This is the first in a series on the changing shape of one of society’s most ancient institutions. The second will run on Wednesday, Dec. 28, and the third on Thursday, Dec. 29.
Fall in love.
All four — and specifically in that order — comprise what many Christians believe is “traditional marriage,” unchanged since the Garden of Eden.
And yet for most societies throughout history, including most Christian ones, the expectation that all four — love, marriage, sex and parenting — could be contained and confined in one relationship would be considered impractical, irrational or at best undesirable.
Indeed, marriage without love, as dismal as it sounds to modern American romantics, was historically considered not just preferable but more safe, reliable and virtuous.
And believe it or not, even some Christian authorities a few centuries ago decreed that allowing your love of spouse to infiltrate the marriage was “impure,” adulterous or even insane, because following the fickle human heart was an unreliable basis for a stable marriage.
So how did we get where we are?
In her influential book Unhitched, Judith Stacey surveys cultures across the globe and throughout history to demonstrate that “the nuclear family that most Americans think of as ‘normal’ — one man, one woman in a lifelong, faithful relationship, usually producing children — is quite the cultural exception rather than the rule.”
“Every culture develops family and kinship forms to negotiate inescapable human conflicts between unruly romantic and sexual desires, on the one hand, and timeless human (and social) needs for durable, dependable, intimate relationships and care, on the other,” she says. … “[B]ut the families they design are by no means all alike.”
“In history, more marriage systems have been polygamous than monogamous,” Stacey notes, and arranged marriage systems far out-numbered cultures in which couples trusted love to lead them to the altar.
Here is a sampling from the global buffet of marriage models, identified by historians Stacey and Stephanie Coontz.
Many cultures — from ancient China and Greece to parts of modern Africa and Asia — see strong love of a husband for his wife as a threat to the social order or a sign of personal weakness. Catholic and Protestant theologians in the past called love of wife adultery or insanity. Hindu, Muslim and plenty of Christian cultures have said love is a fickle or fatal basis for marriage. A European axiom says, “He who marries for love has good nights and bad days.”
Throughout history, and in the Christian West until a couple centuries ago, parents arranged marriages to gain wealth or stability for the family. In early modern Europe, a family chose a bride with a dowry or a groom with good income because it was the best way to ensure “love would flower” after the wedding. Children usually accepted or welcomed the involvement of parents in arranging their marriages.
Polygamy has been common worldwide. In parts of India, a woman might be married to several men at once. In parts of the Indian sub-continent, a woman could marry a husband and his brothers, with full conjugal rights for all, as a system of social security. A spouse in ancient China could bring her sisters to her marriage bed as backup wives. An Eskimo couple often had a spouse-swapping agreement with another couple, and society viewed all their children as co-siblings. Among the Taita people of Kenya, men marry several “practical wives” for everyday life before they dare marry a “love wife.”
Many past cultures allowed husbands, and sometimes wives, to seek sexual gratification outside marriage without threatening the marital bond. In a study of 109 societies, anthropologists found that only 48 forbade extramarital sex to both husbands and wives. At least two African tribes, the Dagon and Rukuba, encouraged young brides to publicly pursue extramarital relationships.
Current South African law has liberal provisions for polygamy and same-sex marriage, although social tradition and political pressures keep many people from doing so publicly.
“All these examples of marital and sexual norms make it difficult to claim there is some universal model for success or happiness in marriage,” writes Coontz in Marriage, A History.
Nonetheless, in the era of globalization, the West continues successfully to export its ideal of marriage to many other developed countries, despite its unusual and countercultural nature.
“For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage,” Coontz says. But that’s exactly what happened in the West, largely because of a dominant Christian interpretation of parts of the Bible.
“About two centuries ago, Western Europe and North America developed a whole set of new values about the way to organize marriage and sexuality …,” writes Coontz. As a result, “individuals [now] want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex.”
“Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable,” Coontz says.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the matrimonial turmoil that has rocked America from the 1960s to today.
Powerful cultural factors are reshaping marriage in the West — cohabitation, delayed marriage and child-rearing, parenthood with-out marriage, female economic freedom, same-sex marriage, and the legacy of divorce.
In one way or another, each car on America’s “love train” has been decoupled from the others — love, marriage, sex and parenting.
