Advice • Love Science

Dr. Helen Fisher

Is Marriage Dead?

When asked why all of her marriages failed, anthropologist Margaret Mead replied, I beg your pardon, I have had three marriages and NONE of them was a failure.

Why do Americans believe that one life long marriage is the only real road to happiness and success?

Marriage has changed more in the last 50 years than in the past 5,000. Yet many cling to traditions that evolved among our farming ancestors.

When our forebears began to settle permanently to the land, they began to need to cement their social ties. What better way than to wed your daughter with my son? One married someone with the right social, economic and political connections. Virginity at marriage, strictly arranged marriages, till death do us part, the belief that women are less sexual than men, and many other traditional beliefs about women, men and marriage arose.

The Greek, Roman, Chinese and early Christian philosophers and theologians regarded ones love of kin, God and civil duty as far more important than love for a spouse. Strong marital commitments were not regarded as the foundation stone of society until the 20th century.

Today love, communication and companionship have become central to a partnership. We are shedding many of our past agrarian beliefs and returning to patterns of sex, love and marriage that our ancestors practiced a million years ago traditions that are highly compatible with our ancient human spirit.

Forward to the past: this trend began with the Industrial Revolution. As men and women began to leave the farm for city work, they no longer needed to marry to maintain time honored social ties. And by 1800 more and more had begun to choose their spouses for themselves, live together before wedding, and divorce and remarry to make happier partnerships.

This Marriage Revolution continues. Today some 91% of American women and 86% of American men would not marry someone unless they were in love with him or her, even if this person had every trait they were looking for in a spouse. People in 37 other cultures agree; they want the chemistry of passionate romantic love.

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Divorce is also becoming common. The American divorce rate is currently 43%, much like that of several other Western countries. But people are changing their attitude about marital separation, seeing it less as failure and more as the first step toward finding true happiness.

Romantic love within marriage, divorce, remarriage: these trends are not new. For millions of years in ancient Africa both men and women commuted to work to hunt or gather fruits and vegetables. The double income family was the rule. The sexes were economic, social and sexual equals. And men and women married and remarried whom they chose. As women re-enter the paid labor force in droves, we are reassuming these ancient life ways.

Today, for example, most men and women experiment with sex and love long before they wed. Many live together before they tie the knot. Some have children first, then marry. And many have two or three spouses across their lives. All are traditions from prehistory.

In fact, we no longer live in a traditional marriage culture. Older women are marrying younger men. Inter-racial marriages have increased dramatically. Homosexuals can now form legal bonds in several states. Older people are remarrying rather than settling with their children. Living together, commuter marriages, visiting marriages, polyamorous marriages, childless marriages, singlehood, bearing children out of wedlock, registered domestic partners, divorce, remarriage, step families: In short, we can no longer expect most people to spend most of their lives in one traditional style marriage.

But are we happy? The New York Times recently reported that 51% of American women are currently living without a spouse. Is this reason to panic? On the contrary, it may be reason to celebrate.

Take the widows. In past centuries most women died young; today they are enjoying their senior years. What's wrong with that? Others are still young. Unchained from the narrow routines of farm life, they can finally postpone an early marriage to explore their opportunities in a wider world. What's wrong with that? Last are those who have divorced. Finally, these women have the economic means to leave bad marriages to make good ones.

In fact, demographers and historians say that women in the western world are experiencing happier marriages today than at any time in history probably for two reasons. Foremost, many women (and men) can afford to walk out of bad marriages to make better ones. Second, with the current emphasis on companionship within marriage, people today expect more from their partnerships and are working harder on their relationships than at any time in history.

Despite these obvious, largely beneficial, and largely worldwide changes, Americans cling to their outmoded beliefs about traditional marriage. I wonder if they know what they espouse?

In historical times, most husbands had the sole responsibility for the family's economic worth, while most wives were uneducated and confined to kitchen, church and nursery. Virginity at marriage was required; divorce was almost impossible; and a double standard for adultery prevailed; even rape within marriage was excused.

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I think it is time to practice the democracy we preach. Prince Charming. happily ever after. till death do us part. The belief that there is only one true love for each of us. These fantastical beliefs may be as damaging as the fantasy of the perfect female body. Most of us cant live up. So let's embrace what we see around us men and women following their own paths in their primordial drive to love.

And love is a drive. Deep in the human brain lie three circuits that evolved to foster reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment to a partner. Each is associated with different brain chemicals and each interacts with the others. This, for example, is why casual sex is often not casual. Any sort of sexual stimulation activates dopamine systems in the brain and can trigger feelings of romantic love. And with orgasm comes a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin, chemicals the can create deep feelings of attachment to a partner. These brain systems will never be extinguished.

And marriage is not dead. In fact, United Nations data on 97 societies indicates that over 90% of men and women in most societies wed by age 45. But it is metamorphosing into many supple, varied patterns. Most important is the rise of the 21st century marriage form, what sociologists call the symmetrical, companionate or peer marriage: marriage between equals.

Its time to enjoy our freedom to be ourselves.