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American Marriage in transition Essay

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2019


In the article, “American Marriage in transition”, Andrew Cherlin, the author, presents an analysis of how the institution of marriage has evolved over the past two centuries, undergoing changes occasioned by a wide array of variables, which include changing perceptions on marriage, job demands, laws (marriage and divorce laws), economic depressions, and the two World Wars.

The central argument of this article is that the place of marriage in society, though always valued, is subject to changes brought about when the beliefs and perceptions of a specific generation are replaced by different beliefs and perceptions of a succeeding generation. These varying beliefs and practices are the result of the challenges and exposures experienced by people of a specific era; for example, the pre-World War 1 era, the Post Depression era, and the post World War II era.

The Institutionalized Marriage

The institutionalized marriage was the type of marriage present before the dawn of the Twentieth Century. This type of marriage was the norm the world over and all of society’s adult members were expected, almost as a rule, to enter into the confines of married life eventually. Marriage was “a ticket for admission to full family life” (Cherlin 397). Marriage in this era was a norm rather than an exception, and marriage was viewed as a strict necessity.

The institutionalized marriage was characterized by clearly defined roles for the husband, the wife, and the children. The breadwinner role rested on the husband while the wife was the homemaker. Both the man and woman in marriage were not expected to draw emotional satisfaction from their perceived roles and all parties in the institutionalized marriage performed their roles as a strict matter of duty.

Nevertheless, the Great Depression and the two World Wars drove women from homes into the labor market, and this had a major effect on the roles and expectations of both husbands and wives within the setting of marriage, leading to a type of marriage the article describes as companionate.

The Companionate Marriage

This type of marriage was characterized by a clear set of roles and duties for both husbands and wives within a marriage. Unlike in the institutionalized marriage, husbands and wives in the companionate marriage derived a sense of gratification from their partnership.

Cherlin posits, “The emotional satisfaction of the husband and wife was an important ingredient for a successful marriage” (398). The husband was also not the sole breadwinner and the wife could chip in with her income in furnishing the needs of the household. The nuclear family was an important entity in the companionate marriage, and husbands and wives identified themselves with their nuclear set of family.

However, soon changes in societal perceptions, occasioned by the effects of World War 2, rendered the companionate marriage largely untenable. Families consisting of partners that were not necessarily married under law became common; the legal restrictions for grounds for divorce became lax, labor laws allowed women more growth in their careers, and even same gender partnership were less frowned upon. These and other changes led to the emergence of the individualized marriage.

The Individualized Marriage

The individualized marriage was based on the premise that each partner in a marriage was unique and therefore in a marriage, both partners should achieve their unique, distinct, and personal desires and should not necessarily sacrifice their aspirations for the sake of their partner or the marriage.

Cancian termed this as a shift from “role to self” (Cherlin 398) Since both the husband and wife worked to earn their income, their roles in the home also tended to overlap, and even though the wife still retained the quasi role of the homemaker, the roles were not ‘cast on stone’. The partners in a marriage would base their roles and sense of gratification from their marriage as individuals.

Partners in a marriage only stayed in the marriage as long as their individual needs for love, intimacy, and friendship were met. Divorce laws were allowed for a simple consensual agreement between partners to end their marriage relationship. Some scholars like Giddens term this type of relationship as pure (Cherlin 856). Through these changes, the individualized marriage gave way to the modern day symbolic marriage.

The Symbolic Marriage

The symbolic marriage is defined by its role in giving specific status to the husband and wife. As opposed to previous eras whereby marriage was a first act of responsibility in adult’s life, the modern trend involves securing jobs and career stability first, then marriage may follow, if at all, marriage was in an individual’s plans.

Marriage here is considered the ideal consummation of an adult person’s social status. Cherlin describes this status of marriage as “at once less dominant and more distinctive”, compared to previous eras (400). Marriage is viewed purely as a matter of choice between two consenting individuals. Thus, the symbolic importance of marriage may even have gone a notch higher in the current era, compared to the previous eras.


The author of this article has given a comprehensive analysis of how marriage has been “deinstitutionalized” through the years, acquiring and loosing certain characteristics through changes dictated by the vagaries of various eras. Throughout the article, the importance of partnerships between individuals yet remains, and even as the future portends for more drastic changes, the static concept of two people coming together to share love, friendship, and intimacy will always be the common denominator.

Works Cited

Cherlin, Andrew. American Marriage in Transition: Research & Composing in the

Disciplines. UTSA Custom Edition. Eds. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Longman, 2011.

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