Love without marriage: More than half of American adults cohabit at one time or another, according to numerous government and private studies, and more of those relationships are producing children. Approximately 60 percent of Americans believe the best way to establish a successful marriage is to cohabit first, but research suggests otherwise. About 40 percent of first cohabitations lead to a wedding, but those who marry after cohabiting more than once are more likely to divorce. The average cohabiting couple stays together only 22 months and is five times more likely to break up than if they married, and one third as likely to reconcile.
Sex without marriage: Premarital sex is almost universal in America. Even a decade ago, 95 percent of Americans said they had sex before marriage. More than 80 percent of teens are sexually active, despite government-funded abstinence programs, and at least 90 percent of Americans under 30 have had pre-marital sex, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. Extramarital sex counts here too. It’s estimated that between one fourth and half of all marriages experience infidelity.
Parenthood without marriage: About 40 percent of all births now occur outside marriage, including more than half of all births to Millennials (age 18 to 29). Marriage is considered obsolete by 40 percent of Americans and more than half of Millennials. As a group, Millennials place more value on being a good parent than having a successful marriage.
Sex without love: The Sexual Revolution rejected marriage-only sex in favor of “free love.” But casual sex has morphed into the nearly anonymous sexual rituals of today’s “hookup” culture, which dispenses with dating in favor of brief, uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of college students report having hookups in the previous year, according to the American Psychological Association. Loveless sex also encompasses sex as recreation, virgin-shaming, bartering sex for attention, and perhaps sexual violence — much of it delivered to our homes at the speed of the Internet.
Maybe Stacey and Coontz are right. Did an unrealistic model of marriage sow the seeds of its own destruction?
If the marriage ideal is still alive in America, it may be twisted and shrunk beyond recognition. The Western concept that combines romance, sex and friendship in one blissful relationship had “unanticipated and revolutionary consequences,” Coontz notes, ones that now threaten the survival of marriage itself.
Current shifts in modern Western societies, including harsh economic pressures, globalization and job instability, “have increasingly rendered marriage neither sustainable nor even suitable for many individuals,” Coontz adds.
It’s the economy, stupid!
So who really defines marriage?
The practice of marriage has always bent to the winds of economic factors. Anthropologists report this has always been the case — and today is no exception. In virtually every society in every place and time, social structures like marriage have been shaped by money.
That historic truism accounts for much of the incredible variety of matrimonial customs around the world— and even in the Bible.
The most obvious example is the long-standing tradition of arranging marriage for the financial benefit of the family, clan or community, which Stacey calls the bottom-line reason marriage is ubiquitous in human history.
Other marriage traditions also stem from financial inspirations, including the gifting of brides, “bride price” and dowry. Polygamy is still fairly common in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The practice (both polyandry and polygyny) is motivated not only to satisfy male libido but to add workers to the household and to increase the yield of offspring.
Central Africa provides a different economic twist, according to Melissa Browning, an assistant professor of contextual ministry at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. The employment picture there is still influenced by the commercial and industrial job structures of now long-gone colonial masters, said Browning, an ethicist who has researched marriage in the region.
African men often have to travel far from home to find work, disrupting family patterns. Many women can’t count on the husband hanging around much, so they sometimes enlist “walking husbands,” a regular sexual partner who plays no other role in the woman’s life.
Many of the women marry only to conceive children, while others who don’t marry still choose to have children outside marriage.
The country’s colonial past became a socio-economic force that “changed an entire society around marriage,” Browning says.
America’s “original sin” of slavery was a socio-economic force that still resonates in African-American family life. African Americans are criticized in some circles because of dwindling evidence of the “traditional” family — father, mother and kids — and more lax attitudes about extramarital sex. A government survey indicated black men have three times as many sex partners in a lifetime on average as white men.
Those cultural patterns, which are shaped over centuries not years, have a historical link to financial incentives of slave-owners.
American slave-traders and -owners routinely broke up families for financial gain, while denying their captives legal marriage. Those masters also commonly used some of their slaves as concubines, while forcing others to breed in combinations that would produce plentiful and profitable offspring.
It shouldn’t surprise us that slave cultures adapted by developing more “fluid forms of parenting and kinship,” says marriage historian Stacey. Nor is it surprising that black relational patterns today differ somewhat from those of their slave-owners’ descendants.
“It’s not just culture and [attitudes] but also socio-economic factors that shape marriage,” says Browning. “We often don’t give enough consideration to how socio-economic forces shape us.”
