Societal norms have undergone a seismic shift and continue to change. With everything that is happening, “Is marriage outdated?” This pressing question reflects deep changes in how we view commitment and partnership.
With viable alternatives like cohabitation and with so many diverse love models, we look at whether marriage can adapt to our current world or if it’s just a relic of times past. Our exploration offers no easy answers, but an unfiltered examination of marriage’s place in our complex present-day reality.
Redefining Lifelong Commitment: Has Marriage Become an Outdated Institution?
For centuries, marriage has stood as the epitome of a committed, fulfilling relationship. It has been a goal – a prize to be achieved! A symbol of maturity and graduation into adulthood.
In the face of changing societal norms and individual preferences, not only its importance, but its relevance at all, is being questioned. Some, especially young adults (high teens through twenties), consider marriage outdated. They have seen their parents trapped in miserable marriages.
The majority of them have had to live through the divorce of their parents, with some being flung from one parent’s house to the other’s house, and some left with their mom and a “Disneyland Dad” (a largely absentee father who they see for occasional fun and no discipline).
These young adults, with an increasing average age, are shifting their perception of commitment and exploring alternatives to the traditional concept of marriage. They want to avoid the pitfalls they have witnessed and are forming new definitions of what a life partner means to them.
Regardless of the reason, unmarried partner households are on the rise. When these unmarried households create stable families, that success challenges the conventional notion that being married is the only path to a stable family life. People see this working. Then, they come to accept it and eventually try it themselves.
This growth in the number of cohabiting unmarried couples is leading to a re-evaluation of the societal and legal frameworks governing familial life. Pushing this re-evaluation further, the acceptance of same-sex marriage is shaking up the landscape of marital relations. The age-old norms that once dictated who could marry whom and what “love” looks like are being rethought on a grand scale.
Thus, the institution of marriage, once considered sacred and inevitable, is being reimagined, reshaped, and reformed. Rather than rejecting lifelong commitment, there is a shift in what such commitment means. It is a testament to the evolving nature of human relationships, reflecting the diverse ways individuals choose to love, live, and build families in our modern society.
The Shift in Young Adults’ Perception of a Committed Relationship
Many young adults see marriage as an option, but no longer the sole route to a fulfilling and committed relationship. The new generation is exploring alternative avenues and prioritizing personal commitment to their partners over a formal marriage.
They perceive lifelong commitment not as a legal contract but as an emotional pact, a bond that transcends societal labels and definitions, forming a permanent relationship.
Millennials, in particular, are delaying marriage, even when they are in committed relationships. They are forgoing marriage for a number of reasons, including adolescent interpersonal skills, past family experiences like going through their parents’ divorce, and the impact of their own adolescent romantic relationships on their developing views.
As a result, for many young adults, marriage increasingly seems to be an outdated concept, replaced by a broader, more inclusive understanding of commitment.
The Rise of Unmarried Partner Households
As young adults’ perception of marriage changes, there is a significant rise in the number of unmarried-partner households.
The legal system is recognizing these changing family structures, albeit slowly, with evolving regulations impacting unmarried couples who are living together. Still behind the times, property (real estate and personal property) laws typically consider unmarried couples as independent individuals, limiting their legal entitlements compared to their married counterparts.
Although the surge of unmarried-partner households has been challenging societal norms for some time, our traditional economic realities have yet to catch up. For example, unmarried partner households often face financial barriers to homeownership, such as tricky mortgage application processes and more complex deed regulations, impacting their ability to accumulate wealth and provide a stable environment for raising children.
Shifting societal trends underscore the need for our economic and legal systems to adapt and provide equal recognition and support to a widened variety of family units.
Same-Sex Marriage and Its Impact on Traditional Views
As more people become accepting and supportive of same-sex marriages, the voting population has begun to vote for inclusivity. The result has been the legalization of same-sex marriage in a number of U.S. states and a growing number of countries. As the laws become more inclusive, the traditional view of marriage becomes more fragile – not “the” way, but one path out of many.
Acceptance and legalization have not only made the same-sex family unit structure more prevalent, but also have contributed to greater social acceptance and reduced stigma towards the LGBTQ+ community in general.
Interestingly, research indicates that divorce rates among same-sex couples tend to be lower than those among heterosexual couples. It is possible that the lower divorce rates for same-sex marriages have contributed to a perception that same-sex marriages are stable, healthy, and a desirable outcome for those in the LGBTQ+ population.
