7400.602 Family in Lifespan Perspective
Topic 9 - Getting Married

Most Americans want to marry, and most - 90 percent or more - will. The chances of marrying depend on a number of factors. The marriage rate, the proportion of unmarried women aged fifteen and over who get married in a year, fluctuates considerably over time. Rates have generally dropping since 1970 in the United States. The lower rates reflect such things as delayed age at first marriage and increasing numbers who remain single for one reason or another. The lower marriage rate, combined with the rates of divorce and widowhood, means that the married proportion of the population in any year as declined over the last few decades. The question of who will and who will not marry is not merely one of preference. Some people are involuntarily single because of the marriage squeeze, which is exacerbated by certain social factors and conditions that work further to delay marriage or prevent it altogether.

People marry for different reasons.

  • The expectation is that you will get married. All societies have the institution of marriage, and there are norms and expectations that govern it. Thus, marriage as an institution is important to the well-being of the total group.
  • Most Americans still value a monogamous union that results in children and lasts a lifetime. The motivation to marry is linked to social ideals. At the same time, it is reasonable to expect marriage to contribute to your personal fulfillment.
  • Most people who get married say that one of the reasons is to have children.
  • Some people view marriage as a practical solution to various problems and challenges.

 Because people get married for a variety of reasons and because their experiences of marriage are quite diverse, we would expect to find different types of marriage. Classified by the nature of the relationship, there are different types of “couples

  • Devitalized couples are dissatisfied to some extent with all of the dimensions of their relationship.
  • Financially focused couples agree with each other on how to manage their money.
  • Conflicted couples are dissatisfied on a number of dimensions, but satisfied on more than a single dimension.
  • Traditional couples are satisfied with most of the dimensions of their relationship, but have at least one source of dissatisfaction.
  • Balanced couples are quite satisfied, but have ongoing problems with financial management.
  • Harmonious couples express great satisfaction with each other and with their relationship.
  • Vitalized couples are highly satisfied on all of the dimensions of their life together.

When people marry, they have certain expectations about what their marriage will involve. Some of these expectations may be unrealistic. Even when partners have realistic expectations, they may be incompatible with each other. However, since a marriage is a social contract between two people and the governing body or "State", private expectations may not always be considered in the standard marriage contract.

Spouses also bring to the marriage their private contracts, which basically involve assumptions that each makes about the nature of the relationship and their mutual obligations. When private contracts clash, it is frequently over role expectations. Couples who want to avoid problems will find themselves engaging in a process of negotiation about marital roles. Negotiation is a process of working through clashing expectations; the private contracts must become joint knowledge. Not all clashing expectations are negotiated that easily. It is important for couples to recognize the existence of private contracts, the probability of differences in expectations, and the importance of negotiation for working through the differences. Instead of waiting until problems arise to clarify and negotiate private contracts, a couple can avoid at least some of the problems of marriage by formulating a marriage contract prior to the wedding. Instead of a legal contract, some couples write informal marriage contracts in order to clarify their expectations. Informal contracts are meant to facilitate the ongoing development of intimacy, not bind partners to an inflexible pattern.

Transition from Singlehood to Marriage
To get married is to enter a new social world, and there are adjustments to be made.

  • Jessie Bernard argued that every marriage is really two marriages: his and hers. In terms of conflict theory, men and women have different interests. Men seem to derive more from marriage than do women. It is also true that women have to make more adjustments in marriage than do men. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to have their private contracts violated.
  • Adjustment in some marriages is more difficult because they begin at a disadvantage. For example, if the woman is pregnant at the time of marriage, there is the additional adjustment of becoming partners.
  • As argued by exchange theorists, if you have not worked out a marriage contract, you will have to work on the problems of equity and consensus. A relationship based on equity and consensus seems to come rather easily to some couples.  
  • Many marriages have some tension because of the relationship between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In spite of their importance, in-law relationships have been the focus of little research. In terms of adjustment, it is important to note that the in-law relationship is more likely to be a positive than a negative one. In-laws, then, can help couples in their adjustment.
Commitment is a part of the process leading up to marriage. Commitment can vary over time, both in the process of leading up to the decision to wed and in the marriage itself.
  • For Americans, commitment in marriage seems to mean three things: promise, dedication, and attachment. Commitment means a promise of dedication to a relationship in which there is an emotional attachment to another person who has made the same promise.
  • Commitment is a valuable resource in marriage. Those who are committed to their spouses as person have fewer marriage problems, express their love for their mates more often, and have higher levels of marital satisfaction. Commitment also gives the partners a sense of security, and has benefits that go beyond enriching the marital relationship.
  • Commitment can change. One way to build commitment is to make sure that each partner feels a sense of equity in the relationship. Commitment also grows as people’s satisfaction with their relationship increases. Finally, commitment can be built by planning shared activities that will be gratifying to both partners.

