes have been reported in most studies that examine marital communication. The general emphasis of these findings is that males appear less able to communicate verbally and to discuss emotional issues. However, communication is not the only aspect of marriage for which sex differences have been reported. Other components of marriage also are experienced differently, depending on the sex of spouse. The following paragraphs report some of these.
In her now classic book, The Future of Marriage (1972), Jessie Bernard pointed out that marriage does not hold the same meanings for wives as for husbands, nor do wives hold the same expectations for marriage as do husbands. These sex differences (originally noted but not fully developed by Emile Durkheim in 1897 in Le Suicide) have been observed and examined by many others since Bernard’s publication (Larson 1988; Thompson and Walker 1989; Kitson 1992). For example, researchers have reported differences between husbands and wives in perceptions of marital problems, reasons for divorce, and differences in perceived marital quality; wives consistently experience and perceive lower marital quality than do husbands.
Sex differences in marriage are socially defined and prescribed (Lee 1982; Blaisure and Allen 1995). One consequence of these social definitions is that sex differences get built into marital roles and the division of labor within marriage. For example, it has been observed that wives do more housework and child care than husbands (Thompson and Walker 1989; Presser 1994). Even wives who work in the paid labor force spend twice as many hours per week in family work as husbands (Benin and Agostinelli 1988; Coltran and Ishii-Kuntz 1992; Demo and Acock 1993). Wives are assigned or tend to assume the role of family kin keeper and caregiver (Montgomery 1992). To the extent that husbands and wives experience different marriages, wives are thought to be disadvantaged by their greater dependence, their secondary status, and the uneven distribution of family responsibilities between spouses (Baca Zinn and Eitzen 1990).
All these factors are assumed to affect the quality of marriage—one of the most studied aspects of marriage (Adams 1988; Berardo 1990). It will be the subject of our final discussion.
Marital quality may be the ‘‘weather vane’’ by which spouses gauge the success of their relationship. The reader should be sure to differentiate the concept of marital quality from two other closely related concepts: family quality and the quality of life in general, called ‘‘global life satisfaction’’ in the literature. Studies show that people clearly differentiate among these three dimensions of well-being (Ishii-Kuntz and Ihinger-Tallman 1991).
Marriage begins with a commitment, a promise to maintain an intimate relationship over a lifetime. Few couples clearly understand the difficulties involved in adhering to this commitment or the problems they may encounter over the course of their lives together. More people seek psychological help for marital difficulties than for any other type of problem (Veroff et al. 1981). For a large number of spouses, the problems become so severe that they renege on their commitment and dissolve the marriage.
A review of the determinants of divorce lists the following problems as major factors that lead to the dissolution of marriage: ‘‘alcoholism and drug abuse, infidelity, incompatibility, physical and emotional abuse, disagreements about gender roles, sexual incompatibility, and financial problems’’ (White 1990, p. 908). Underlying these behaviors appears to be the general problem of communication. In their study of divorce, Gay Kitson and Marvin Sussman (1982) report lack of communication or understanding to be the most common reason given by both husbands and wives concerning why their marriage broke up. The types of problems responsible for divorce have not changed much over time. Earlier studies also list nonsupport, financial problems, adultery, cruelty, drinking, physical and verbal abuse, neglect, lack of love, in-laws, and sexual incompatibility as reasons for divorce (Goode 1956; Levinger 1966).
Not all unhappy marriages end in divorce. Many factors bar couples from dissolving their marriages, even under conditions of extreme dissatisfaction. Some factors that act as barriers to marital dissolution are strong religious beliefs, pressure from family or friends to remain together, irretrievable investments, and the lack of perceived attractive alternatives to the marriage (Johnson et al. 1999).
One empirical finding that continues to be reaffirmed in studies of marital quality is that the quality of marriage declines over time, beginning with the birth of the first child (Glenn and McLanahan 1982; Glenn 1991; White et al. 1986). Consequently the transition to parenthood and its effect on the marital relationship has generated a great deal of research attention (Cowen and Cowen 1989; McLanahan and Adams 1989). The general finding is that marital quality decreases after the birth of a child, and this change is more pronounced for mothers than for fathers. Two reasons generally proposed to account for this decline are that the amount of time couples have to spend together decreases after the birth of a child, and that sex role patterns become more traditional (McHale and Huston 1985).