The Evolution of Marriage: From Necessity to Choice
Historically, marriage was a strategic partnership forged for economic benefits, political alliances, and procreation. Marriages happened for a multitude of reasons other than love or personal choice.
Women, in particular, were expected to fulfill the role of having babies, and refusing this obligation inside of marriage was thought of as a grave imperfection in the mental state of the women, not to mention directly contrary to Christian theology.
With the advent of modern societies, marriage has evolved from being a societal necessity to a personal choice, with individuals now marrying for love, companionship, or electing not to marry at all.
Contemporary societies have thus witnessed a significant shift in the institution of marriage. The divorce rate in the United States is higher than in any other country. This high divorce rate is an undeniable sign that marriage is not a guarantee of lifelong stability. These changes reflect a broader shift towards individualism, personal freedom, and self-realization, which are increasingly regarded as essential components of personal happiness and fulfillment.
In simpler terms, the personal happiness that comes from a “you do you” lifestyle has become more important than remaining in a marriage where you are unhappy or feel that you have to sacrifice your own needs for your spouse. We all have but one life to live, and we want to make the best of it.
The evolution of marriage, therefore, is not just about its decreasing prevalence, but also about the changing nature of the institution itself. As society continues to change, so does the institution of marriage, evolving to reflect and accommodate the changing needs and desires of individuals. Marriage lasts, so long as it works well for the people who are married. When it ceases to work, the marriage is terminated.
Knowing all this, in today’s society, financial and legal perks still often incentivize couples to tie the knot.
Financial benefits include “economies of scale” such as having one mortgage or apartment rent instead of two, having one electricity bill instead of two, sharing the same household appliances, dividing up the tasks to run a household, and higher income thresholds for certain income tax breaks.
Legal incentives include the ease of joint home ownership, joint bank accounts, and saving money and time by being able to file joint tax returns, among others.
Those benefits aside, marriage comes with challenges. While marriage can offer financial security and societal recognition, it also requires a deep commitment and a willingness to navigate potential complexities. This trade-off is something that each individual or couple must weigh for themselves, considering their personal values, aspirations, and circumstances.
The Cost of Divorce: A Financial and Emotional Consideration
Divorce can be costly, both in financial and emotional terms.
In the United States, the median (most common) cost of a divorce is $7,000 (U.S. Dollars). The average cost ranges from $15,000 to $20,000 for uncontested divorces. Luckily, 90% or more of divorces are uncontested. These costs can include attorney fees, court costs, costs of mediation, and costs of parenting classes required by the court.
These costs do not include the cost of time lost from preparing documentation for your divorce case, time spent communicating with your attorney, and taking time off from work. They do not include the cost of time to implement the practical realities of some divorces, such as selling property, moving expenses, storage, and utility deposits for a new living space (such as an apartment).
Then there are the lost tax savings from no longer being able to file joint tax returns or certain tax benefits that now only one spouse can claim.
These costs do not include reputational harm. If you go through an ugly, public divorce where your spouse spreads lies about you or reveals unsavory secrets, there will be impacts on your friendships and career.
Contested divorces cost much more. A “contested” divorce is one where the parties cannot agree by themselves on how to split the assets or the terms of the divorce. The legal aspects, such as fights over the division of assets and custody battles for shared children and pets, can often outweigh the financial benefits accrued during the marriage.
When a bitter custody battle is involved, the cost can be still higher.
Beyond the financial costs, divorce also comes with an emotional price. The stress and mental anguish of going through a divorce could result in one or both of the parties being unproductive or unable to be fully functional in their job and in life.
The emotional pain is made even worse as extended family members end up taking sides by choosing to align themselves with their son or daughter, ending years of relationships with the other half of the now-divorcing couple.
Children have to live through their parents breaking up, facing the scary uncertainty of how life will be after the divorce, and often internalizing the divorce as somehow their own fault. If the divorce involves a custody dispute, any peace of mind, sense of security, and calm the children once had is likely destroyed.
The Societal Pressure to Marry: Is It Still Relevant?
Despite the evolving perceptions of marriage, societal pressure to marry still exists. Family and peers can exert significant influence on an individual’s decision to marry. Family relationships can shape expectations and beliefs about marriage, impacting the decision-making process.