    Some Legal Aspects of Marriage - Not only is marriage a set of intimate and personal promises, it is a legal entity. The state has a legal stake in marriage and family since it serves the interests of society to maintain some level of control over who in our society can marry. The selection of one's mate, the rearing of one's children, the protection of and distribution of personal property, and the decision to end a marriage are NOT strictly personal issues, but are also matters pertaining to the social contract of marriage.

    Who can marry? Eligibility is based on:
  • Age - a person must be of legal age (21 years of age in most states) before they may marry without permission from their legal guardian, and above some age (16 or older in most states) before they are permitted to marry with permission.
  • Gender - currently there are no state statues permitting persons to marry others of the same gender.
  • Health - some illnesses preclude legal marriage, particularly in the area of mental illness.
  • Kinship to prospective spouse - laws of consanguinity deny marriage to blood relatives closer than 2nd cousins.
  • Requirements are, in addition to age, gender, health, and kinship requirements : - a license and a state sanctioned public ceremony (a wedding). 
Purpose of state eligibility standards are to ensure the legitimization of children (clearly defining parental responsibilities so the state doesn't have to impose itself), protection of spouse from exploitation (the very young or mentally ill may not be cognitively or physically mature/healthy enough to make choices on their own behalf).  Further, the protection of property rights figure into marriage law.  The restriction of sexual activity to persons who are experienced and wise enough to defend their own interests reduces exploitation and is related to the state's need to prohibit incest. Finally, the state is very interested in making sure no one is married to more than one person at a time (prohibition of bigamy).

In the world's cultures there have been many forms of marriage, and kinship patterns.
  • Monogamy simply means marriage to one person at a time.
  • Polygamy means a plurality of spouses.
  • Included here are Polyandry (1 wife + more than 1 husband) and
  • Polygyny (1 husband + more than 1 wife)
  • Group Marriage is rare in the world's cultures and usually describes what is sounds like it does.
  • The most popular form - the form that is most often chosen by the people of the world is Monogamy, even in those cultures that still allow Polygyny to occur, most husbands of the world either cannot afford more than one wife or otherwise choose only one wife at a time.
Once married, couples enter into their culture's kinship pattern that will track family generations. All cultures do this for obvious reasons - humans desire to know their family roots - to maintain family responsibility and to be able to derive meaning about their place in the world and their respective destinies.  In cultures with Monogamous or Polygynous dominate marriage forms, a Patrilineal form of kinship is utilized where wives and children take on the husband/father's family name.  This doesn't shut out the mother's side of the family completely, but it does favor the male side of society.  To defend against the inherent sexism and to help ensure the maternal side of identity of children, women sometimes hyphenate their names upon marriage (e.g., Mary Jones becomes Mary Jones-Smith upon marriage).  Their children will be the Smith kids, but even so - in naming children, parents sometimes work maternal names into the middle names of their children.  I have a friend - Russ Burton, whose actual name is Russell Daniel Patrick Burton III - packing a lot of family history into his identity.  Sometimes, parents will give the maternal last name to the child's middle name (for example, if  John Jones and Mary Clark marry and have a male child, they might name him John Clark Jones). The couple has to take up residence somewhere.  In the western world, monogamous couples will desire to seek residence by themselves - moving into a new residence (neolocal residence).  For financial reasons, this is not always feasible, and early on in the 20th century couples often moved in with their parents (matrilocal residence if they lived with her mother and father - patrilocal residence if they moved in with his father and mother).

The Social Meaning of Marriage

From the state's point of view, the meaning of marriage is to legitimize children and track property disposition. Marriage makes institutional provisions for a preferred method of producing and nurturing children, with legitimating sexual activity and living together is a latent (secondary) function of marriage.  From a cultural perspective, marriage is seen as a permanent commitment and has always been viewed as long term, more or less permanent.  Even though we have divorce as an option that is frequently exercised, hardly anyone marries with the intention of ending the marriage before widowhood. At the turn of the century, when the divorce rate was very low, individuals usually married later in life, when the financial means to fund a family had been more or less established. Later on in the century, individuals may have been a little less prepared for marriage - both emotionally and financially.