“Marriage is always linked to culture and always deeply linked to economic arrangements in society,” says David Gushee, university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and McAfee School of Theology.
“One way to tell the story of marriage” is to follow changes in the average marrying age.
“In an agricultural society there’s no reason not to marry [soon] after puberty,” he says. In the Industrial Age the marrying age was later. In a wage society, when more education was helpful, later still. Through the Information Age and high-tech culture, the average age of marriage was pushed out even further because even more education was needed.
Now the average age of marriage is 27 for women, 29 for men.
Some people “don’t see the cultural dimensions that went into the picture,” Gushee says. “This is hard to acknowledge for people, especially those who see how marriage is described and depicted in the Bible.”
And yet it is a testament to the value and resilience of marriage, he says, that even as the form has evolved with culture, vocation and economics, the essence of marriage remains largely the same.
“The pieces have evolved” — the age of marriage, fixed gender roles, division of duties and how and why a mate is selected — “while the basic idea of two people raising children together for life remains steady.”
Another powerful economic factor is poverty. Today African-American communities on average have much higher rates of poverty, unemployment and incarceration. Two thirds of children in African-American communities are born out of wedlock, twice the national average.
Factors like poverty shape patterns of not only marriage but sexuality and abortion, Browning says. For example, when there are limits placed on the number of children that qualify for food stamps, the abortion rate goes up.
“We see really direct links between poverty and abortion, yet we try to fix abortion by putting prohibitions around it, rather than trying to fix the causes,” she says. Likewise, some couples avoid marrying because it would make their children ineligible for food stamps or increase their taxes.
“We need to ask ourselves the question: If we do value marriage, why aren’t we creating a society that values marriage? We don’t create a society that values marriage by putting prohibitions around certain types of marriage or around sexuality.”
Even middle-class adults are finding the cost of the American dream has escalated to the point it is almost unattainable for many people. Couples increasingly are postponing marriage, most often to wait until they attain more financial and professional stability. But they are not waiting to live together or have children.
That financial strain is one reason premarital sex and cohabitation are so widely accepted by Americans.
Sex prior to marriage is hardly new. Since as early as 1960, the majority of American young adults had premarital sex. But because the average age of marriage is now much higher, fewer adults are willing to wait. At least 90 percent of Americans under 30 have had premarital sex, despite government-funded abstinence programs, says the National Survey of Family Growth.
But what has changed in the last 25 years is not how much sex Americans are having but with whom. The frequency of sex and number of sexual partners in a lifetime have been largely unchanged in the past quarter century. But Americans in 2012 were more likely to have sex with a friend or acquaintance than they were 25 years earlier.
One primary reason is the broad-based trend among teens and young adults to trade the traditional ritual of dating for a “hookup culture,” which triggered a warning from the American Psychological Association that the change comes at a price.
A 2011 study found 60-to-80 percent of college students reported having hookups in the previous year, defined as brief uncommitted sexual encounters, ranging from kissing to intercourse, between people who are not romantic partners — friends, acquaintances or even strangers – usually at parties or hangouts.
“By definition, sexual hookups provide the allure of sex without strings attached,” writes the APA in a publication. “Despite their increasing social acceptability, however, developing research suggests that sexual hookups may leave more strings attached than many participants might first assume.”
Some college students report feeling positive after such an encounter — a fourth of women and half of men. But exactly opposite proportions reported negative effects — half of women and a fourth of men.
Two types of encounters that particularly sparked regret: intercourse with someone only once or someone they had known less than 24 hours, another study said. Other consequences reported were embarrassment (27 percent), emotional difficulties (25 percent), and lost self-respect (21 percent).
Estimates of the lifetime average number of sex partners, which have remained steady, vary wildly between studies. Two different studies report averages of 6.1 and 14.6 for men, 3.6 and 8.4 for women.
Of course, statisticians point out the disparities between the reports by men and women are mathematically impossible because almost all male-female encounters involve one of each. The explanation could be the stigma still attached to female promiscuity or male exaggeration.
The wandering eye
Some people think that premarital sex, cohabitation and same-sex marriage are the greatest enemies of marriage these days. Not so. The greatest threat, anthropologists say, has always been the wandering eye — those pesky romantic and sexual urges that lead to infidelity.