In an attempt to disentangle the duration of marriage and parenthood dimensions, White and Booth (1985) compared couples who became new parents with nonparent couples over a period of several years and found a decline in marital quality regardless of whether the couple had a child. A longitudinal study conducted by Belsky and Rovine (1990) confirmed the significant declines in marital quality over time reported in so many other studies. They also found the reported gender differences. However, their analysis also focused on change scores for individual couples. They reported that while marital quality declined for some couples, this was not true for all couples: It improved or remained unchanged for others. Thus, rather than assume that quality decline is an inevitable consequence of marriage, there is a need to examine why and how some couples successfully avoid this deterioration process. The authors called for the investigation of individual differences among couples rather than continuing to examine the generally well-established finding that marital quality declines after children enter the family and remains low during the child-rearing stages of the family life cycle.
Finally, the overall level of marital satisfaction is related to the frequency with which couples have sex (Call et al. 1995). The argument states that happy couples have sex more frequently, leading to more satisfying marriage, and that satisfaction in marriage leads to a greater desire for sex and the creation of more opportunities for sex.
Many students of the family have found it useful to consider marital development over the years as analogous to a career that progresses through stages of the family life cycle (Duvall and Hill 1948; Aldous 1996). This allows for consideration of changes in the marital relationship that occur because of spouses’ aging, the duration of marriage, and the aging of children. In addition to changes in marital quality, other factors have been examined, such as differences in the course of a marriage, when age at first marriage varies (e.g., marriage entered into at age 19 as opposed to in the mid-30s), varied duration of childbearing (few versus many years), varied number of children (small family versus large), and the ways in which consumer decisions change over the course of marriage (Aldous 1990).
If the vitality of marriage is measured by the extent to which men and women enter marriage, then some pessimism about its future is warranted. Marriage rates are currently lower than during the early depression year 1931 (Statistical Abstracts 1998, 1938)—which was the lowest in our nation’s recent history (Sweet and Bumpass 1987). One conclusion that might be drawn from reading the accumulated literature on marriage, especially the writings that discuss the inequities of men and women within marriage, the increasing incidence of marital dissolution, cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, and the postponement of marriage, is that the institution is in serious trouble. These changes have been interpreted as occurring as part of a larger societal shift in values and orientations (Glick 1989) that leans toward valuing adults over children and individualism over familism (Glenn 1987; White 1987; see also the entire December 1987 issue of Journal of Family Issues, which is devoted to the state of the American family). Supporting this perspective are the data on increased marital happiness among childless couples and lower birth rates among married couples.
Yet every era has had those who wrote of the vulnerability of marriage and the family. For example, earlier in this century Edward Alsworth Ross wrote, ‘‘we find the family now less stable than it has been at any time since the beginning of the Christian era’’ (1920, p. 586). Is every era judged to be worse than previous ones when social institutions are scrutinized? More optimistic scholars look at the declining first-marriage rate and interpret it as a ‘‘deferral syndrome’’ rather than an outright rejection of the institution (Glick 1989). This is because, in spite of declines in the overall rate, the historical 8 percent to 10 percent of never-married people in the population has remained constant: Almost 90 percent of all women in the United States eventually marry at least once in their lifetimes. Also, projections that about twothirds of all first marriages in the United States will end in divorce (Martin and Bumpass 1989) do not deter people from marrying. In spite of the high divorce rate, an increased tolerance for singleness as a way of life, and a growing acceptance of cohabitation, the majority of Americans continue to marry. Marriage is still seen as a source of personal happiness (Kilbourne et al. 1990).
More fundamentally, marriage rates and the dynamics of marital relationships tend to reflect conditions in the larger society. What appears clear, at least for Americans, is that they turn to marriage as a source of sustenance and support in a society where, collectively, citizens seem to have abrogated responsibility for the care and nurturance of each other. Perhaps it is not surprising that divorce rates are high, given the demands and expectations placed on modern marriages.
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