Marriage has changed more in the past 100 years than it has in the past 10,000, and it could change more in the next 20 years than in the last 100. We are rapidly shedding traditions that emerged with the Agricultural Revolution and returning to patterns of sex, romance, and attachment that evolved on the grasslands of Africa millions of years ago.
Let's look at virginity at marriage, arranged marriages, the concept that men should be the sole family breadwinners, the credo that a woman's place is in the home, the double standard for adultery, and the concepts of "honor thy husband" and "til death do us part." These beliefs are vanishing. Instead, children are expressing their sexuality. "Hooking up" (the new term for a one-night stand) is becoming commonplace, along with living together, bearing children out of wedlock, women-headed households, interracial marriages, homosexual weddings, commuter marriages between individuals who live apart, childless marriages, betrothals between older women and younger men, and small families.
Our concept of infidelity is changing. Some married couples agree to have brief sexual encounters when they travel separately; others sustain long-term adulterous relationships with the approval of a spouse. Even our concept of divorce is shifting. Divorce used to be considered a sign of failure; today it is often deemed the first step toward true happiness.
These trends aren't new. Anthropologists have many clues to life among our forebears; the dead do speak. A million years ago, children were most likely experimenting with sex and love by age six. Teens lived together, in relationships known as "trial marriages." Men and women chose their partners for themselves. Many were unfaithful--a propensity common in all 42 extant cultures I have examined. When our forebears found themselves in an unhappy partnership, these ancients walked out. A million years ago, anthropologists suspect, most men and women had two or three long-term partners across their lifetimes. All these primordial habits are returning.
But the most profound trend forward to the past is the rise of what sociologists call the companionate, symmetrical, or peer marriage: marriage between equals. Women in much of the world are regaining the economic power they enjoyed for millennia. Ancestral women left camp almost daily to gather fruits, nuts, and vegetables, returning with 60% to 80% of the evening meal. In the hunting and gathering societies of our past, women worked outside the home; the double-income family was the rule, and women were just as economically, sexually, and socially powerful as men. Today, we are returning to this lifeway, leaving in the "dustbin of history" the traditional, male-headed, patriarchal family--the bastion of agrarian society.
This massive change will challenge many of our social traditions, institutions, and policies in the next 20 years. Perhaps we will see wedding licenses with an expiration date. Companies may have to reconsider how they distribute pension benefits. Words like marriage, family, adultery, and divorce are likely to take on a variety of meanings. We may invent some new kinship terms. Who pays for dinner will shift. Matriliny may become common as more children trace their descent through their mother. …