Many cultures don’t even try to curb the urge to merge but incorporate it into marriage practices. But extramarital sex has never been compatible with the modern Christian (or American) ideal of marriage.
Statistics on infidelity are notoriously unreliable, but a conservative research-based estimate is that about 25 percent of marriages in America experience infidelity. When committed relationships like cohabitation are included, the odds are much higher, according to statistics collected by Utah State University.
Infidelity doubles the chances of divorce, researchers say. But 50-to-60 percent of married couples who experience infidelity stay together.
Seventy percent of Americans say divorce in general is morally acceptable. But 43 percent say that, in the absence of violence and extreme conflict, couples with children should try to reconcile. Most people who divorce say they wish they had tried harder to save the marriage.
“It is tremendously important for there to be faithfulness in marriage,” Browning says, because it “gives the marriage a space to grow.”
“The women I worked with in Tanzania described faithfulness as the fence you put around your garden to keep the wild animals out. As long as that garden is bearing fruit, that’s really important to keep that fence up.”
It’s tempting to suggest that the solution to premarital sex and cohabitation is to return to marrying younger. But that would come with a lot of negative unintended consequences.
If you are young, you are likely also less educated, less emotionally mature and earning less money. All four are risk factors for divorce.
What’s the right target?
Christians widely denounce premarital sex, cohabitation, same-sex marriage and infidelity as the core threats to marriage. Have they picked the right target or are they tilting at windmills?
Yes, historically, infidelity has exerted tremendous pressure on marriages. But abstinence and earlier marriage are not only impractical as a solution but unlikely to produce the results Christians want, some ethicists say.
A demand of abstinence from a virile, 30-year-old single professional, whether divorced or never married, will be either laughably ignored or painfully broken, resulting in shame. Either result leads to isolation from the Christian community.
“My generation was the ‘True Love Waits’ generation,” Browning says, referring to the popular abstinence program. Many of her college classmates married early so they could have sex, she recalls. “And I watched many of those marriages end in divorce.”
Delaying marriage will produce healthier marriages, the ethicist says, adding, “at the same time, you’re probably not going to be able to advocate for delayed marriage and then at the same time say no sex before marriage. That’s just probably not going to be realistic.”
“When we push a really strict abstinence before marriage, what ends up happening is it tends to be a more impulsive decision,” says Browning. “They don’t talk to family members about it first because of the shame that surrounds that. We end up having higher teen pregnancy rates in evangelical circles than we do in mainline Christian traditions and non-Christian traditions.”
Browning prefers a “middle of the road” approach that avoids prohibitions against abstinence but teaches young people the value of waiting.
“I’m the mother of a little girl, and I want her to wait as long as possible to have sex. … I’m going to talk about why she should wait — not ‘the Bible says so forth and so on,’ but ‘here are some really good reasons for waiting.’ Otherwise we push young people into this guilt-shame spiral, where we’re pushing them out of church because of these heavy prohibitions.”
Ethicist David Gushee says the traditional ethic — sex belongs in marriage — “was always demanding” but it has been collapsing gradually for the last 50 years. “It’s increasingly implausible when people don’t get married until they’re 30 or 35,” he says.
Because the practice of marriage has always been driven more by socio-economic forces than laws, Christians can do more to support marriage — and even lower abortions— by advancing economic equality and social justice for those who marry and those who might.
Legislating sexual morality, which has always been difficult, is probably counter-productive today. Likewise, legislating one model of marriage is not a cure, Browning says. “I don’t think that the state needs to enforce someone’s interpretation of what biblical marriage is because it’s just that — an interpretation.”
Browning and Gushee agree there is still great value in teaching and modeling the commitment of lifelong faithful marriage.
“I’m a traditionalist … in the sense that the institution serves a valuable human function,” Gushee says, adding that marriage is still the popular choice.
“A lot of people are attempting to do something that looks a lot like traditional marriage,” he says. “You make as binding a commitment as two human beings can make. … You become totally emotionally vulnerable, financially vulnerable. Then you bring new life into the world.”
“People need for those relationships to be stable, lasting and successful,” Gushee says. “Alternatives to marriage don’t seem to work as well.”
When bad relationships result in destructive divorce, abandoned spouses or domestic violence, Gushee says, “society pays the price.”