In addition to a permanent status, marriage also has a spiritual, sacred dimension - marriage as a holy sacrament.  While the state makes no claim to the religious side of marriage, many in our culture do so - we empower clergy to perform marriage ceremonies which often take place in a church, chapel, synagogue or other holy place.  The blessing of God are requested and candles are lit, prayers are made, and religious music is played.
The public dimension of marriage is also important. The reason why marriages are most often performed in public places is a sociological one.  The public ceremony is an announcement to society that the couple being wed are to be supported in their attempt to make a life together.  By acknowledging their wedding, society is condoning the marriage and offering its protection, as if to say "these two people are married and everyone should do what they can to keep them together."
After the ceremony, the couple begins their married life together and, as it happens, marriage has stages of development.
The first stage is the honeymoon period, which is essentially the first year of marriage and lasts roughly until children come. In many ways, the couple is getting used to each other and attempting to reconcile their expectations to the reality of their lives.

During this stage and just after, a dark stage - disillusionment and regrets - make begin, and is characterized by personal conflict, doubts about the decision to marry, and ambivalence about the marriage, feelings of being cornered or trapped. For the marriage to continue happily, each partner must somehow work through their disappointments.  If successfully navigated, this stage gives way to accommodation, where partners adjust expectations for the relationship to realistic levels and work to rediscover the reasons for the marriage in the first place.

Most married couples experience first-year changes, due to alterations in people’s feelings. Behavior and activities also tend to change. The amount of time spouses spend talking with each other declines slightly. More importantly, there is a significant decline in behavior that reflects affection. In other words, by the end of the first year, couples are well on their way to a realistic mode of living together.

The Unique Role of Sex in Marriage - Sex is the glue that holds a relationship together. How much "glue" the two of you need is not a pre-set amount -- that is up to you. But if your sexual life is working well, then you'll feel better about yourself and you'll feel healthier. - Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Marital sex may be more complex than non-marital sex because of the degree of personal involvement in the other person.  There is much more to lose if sex in marriage is unsatisfying. People have repeatedly stated that the more intimate and emotionally meaningful the marriage relationship - the more deeply satisfying the sex.
There are some Prerequisites for Sexual Compatibility in marriage.  Understanding one's own sexuality requires thinking through any conflict between one's sexual feelings and one's upbringing, learning how one's body and mind react to sexual stimuli, and experiencing a somewhat wider variety of sexual stimuli from which to select favorites. Most importantly, communicating with each other about sex - taking time to understand what each other wants, desires, and needs from the sexual part of the relationship - can become a large part of the solution to any aspect of intimacy.

By keeping one's real thoughts about sex only to oneself, the chances of having a completely satisfying sexual deal are left to luck and the mind reading capability of one's partner. Each person will be different and may not be consistent in sexuality -  sex in the mornings versus the evenings, need for feedback, being aware of the other persons verbal and nonverbal cues, mood, environmental factors.   Having realistic expectations is really the only way ensure healthy sex lives, and to have well grounded expectations is to have some experiences with one's partner.  Even the initiation of sex can be problematic if a couple doesn't have a set of signals with which they can communicate to each other. Being aware of our partner's desires, making needed adjustments when feasible and desirable, and planning our sex life rather than depending on spontaneous sexual encounters. Requires thought, time and effort.
Know this: for a fulfilling sex life, it is not orgasms that count as much as intimacy.  Researchers have found sexual satisfaction in marriage follows a curvilinear form.

This doesn't have to be the case. Typically, sex and marriage in the first few years is relatively carefree, like the couple themselves.  In those middle years, children have come along, work, debt, worry all tend to crowd in on the marriage relationship.  After the children leave home in the later years, and work is coming to an end, couples can enter a time where their relationship can be more important.   By saving time each day, week or month for the marriage itself, a couple can flatten this curve a little and have satisfying sex all along the life course.  It is interesting that women who have reared their children and moved in to mid-life often are able to enjoy sex more and are willing to participate more frequently.

