Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Marriage Today: Exploring the Incongruence between Americans' Beliefs and Practices

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Marriage Today: Exploring the Incongruence between Americans' Beliefs and Practices

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Although marriage is more unstable than ever, Americans continue to marry in large numbers. It is expected that 85% of adults in the U.S. will marry at some point in their Uves (Bachrach, Hindin, and Thomson, 2002; Popenoe and Whitehead, 2004) and 94% expect to marry an ideal partner or "soul mate" (Whitehead and Popenoe, 2001 ). Americans marry at higher rates than people in all other parts of the world (Rutter and Schwartz, 2000). It is likely that fhey marry wifh good intentions: they hope to maintain a monogamous, lifelong partnership with the person they love. In other words, they marry "for better or worse, till death do [they] part." Yet, given the high rates of infidelity and divorce, there appears to be incongruence in the way Americans conceptualize marriage (i.e., as a monogamous, lifelong partnership) and how fhey behave in marriage (i.e., infidelity and divorce). In fhis paper, we first describe how fhe purpose of marriage has changed over time. Next, we outline what is currently known about Americans' beliefs and practices regarding marriage, infidelity, and divorce. The article is framed in a sociohistorical context, focusing on how today's patterns are different from the past and how these changes have affected the nature of marriage. We conclude with a commentary about how the incongruence between marital beliefs and practices can be reconciled.

Americans tend to marry for love (Cherlin, 2004). This statement may not surprise most people, but when placed in a historical context, the idea of marrying for love is unusual. Coontz's (2005) analysis of historical data suggests that prior to the mid 1 800s, a majority of people married for social, economic, or political reasons. Marriage partners were generally chosen by family members, not fhe individuals getting married. After the Industrial Revolution, the basis of marriage began shifting toward love and personal fulfillment, and social and political leaders feared fhat the institution of marriage was in jeopardy. Indeed, marriages based on love and personal choice are more fragile and unstable than marriages based on social, economic, or political motives (Coontz, 2005; Pinsof, 2002). When love fades, infidelity and divorce become viable options. Infidelity and divorce rates reinforce this point. Depending on how infidelity is assessed, national estimates indicate fhat 20-25% of individuals participate in extramarital sex at some point throughout the course of marriage (Atkins, Baucom, and Jacobson, 2001; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, and Michaels, 1994; Whisman and Snyder, 2007; Wiederman, 1997), and that about 50% of first marriages end in divorce (Bramlett and Mosher, 2002; National Center for Health Statistics, 2005).

The shift in the purpose of marriage is not the only factor that contributed to high rates of infidelity and divorce. Other changes such as the increasing human lifespan have created longer marriages and greater opportunity for infidelity or divorce to occur (Pinsof, 2002). As the human lifespan and length of marriage increased, divorce came to outrank death as the main reason for marital termination. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage, and by the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage (Pinsof, 2002).

Cultural norms related to unmarried sex, cohabitation, and childrearing have also changed over time (Bachrach et al., 2002; Ingoldsby, 2002; Putnam, 2000; Stanfield and Stanfield, 1997). Prior to 1960, it was culturally stigmatized to engage in these practices outside of marriage. The 1960s provide a good marker with which to draw comparisons because although beliefs and practices began changing around the start of the 20tii century, die most rapid changes were occurring circa 1 960 (Popenoe, 1 993). …

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