Where Will Marriage Go From Here?

by Barbara Ray


Two stories, two different marriages reveal how marriage has evolved. But is there room to evolve even further?

Julie and Steve had their first date as juniors in high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. For Julie, Steve was a nice escape from her home life, which was troubled. She’d thought about college after graduation but the cost deterred her.

Steve was also at loose ends. He was living at home after high school without a job or any direction when his mother, worried he was drifting and thinking he needed a little tough love, gave him an ultimatum: start paying  rent or move out. Instead, he joined the Navy. Three months later, he and Julie were engaged.

“We just kind of missed each other,” said Julie. “So we decided to get married because then we could be together.” They were both 20.

The two moved to a Navy base in Georgia, Julie took a part-time job, and they bought a house together.

“I don’t know how we did it, me working a job for $5 an hour and he was making nothing in the Navy. They pay you so low. But we did. We built it ourselves.”

Within a year, they had a son, Nicholas. Steve shipped out three weeks after Nicholas was born. “It was so hard,” Julie says. “My sister took time off from college and came and stayed with me cause I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I was sick. I couldn’t get out of bed. Nicholas didn’t sleep. There’s no way you can do it by yourself.”

But she survived, and adapted. With Steve out to sea for three-month stretches, Julie ran the house like a tight ship. “We basically lived on just his salary, which wasn’t much. But I didn’t have to work because of the way I ran things around the house. I could save a lot of money here and there.”

When researchers for the Network on Transitions to Adulthood interviewed them, they had been married for 10 years, and Steve has been in the Navy the entire time. Theirs is a “traditional” marriage in many respects. For many years Steve earned the salary, and Julie took care of the home. They carved out roles and divvied them up. They gained satisfaction in their marriage through building a family and playing the roles of spouse and parent.

While outliers today, Julie and Steve’s marriage was the norm not so long ago. This “companionate’ marriage, as sociologists call it, ruled the day for decades, until the 1960s, when everything was suddenly up for grabs. Women gained more freedom through education and the Pill, family size shrunk, men expanded their roles, learning to change diapers and cook. Women went to work outside the home.

As the years passed, individuals’ views on the purpose of marriage evolved, and a more individualistic view of marriage took hold, writes family scholar Andrew Cherlin.

“When people evaluated how satisfied they were with their marriages, they began to think more in terms of developing their own sense of self and less in terms of gaining satisfaction through building a family and playing the roles of spouse and parent. The result was a transition from the companionate marriage to what we might call the individualized marriage.  When people evaluated how satisfied they were with their marriages, they began to think more in terms of developing their own sense of self and less in terms of gaining satisfaction through building a family and playing the roles of spouse and parent.”

Like John and Renee.

John, now 29, met his current girlfriend when he was 19. They worked side by side at the local Dairy Queen, although at the time both were in different relationships. The job exposed their warts as well as their good qualities.

“Working together so close you really got to know each other really well, before even dating, which was really nice,” he said. In his mind, the success of their relationship stems largely from the fact that they were friends first and they were able to “build our relationship off that.” They have been officially dating for five years now, and although they do plan to marry in the future, neither is in a huge rush.

Unlike Steve and Julie, John and Renee were becoming their own persons, developing their own lives as singles, not as a couple. They’d both finished master’s degrees. John was moving up in the ranks of his job, and had just bought a house. Renee had her own condo and a job as well. It’s his and hers hand towels without the joint bathroom. They were clearly quite close, and he talked freely about their relationship in ways his father never would have.

“There’s nothing I can’t say to her,” he said. “So, you know, you are truly each other’s best friend. I know that the person I’m with will always be my best friend. And that’s, I think, what should mean most in any relationship.”

He is not alone. Nine in ten singles in the National Marriage Project’s annual report agree that “when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.”

They are soul mates, yes. But they are something else. They are individuals first, a couple second. They have their own lives first, and if they marry, they will move those individuals into the same house together. They will likely remain these fully formed individuals, even as they start a family and as life inevitably throws them curveballs. They have a bond—a deep bond in fact–but it is a different bond from a couple, like Steve and Julie, who grew into adulthood together.

Whether that’s good or not is an open question. Surely it’s good to take some time to figure out who you are and what you want to become. Surely it’s also good to have a form of independence, and the freedom and great equalizer that brings to the table. But one does wonder if the individualism can get in the way of forging a true partnership, with all that messy compromise that it takes to sustain a relationship.

The question is, do we need a third way? Should our views of marriage evolve even further?

Gloria Steinem might have hit on it in the March 25 “New Yorker,” when speaking about a role of men in the women’s movement, she said:

“First we were dependent, and we rebelled against that; and then we became independent, and we presented ourselves—‘Here we are,’” she said. “Only then were we able to be connected. We had our declaration of independence, and now we need a declaration of interdependence.”