Styles of Marriage refers to the way marriage partners perceive and treat each other.  Traditional marriage has the husband/father as breadwinner while the wife/mother is the homemaker, sort of a 1950s family comedy type arrangement.  Life in the 21st century poses different demands on men and women.  Egalitarian = contemporary views of sex role equality is the modern ideal.
A less simplistic view comes from Cuber & Haroff's studies of couples, who had been married at least 10 years. They were attempting to identify "types" of marital styles that have developed in American Culture:
  • Conflict-Habituated marriages are characterized by constant disagreement and quarreling. Such couples thrive on conflict and verbal skirmishes. The Stimulation provided by fighting holds the marriage together. Few Marriages were found to be of this type.
  • Devitalized marriages - by far the largest part of the sample and most common type of marriage after 10 years. The once close and loving relationship has drifted into an emotional divorce and empty marriage. The couple is indifferent to each other, but manage to stay together. Few disagreements due to few actual conversations. Many may feel that it is natural for marriages to become dull. Others feel that the relationship is better than none at all, while still others feel a need to remain married to fulfill some social or personal responsibility. It is possible that these folks are just in a mid-life slump.
  • Passive-Congenial marriages may have been dull from the start. There is no sense of loss of an exciting and satisfying relationship because there never was the feeling of possession of one. These are marriages of convenience, the couple remaining together because of inertia.
  • Vital Marriages are the ideal type of warm, loving relationships where the partners are interested in each other and committed to each other and the marriage. There is room for autonomy and personal growth for each partner, as well as a fair amount of consideration of the other person in making personal decisions. Conflicts are rare and low key when present. Such a couple has common goals and are willing to work to maintain a high sense of the partnership.
  • Total marriages are MORE vital than vital ones. These people cannot think of anything but the other person. They may work together, as in a family business, and are more integrated.
It is quite possible that marriages move back and forth between one or more of these "types" - especially since the study in which the types were discovered only looked at marriage from one point of time for each couple. It is also quite possible that the marriage partners may have different conceptions of the relationship.

Marital Happiness and Enrichment
Most people marry with the hope and expectation of being happy - more or less - forever. Is eternal marital bliss possible?
There are some clues to the secret of marital happiness over the life course Terms such as marital happiness, marital satisfaction, and marital adjustment are used interchangeably. Most couples find that marital satisfaction tends to sag a little during the period from the birth of the first child to the launching of the last one. Measurement of marital happiness and satisfaction section is skipped here, except to note that there are problems here. One must be very cautious in interpreting findings from this research. The Importance of communication cannot be overemphasized.

Marriage Enrichment is a Program (there are several) usually brought to the public through churches or other public institutions. Marriage Enrichment is primarily for untroubled, relatively happy couples who want to increase the net satisfaction they experience from their marriage. Communication exercises are performed, eye gazing, and awareness heightening factoids are presented. M.E. provides a preventative and growth producing function to already well functioned marriages.

Alternative Marriage Patterns -
Note About Normality: The only way to talk about "normal" behavior or "normal" activities that makes sense is to refer to Statistical Normality - What "most" people" do, What Most think.
Of course it is possible to think of moral and ethical belief systems that guide our behavior and thinking; however, these are very private and very personal and do not necessarily include anyone but ourselves. In the sense of statistics - most people - 96% - find themselves in a long term, heterosexual, one man, one woman relationship. There have always been those in our society who find ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLES more appealing than the normal way of living. There have always been those who choose homosexual relationships, group or communal relationships, or some other approach. Recently, given the global transition we seem to be going through, such "fringe" relationships seem to get more print space, or headlines, than in the past. So they seem more prevalent. They are probably more accepted today, just as cohabitating couples are more accepted than in the past.
  • Open Marriages - the O'Neills wrote a book in 1972 - based on their experiences living an open marriage. By this they meant that their personal relationship could be treasured and special even though they shared their lives with others - married or not. In their view, one person could be better able to meet the other's emotional, social, economic, and sexual needs if they were free to explore these same aspects of life with others. Quickly, Open Marriage came to be known as a "sexually open one". The O'Neills divorced in 1975 - and wrote book about the failure of the open marriage concept in their case.
  • Gay Marriage - Among homosexual men and women, long term relationships can become just as stable and committed as heterosexual ones. That is - "gays" are just as likely to have relationships that succeed fail as are 'straights". There was a time prior to the 1980s that male homosexuals appeared to be quite promiscuous, with sex partners running into double digits. However, it is a statistical fact that today homosexuals who are interested in long term relationships are just as likely to make such a relationship work as are heterosexuals with the same interests. Just as likely - promiscuous heterosexuals are just as likely as homosexuals who are promiscuous to fail at relationships over time.
  • Communal Marriages - another alternative form is the commune. Communal living arrangements come in a variety of forms. There are no organized group marriages in the U.S. - where the male group "marries" the female group. Almost all communes are heterosexual in nature and monogamous. In the 1960's and 70's some "family groups" were formed - such as the Merry Pranksters and the Family Dog in San Francisco. These arrangements lasted only a few years and were organized around the drugs and psychedelic music subculture. Today most communes share in the joined labor and economic efforts of the members. Childcare is shared, each person works outside the group and contributes paychecks to the "family income". Many of these groups have a religious orientation as well, ranging from fundamentalist Christians to Buddhist and Hindu oriented faiths. There are group sings and prayer sessions as well.