“What is most needed for most people now is a vision of lifetime, faithful, monogamous, covenantal marriage, and helping people succeed at that,” he says. He defined covenant marriage as “an exchange of binding sacred promises made to each other in the sight of God and a community to bind future action based on present commitment.”
“I bind myself to you for life, so when things happen that are frustrating or difficult or unforeseen, like you get sick for six months, or you have a job change that takes you away for a while, I’m still … committed to working through the challenges.”
Such a binding covenant is the antidote for a society based on contracts, where the commitment is limited to the contract’s terms, and consumerism, when “you’re bound to nothing other than your preference,” he says.
The concept of covenant marriage is in conflict with the American culture of individualism and personal happiness, says Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill.
“The expectation of personal happiness” contributes to the break-down of marriage, McKnight says.
It “has turned marriage into auspices of friendship rather than a species of family life and propagation of family and social implementation,” he adds.
“Most people assume the soulmate theory has always been the case,” says McKnight, a historian and popular author. “Most people don’t realize that 150 years ago, a man didn’t expect his wife to be his best friend, and a woman didn’t expect the husband to be the best friend.”
“Marriage loses its sense of a covenant commitment [when] the romance, the friendship, the loving relationship, the intimacy becomes the measure of whether a marriage is viable.”
Looking for allies
Christians are losing the sex-and-marriage debate even in their own communities.
Despite the popularity of abstinence campaigns, almost as many young-adult evangelicals are sexually active as their non-Christian peers, according to a 2011 survey reported in Relevant Magazine.
Up to 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals between 18 and 29 said they have had sex, and presumably just as many young married evangelicals had sex with someone before their vows.
While true love may not wait, evangelicals still appear to embrace fidelity. About 80 percent of young evangelicals in a relationship are exclusive, according to the Relevant survey, while almost half are not dating anyone.
Theologians who are detached from local congregations might not feel the effects as keenly, but ministers who do counseling will tell you cohabitation, divorce, premarital sex, infidelity and STDs are present pastoral realities.
Christians should recognize that, for many people, the impracticality of their abstinence pledges, coupled with the hypocrisy of Christian divorce and infidelity rates, has made their defense of the “ideal marriage” sound hollow and out of touch. And the louder and more insistent that Christians become with moral prescriptions, the wider the gap between the culture and the true power of the gospel to deliver love and justice.
Legislating sexual morality, which has always been difficult, is probably counter-productive today. Laws don’t change hearts, but thankfully the gospel changes hearts.
Is it possible that, behind the explosion of cohabitation, there is a silver lining for marriage proponents?
Although marriage is no longer the set-in-stone cultural expectation, it may become something almost as meaningful. Yes, the marriage rate is not what it once was, but Americans are by no means abandoning the institution. Even without the power of social pressure, marriage is still the goal for most young adults, including most who cohabit.
Since couples living together have already acquired the traditional “perks” of marriage — guilt-free sex, constant companionship, some measure of commitment, and even access to parenthood — the institution must now stand on its own virtues.
By moving beyond those other, sometimes “lesser,” motives, perhaps couples who marry do so because it carries profound meaning for them. Is it possible that marriage now is “reserved” for those who recognize its unique significance and want to embrace that? And for cohabiters who wed, marriage may represent a “purity” of a different sort.
Marriage might just be both less popular and more meaningful.
Until recently, same-sex couples who sought the commitment of marriage ironically had no choice but to cohabit. After watching others abandon and disparage marriage, nonetheless the LGBTQ community now legally and gleefully hitch their wagons to this “fading” institution.
Proponents of traditional marriage, looking for any and all allies, might do well to enlist gay and lesbian couples in the campaign for faithful, long-term matrimony.
The argument, Gushee says, is a common one — “that, seeing the overall trends to the weakening of lifetime covenant marriage, people who want to do lifetime covenant marriage are on the team. They’re pulling in the same direction.”
“Some of the most traditional marriage people that I know are gay people,” he says.
It’s too early to draw conclusions, but there are indications married gays are as faithful as their straight counterparts. Perhaps they can feel the full value of what they were once denied.
So same-sex marriage and cohabitation — what many Christians lament as the biggest threats to marriage — may play a role in the institution’s survival.
— This article was first published in the November-December 2016 issue of Herald, BNG’s magazine sent five times a year to donors to the Annual Fund. Bulk copies are also mailed to BNG’s Church Champion congregations.