Is Marriage Becoming a Social Relic?

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Divorce rates being what they are, it might appear that marriage as we have known it could be on its way to becoming a social relic. But while the institution of marriage may change, I’m confident that the value and power of love and commitment will endure.

A while back I wrote a piece called “The Value of Commitment”. The inspiration to write that article came as I was reflecting on a special trip my wife and I had just completed to celebrate our 30-year wedding anniversary. I’ve had the great fortune to be married for over 33 years now to a most remarkable woman — a woman whose love, devotion, commitment, and character have not only helped make me the person I am but also brought untold blessings into my life. But recently, at a large extended family gathering where I encountered many relatives and friends who’ve experienced failed relationships and divorce, I was faced with some stark reminders about just how much attitudes toward marriage have changed over the past few decades as well as how the stability and character of this timeless institution have also changed. Most of the attendees at this event came from backgrounds similar to mine, and the fact that this group was evenly divided between those with stable, long lasting marriages and those who’d been married and divorced (some several times) or who were involved in various alternative relationships gave me real pause.

When the Pew Foundation for Social Research last compiled comprehensive statistics on marriage in 2010 (publishing the findings in a 2011 report), the marriage rate for eligible adults in the United States was hovering at barely above 50 percent (51.6 overall among all groups) and because there appeared to be a steady pattern of decline in rates over the preceding 3 year period, it was projected that within half a decade less than half of all eligible adults in the U.S. would be married. Some more recent 2014 data, however, suggest the outlook might not be quite as bleak as previously feared, because marriage rates for college educated young adults have actually risen somewhat. Still, divorce rates being what they are (and still increasing), and given the ever growing popularity of relationship alternatives to marriage, it appears that marriage as we have known it for many years may soon become somewhat of a social relic.

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Marriage hasn’t always been the enterprise which for much of the early post World War II period was characterized as one man and one woman, faithful to only each other for life, primarily focused on raising children. Throughout history, marriages have been arranged for political reasons primarily, and sometimes fashioned for pure convenience. Even the concept of monogamous marriage has, at various times, enjoyed different levels of acceptance and popularity. And the concept of marrying primarily out of love — well, that’s a concept that’s only been with us for a relatively brief period of time. But even in our times when alternative relationship arrangements of various types short of formal marriage have become ever more commonplace, marriage still seems to hold a particular allure. And as the movement to grant same-sex couples the right to marry testifies to, the very idea of one person bonding to another in a special kind of union for life and having that union both recognized and supported formally by society at large is probably never going to become completely passé.

Having been raised in an environment in which marriage was regarded as the single most important enterprise upon which a person could embark and divorce was intensely frowned upon, I was surprised to find myself actually reveling in one divorce that had been recently finalized for one of my closest friends, and with whom I had the opportunity to talk at length during the gathering I mentioned earlier. After mindfully reflecting for some time on why I could be so content with the dissolution of this union, I came to a deeper understanding about my own attitudes regarding the nature, purpose, and benefits of marriage and some even deeper realizations about the value and power of love and commitment. I realized that what I’ve come to believe about the special character or “sanctity” of marriage differs quite a bit from what I grew up believing and also from what I’ve come to believe about the power and value of love and commitment. As I see it, love and commitment are really the more fundamental values. They’re the most fundamental aspects not only of personal growth but also of shaping and building a great society. Marriage has, for some time, enjoyed the status of being the formal vehicle for expressing that love and commitment. But as anyone who’s undertaken a long and inspiring journey knows, the magic and the power is always in the journey itself. To afford too much adulation to the vehicle that takes you there can not only distract you from what’s important but also cause you to mis-direct your attentions and affections.

I think marriage will probably be with us for some time to come. But what I mostly hope and pray for is that those who seek to marry keep in mind the fundamentals of what can make it such a noble institution. Most of us lack sufficient desire, energy, strength, stamina, and emotional and spiritual capacity to love and commit so broadly that every relationship we have fosters nothing but positive growth and happiness. So to fully love and equally fully commit ourselves to one person is about the best we can hope for. I count myself among those who try to love more universally but consistently fall short. While I even fall short at times within my marriage, I know without question that doing the best I can to honor the commitment I made over 33 years ago to one very special person, and experiencing the very same from her, has produced nothing short of a miracle in my life. I know in my heart that it’s not the formality of our marriage that’s responsible for the growth and joy we’ve experienced together but rather the steadfastness of our love. So while the institution of marriage and the nature of relationships may change over the years, I’m confident the value and power of love and commitment will endure forever.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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