On the other hand, peer pressure can make the decision to marry appear more urgent, creating tension in relationships if one partner feels that they are expected to propose according to a constrained timeline.
Family Members and Peer Influence on the Decision to Marry
Family members, particularly parents, often teach their children that marriage is important in life. Parents share their own perspectives and religious beliefs about marriage and mold the younger generation’s viewpoints and consequent decisions about marriage. This influence has evolved over time, involving various factors such as:
Economic and political factors
Considerations such as parental guidance
Societal and religious influences
Evolving interpersonal relationships with peers and family members
Peers also play a significant role in influencing the decision to marry. They can reinforce cultural beliefs and behavioral patterns associated with marriage, especially as one’s friends start to marry off and start having children.
Peers can also contribute to apprehension towards marriage, particularly if the peers are uncertain about getting married or they are already in marriages that aren’t going as planned.
The Stigma Attached to Single Parents and Unmarried Individuals
Although the societal pressure to get married impacts everyone to a certain degree, it is often more intense for single parents and unmarried individuals. Factors such as financial strain, conflicts between work and family life, and societal judgment can lead to more stress and mental health difficulties.
Single mothers, in particular, frequently confront stereotypes, gender inequalities, and judgment that their children are being raised without the benefit of a father figure.
There is often a stigma attached to unmarried individuals and single parents, which can have detrimental effects on their mental well-being. In the U.S., people often wonder quizzically about men who are 50 years old and are unmarried…is something wrong with them? For women of that age, the stigma is much worse.
Beginning in a woman’s mid-30s, their gynecologists will begin to suggest that the women freeze their eggs so that they can preserve the option to have children given their “advanced” childbearing age. Just the mere suggestion by your doctor that your eggs are getting too old to be viable, thereby squashing any opportunity to naturally have children, invokes panic.
Then, your thoughts begin to race with questions. What is this medical process to freeze my eggs? How much will it cost? Will it hurt? It’s all a bit too much to take.
You might have heard of the card game “Old Maid.” It’s even online now. It comes from the concept that an unmarried childless woman past a certain age is not a good thing. You don’t want to be an Old Maid. In the card game, you want to avoid being stuck with the Old Maid card, or the unpaired card in the deck. The same thing goes for life.
In Japan, women over the age of 25 are called “Christmas cakes.” This is because Japan celebrates Christmas with a Christmas cake, which is of no value after the 25th of December.
Single fathers, on the other hand, may encounter biases that assume mothers should be the primary caregivers and that the fathers are ill-equipped to raise their children in a healthy and well-rounded household. Both experience challenges due to stigma, albeit in varying manners, reflecting societal expectations concerning gender roles in parenting.
Child Rearing Outside of Marriage: A Growing Norm
With the evolution of societal norms and personal choices, there is a growing trend of raising kids outside marriage. Currently, around 40% of births in the United States take place outside of marriage, a significant rise from 28% in 1990.
One key factor in this shift is the increasing acceptance of co-parenting and the role of support networks in child-rearing. Co-parenting is when two or more adults share the duties and responsibilities of raising a child, although they are not married to each other.
This can be a casual, unwritten arrangement between the two parents, or it can be more formal with a written contract or facilitation through a mediator.
Whatever the methodology underpinning the agreement, it’s important to note that these agreements may not always hold legal enforceability in court.
The Role of Co-Parenting and Support Networks
Support networks play a pivotal role in child-rearing outside of marriage. These networks can be extended family, friends, or community resources. Research emphasizes the importance of these networks, and families with strong support networks are more likely to succeed in raising healthy, well-adjusted kids.
These networks can provide emotional support, practical assistance, and a sense of community, which are particularly beneficial for single parents or unmarried couples raising children.
Teachers and coaches can provide another source of support. Children do best when parents openly communicate about the various stressors and changes in the child’s life so that teachers and coaches can understand the child better and watch for warning signs that might be a result of stress at home.
Good co-parenting results in healthy kids. Parents with more aligned, more agreeable, and more peaceful co-parenting relationships demonstrate increased effectiveness as parents, resulting in favorable outcomes for a child’s overall physical and mental health, academic performance, and social skills.
On the flip side, unfavorable co-parenting (where the parents are mean to each other, argue, or there is significant tension) results in children with heightened stress and anxiety levels. This negative environment also adversely affects a child’s academic performance and social interactions with peers.
