Marriage is Dead. What Will Replace It?

Recently, yet another marriage in my circle of friends blew up, making the unofficial tally something like 50% of marriages which I've witnessed ending within 15 years or so. And some of the surviving ones are on shaky ground.

All of these people, of course, swore they'd stay together until the end. Presumably, they were sincere. Yet it's become clear that only a minority of people can realistically live up to that promise. Vowing to remain exclusively with one person in a faithful monogamous relationship until death do us part makes about as much sense as vowing to work for the same firm until the end of one's career. How could you seriously promise to be working at the same firm 30 years into the future when the firm, or even the industry, might no longer exist? 15 years after your vow of permanent fealty to the firm, you get an offer at 3 times your present salary, and you're expected to turn it down? And before you reply that marriage as a 'sacred commitment' can hardly be compared to a job, ignore what people say about their preferences and look at how they actually behave. How many people are actually treating their marital vows differently from a job or consumer product? The divorce and infidelity statistics suggest very few indeed.

Marriage as an institution was created when mankind lived in primitive tribal settlements, and the average human went through life encountering the exact same 2-300 people until their death. It was also a way of ensuring financial support for women at a time when they weren't expected to support themselves. And, of course, to stabilize potentially violent unattached young males.

All these circumstances have now changed: people now encounter hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities to cheat, and the social stigma against divorce and single motherhood has never been lighter and is not coming back. Already, 40% of Americans view marriage as obsolete. In the US, only the richest Americans (especially whites and Asians) have any realistic chance of a life-long marriage; the institution has essentially died out among the middle-class and below. Marriage as a universal institution which everyone is expected to enter is like Wile E. Coyote: it ran off the cliff into thin air long ago, and is just waiting to fall.

So what will take its place? Unmarried cohabitation, for one thing (see the last link). But marriage as an institution is so deeply anchored in Western society that people will go on pretending to take it seriously for a few decades more. And there will still be the odd successful life-long marriage — among a small sub-set of risk-averse, traditionally-minded, highly religious people (all these traits are linked). Already, we see trends in most Western societies in which organized religion is shrinking to a core of about 20-25% of the population who are part-genetically, part-environmentally predisposed to experience strong, sincere, abiding religious faith within an organized hierarchical religion. Since no social pressure is forcing the rest of the population to pretend to take organized religion seriously, they are no longer doing so. Marriage as a genuine life-long proposal will survive only in highly religious communities.

What about the rest of us, though? I still think Gabriele Pauli had a brilliant idea. She's a twice-divorced, rather eccentric female politician for the Christian Social Union (CSU) party in Germany, a Bavaria-centered Catholic traditionalist party. Five years ago, she proposed that marriages should automatically dissolve after seven years unless the couple decides to renew it. Naturally, the other members of her party went berserk and quickly vowed their fealty to the noble institution of traditional marriage — presumably with the exception of CSU bigwig Horst Seehofer, who was busy having a love child with his much-younger mistress (to be fair, he ended the affair and is back with his wife. For now.)

But the idea is a sound one. First, from an aesthetic point of view, it would reduce the amount of rank hypocrisy and insincerity in society. There's just something unseemly about millions of people making promises in front of their friends and family they have no ability to keep  — merely because the dead hand of tradition demands it. A seven-year option would allow married couples to simply let their marriage automatically dissolve, instead of having to initiate a complex, potentially bitter divorce proceeding. You would have a series of default legal rules for splitting property and child custody. Of course, those who are happy after seven years could renew their vows, presumably by sending in a simple postcard with both their signatures. Or even online!

The typical objection would be: what about the children? Well, first of all, look at the chart above. Family stability is a thing of the past. In Germany, 1/3 of all children are born out of wedlock (g), and the tendency is only increasing. Soon, in all Western countries, at least half of children will be born out of wedlock anyway. Some of those will be born into stable cohabiting relationships, but most will be born to single mothers. It's hard to see a difference between those contexts and a seven-year marriage. Who knows — the existence of an easy way out of marriage might even encourage more commitment-shy men and cohabiting couples to get married, thus increasing the overall level of family stability. And let's not forget that some of the damage done to children by divorce springs from the fact that their parents once promised they would stay together forever, then break that vow when they divorce.

I think the seven-year marriage is an idea that deserves to be taken seriously, at least. But I'm not holding my breath…

5 thoughts on “Marriage is Dead. What Will Replace It?

  1. The mess basically started, when marriage became an institution. That hasn’t been so long ago in European society. It happend in late antiquity with the rise of Christianity.

