Marriage in Contemporary America


Earlier in this book we have discussed the gradual emancipation of women in modern times and its effects on everyday life. While this emancipation is far from complete, it has already produced profound changes in the family structure and in the meaning of marriage. In the past, married women were not allowed to make contracts and were legally prevented from managing any real property that they might have acquired before marriage. Neither could they receive independent income from it. Indeed, all of their premarital property had to be transferred to the husband.

Since that time, women have become legally nearly equal to men. Furthermore, many women now work outside the house, pursue careers of their own and, in some cases, make more money than their husbands. The sexual double standard still exists, especially with regard to laws against sex crimes, but at least some of its worst manifestations have been eliminated. Divorce laws have been broadened, simplified, and made more equitable. Thus, women have gained a considerable measure of independence from men, and this has led to some changes in the traditional gender roles.

At the same time, some functions of the family itself have changed. If, in the past, families were mostly producing units in which everyone contributed to some common trade or business, they have now often become mere consuming units. The family members still live, eat, and buy appliances together, but otherwise go their own ways. The children spend several hours every day away from their parents in compulsory school education. After school, they may well be absent for additional hours in youth clubs, on field trips, and at sports events. In many families, both mother and father have outside jobs. Grandparents or sick or disabled relatives live in nursing homes or hospitals, or receive pensions or government assistance at home. Thus, financial and moral family obligations have been greatly reduced.


In our century the U.S. divorce rate has been rising steadily, and the trend still continues at the present time. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

As a result of these and other developments, marriage today has a quite different meaning than only a century ago. Material considerations have become less important. Instead, it is the sexual attraction between the spouses which prompts them to marry. However, they also know that they can get a divorce if this attraction should wane. In many cases they can further expect that they will be able to care for themselves as divorced individuals, and that, in old age, they will not be a burden to their children. On the other hand, the general improvement of health and the rise in life expectancy now allows husband and wife to look forward to many decades of intimacy, even after the children have grown. The formerly rare silver and golden wedding anniversaries have become realistic possibilities for all young married couples.

Still, not many couples decide to stay together that long. A growing number of them find the demands of strict monogamy for 20, 30, of 50 years too exacting, and, sooner or later, they seek a divorce. Thus, in our century, the divorce rate in the United States has steadily gone up to the point of one divorce for every three marriages, and the trend continues.

However, the present high divorce rate does not seem to mean that marriage is obsolete, since, in fact, today more people are getting married than ever before. It only means that they no longer conceive of it as a lifelong commitment. Not only in public, but also in private life, men and women have begun to value their personal happiness higher than the maintenance of traditional institutions. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising to find that more and more children live in one-parent families, at least temporarily. Divorced and even unmarried parents often prefer to take care of their children alone, instead of seeking "protection" in some hasty marriage.

American marriage, divorce, and family laws have not yet been brought fully up to date to reflect all of these social changes. This could be one of the reasons why some observers believe modern marriage to be in a "crisis". Actually, this crisis could turn out to be nothing more than a false impression created by the discrepancy between old legal fictions and new practical realities.


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Sex and Society] [The Social Roles] [Conformity & Deviance] [Marriage and Family] [The Oppressed] ["Sexual Revolution"] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]