Institution of marriage is outdated, should evolve over time

Jacob Schmidt

Matrimony — the oldest and most enduring of human traditions (perhaps besides war) — is giving people cold feet. Especially for the next generation eligible for bouquet-tossing and bride-kissing, the idea of getting hitched is an increasingly distasteful one. And rightly so — marriage is not the champion of relationships it once was.

With about 120 million married Americans in 2014, marriage remains the dominant model for serious relationships. But many trends suggest wedlock is failing to accommodate modern couples. More than four in 10 marriages end in divorce. People postpone marriage until later in life and sign more prenuptial agreements than ever before. Sixty-seven percent of those under 30 feel marriage is no longer a social priority.

People used to marry for financial security and social status. But Stephanie Coontz, Evergreen State College history and family studies professor, said trouble began in the 1960s and  70s when affection became the reason to marry.

“As soon as the idea that love should be the central reason for marriage, and companionship its basic goal, was first raised, observers of the day warned … that the very features that promised to make marriage such a unique and treasured personal relationship opened the way for it to become an optional and fragile one,” Coontz wrote in her book “Marriage, a History.”

The value of marriage is ambiguous. Some believe marriage affirms or legitimizes a serious relationship, but healthy couples should need no external justification. Many marry for religious reasons, but this number is dropping as states report increases in secular weddings. Furthermore, the financial and legal benefits of marriage, such as tax incentives and child custody, are increasingly found in other relationship structures.

The lauded clichés of wedding vows such as unyielding loyalty “in sickness and in health” and unwavering commitment “‘til death do us part” are naïve hypotheses at best. They conceal irresponsible speculation about relationship consistency — relationships naturally bend and break in ways marriage does not allow.

Marriage works for many people — a large but declining 60 percent of married couples say they are “very happy” — but this doesn’t make traditional marriage the best structure for a relationship. Common-law marriages, domestic partnerships and civil unions are increasingly popular alternatives. The number of non-married cohabiting partners rose by 88 percent in recent decades, according to a 2007 study by the Census Bureau.

Alternatives to marriage are trending, but they’re no panaceas. Tim Loving, human development and family sciences professor, said our relationships face systematic stress regardless of how we categorize them.

“Our lives have become busier, and we become more socially isolated because of it,” Loving said. “It’s harder to maintain social networks, so we rely on our partners a ton. This puts more pressure on our partners to serve many more functions than before. I think that’s a very natural strain on relationships that has less to do with how we view marriage than how life and society work now.”

So before pawning that engagement ring, take solace in the fact that your predicament is not unique. Juggling down payments, due dates and date nights is tough for any couple. But as the pressures of the 21st century beckon, our relationships will continue to evolve whether or not marriage survives.

Schmidt is a physics and aerospace engineering sophomore from Austin. Follow Schmidt on Twitter @heyjakers.