Comparing Outcomes for Children of Married vs. Unmarried Couples
Outcomes for children are different, depending on whether the kids were raised by married versus unmarried couples. Children from married households generally have superior educational performance compared to those from unmarried households. This is not necessarily because of the presence or absence of the institution of marriage, in and of itself.
Instead, children raised in unmarried-partner households more often have a range of challenges that are not as statistically likely to be present in married households. These include elevated levels of poverty, heightened housing and food insecurity, a lack of parent involvement that can lead to diminished academic achievement, and increased vulnerability to abuse or neglect.
Financial stability, typically associated with married couples, has a positive influence on children’s life opportunities. These children tend to excel academically, develop stronger skills, and have a greater chance of attending college.
This is not a hard rule. It is a general trend. There are countless examples of successful individuals raised by unmarried couples or single parents, highlighting the fact that a loving and supportive environment is the most essential factor in raising healthy kids who go on to be well-functioning adults.
I was raised by a single mother, and I hope I can count myself as one of these examples.
Reimagining Romantic Relationships in the 21st Century
Our understanding of romantic relationships is evolving in step with societal changes. Alternative relationship structures, such as polyamory, are gaining acceptance, challenging the traditional norm of lifelong, heterosexual marriage. “Polyamory” is when an individual is dating – and being sexually active – with more than one partner with the full knowledge of everyone involved.
This shift reflects a broader societal trend towards individual autonomy, personal happiness, and freedom of choice in relationships. It is leading to a reimagining of committed partnerships. While marriage continues to be a significant institution, it no longer holds a monopoly on committed, fulfilling relationships. Many individuals and couples are crafting their own definitions of commitment, reflecting their values, desires, and life circumstances.
As society continues to evolve, our understanding of love, commitment, and partnership will likely continue to expand and diversify, reflecting the diverse ways in which individuals choose to love and live in the 21st century.
Alternative Relationship Structures and Their Acceptance
Public views on non-traditional relationships have noticeably shifted in recent years. Indicators of this shift are the increasing prevalence of the following:
Acceptance among peers of marriage between heterosexual people for financial benefits in the U.S. military
A growing number of adults are delaying or choosing not to marry
A noticeable increase in the acceptance of non-monogamous arrangements and open relationships
Let’s be clear: the acceptance of alternative relationship structures is not uniform across the globe. The legal recognition of these structures varies among U.S. states and among countries, with some having stricter regulations and others lacking recognition altogether.
The concept of marriage has even been loosened to the degree that same-sex marriages in the U.S. military occur between heterosexual partners, mostly for the financial benefits to “spouses” inside the military but also secondarily so good heterosexual friends can relocate to various bases together.
In the Western world, particularly in the United States, polyamory is acknowledged by non-conservatives (liberals or progressives) as a valid relationship model.
As societal norms continue to evolve, it’s likely that alternative relationship structures will gain further acceptance.
Predictions for the Future of Marriage and Committed Partnerships
Societal changes are likely to continue shaping the future of marriage and committed partnerships. Some key trends include:
A diverse interest in marriage among millennials
A growing enthusiasm among Gen Z for the concept of marriage
A strong emphasis on celebrating romantic partnerships
These trends indicate that the future of marriage and committed partnerships will be influenced by a range of factors and perspectives.
The anticipated impact of changing societal norms is expected to continue to diminish the traditional social norms that have historically shaped the concept of marriage. This may be influenced by reforms in divorce laws, increased recognition of non-traditional marriages, changes to tax laws, and other legal adjustments.
In the future, it’s likely we’ll continue to see an evolution of marriage and committed partnerships, reflecting the changing needs and desires of society.
The institution of marriage, once a cornerstone of society, is being redefined and reshaped by changing societal norms and individual preferences. While marriage continues to be a significant institution, offering legal and financial benefits, it is no longer the only path to a fulfilling, committed relationship.
The rise of unmarried partner households, the acceptance of same-sex marriage, and the increasing prevalence of child-rearing outside of marriage reflect the evolving landscape of human relationships.
As we move forward, it’s important for all of us to show kindness and love to each other as fellow humans on a shared Earth, as we allow for diverse forms of love, commitment, and family structures. The future of marriage and committed partnerships will likely reflect the diversity and complexity of human relationships, continually evolving to meet the needs and desires of individuals and society.