    In classical Roman law there is no “unmarried cohabitation”. If you live together, share a household and presumbly have sex, you are married. Only differences in citizenship would prevent the notion. And the Romans, at least in the well documented upper class, divorced often.

    There weren’t any legal consequences from marriage itself either, although certain kinds of contracts usually cooccured with entering marriage.

    So what you are describing is not the practice of marriage since the beginning of mankind, it’s marriage since late antiquity.

  2. Andrew: How do you know that “unmarried mother” = “single mother”?

    There are a lot of unmarried couples in really long term relationsships, having children and buying houses. They just decide that they do not want to marry. (I concede: It is often the man who doesn’t want to marry)

    Here children know their father, live with him and he takes care. I have no idea wether these relations split more easily than marriages but my feeling is that it can be only more by thin margin.


  3. (Begin quote)

    Auf einem einzigen Punkt blieb die Unterhaltung länger als billig haften, indem Charlotte nach einer Jugendfreundin sich erkundigte und mit einiger Befremdung vernahm, daß sie ehstens geschieden werden sollte.

    »Es ist unerfreulich«, sagte Charlotte, »wenn man seine abwesenden Freunde irgend einmal geborgen, eine Freundin, die man liebt, versorgt glaubt; eh man sichs versieht, muß man wieder hören, daß ihr Schicksal im Schwanken ist, und daß sie erst wieder neue und vielleicht abermals unsichre Pfade des Lebens betreten soll«.

    »Eigentlich, meine Beste«, versetzte der Graf, »sind wir selbst schuld, wenn wir auf solche Weise überrascht werden.

    Wir mögen uns die irdischen Dinge und besonders auch die ehlichen Verbindungen gern so recht dauerhaft vorstellen, und was den letzten Punkt betrifft, so verführen uns die Lustspiele, die wir immer wiederholen sehen, zu solchen Einbildungen, die mit dem Gange der Welt nicht zusammentreffen.

    In der Komödie sehen wir eine Heirat als das letzte Ziel eines durch die Hindernisse mehrerer Akte verschobenen Wunsches, und im Augenblick, da er erreicht ist, fällt der Vorhang, und die momentane Befriedigung klingt bei uns nach.

    In der Welt ist es anders; da wird hinten immer fortgespielt, und wenn der Vorhang wieder aufgeht, mag man gern nichts weiter davon sehen noch hören«.

    »Es muß doch so schlimm nicht sein«, sagte Charlotte lächelnd, »da man sieht, daß auch Personen, die von diesem Theater abgetreten sind, wohl gern darauf wieder eine Rolle spielen mögen«.

    »Dagegen ist nichts einzuwenden«, sagte der Graf.

    »Eine neue Rolle mag man gern wieder übernehmen, und wenn man die Welt kennt, so sieht man wohl: auch bei dem Ehestande ist es nur diese entschiedene, ewige Dauer zwischen soviel Beweglichem in der Welt, die etwas Ungeschicktes an sich trägt.

    Einer von meinen Freunden, dessen gute Laune sich meist in Vorschlägen zu neuen Gesetzen hervortat, behauptet: eine jede Ehe solle nur auf fünf Jahre geschlossen werden.

    Es sei, sagte er, dies eine schöne, ungrade, heilige Zahl und ein solcher Zeitraum eben hinreichend, um sich kennenzulernen, einige Kinder heranzubringen, sich zu entzweien und, was das Schönste sei, sich wieder zu versöhnen.

    Gewöhnlich rief er aus: wie glücklich würde die erste Zeit verstreichen!

    Zwei, drei Jahre wenigstens gingen vergnüglich hin.

    Dann würde doch wohl dem einen Teil daran gelegen sein, das Verhältnis länger dauern zu sehen, die Gefälligkeit würde wachsen, je mehr man sich dem Termin der Aufkündigung näherte.

    Der gleichgültige, ja selbst der unzufriedene Teil würde durch ein solches Betragen begütigt und eingenommen.

    Man vergäße, wie man in guter Gesellschaft die Stunden vergißt, daß die Zeit verfließe, und fände sich aufs angenehmste überrascht, wenn man nach verlaufenem Termin erst bemerkte, daß er schon stillschweigend verlängert sei.

    (End quote)

    Source: Goethe, “Die Wahlverwandtschaften”

  4. ” And let’s not forget that some of the damage done to children by divorce springs from the fact that their parents once promised they would stay together forever, then break that vow when they divorce.”

    I don’t think it is any less damaging for a child to find out that the “dissolve” of their parent’s marriage is due in a few years, and the subsequent fear that they may not renew it.

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