The report presents the issue of marriage in the postmodern society. It carries out a comprehensive study on the status of the marriage institution in the 21st century by defining marriage under a postmodernist perspective: symmetrical family’s justifications and criticisms.
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It then shifts its focus to the factors that are currently either affecting, or threatening the validity and desirability of marriage, namely, the appeal of and availability as an option of singlehood, the increase in divorce, and cohabitation. Consequently, it is apparent that the marriage institution has definitely evolved in the 21st century society.
The aforementioned variables are just but a few of the possible explanations. The question that remains is whether a universal gauge is in existence to which society should strive to adhere in terms of the ideal marriage. If so, what is the standard? Since this is just a report, the paper avoids committing to any specific answer to that question thus opting to leave it to the reader’s exercise of action.
I would like to express my profound gratitude to my parents who have been very helpful in the compilation of this report by offering interesting insights on marriage that I shall share in the report as examples.
I am also very grateful for the library resources including the large volumes of sociology textbooks and the internet, which were priceless sources of information and insights into the history of the marriage institution. The library staff members were much cordial. I am grateful for them having availed the facility for my use for both research and discussions.
Finally, I would like to thank my professor who gave me constant feedback and guidance towards the completion of this report projects, as well as the respective group members for their time and dedicated input into the project.
Marriage refers to different things to the diverse people in different societies. However, all these diverse personalities throughout the world seem to converge into an agreement on one critical factor that marriage is a merger between two or more parties with the intention of establishing a family. Beyond this very general definition of marriage, there are numerous diverging opinions on what marriage consists of, ranging from same sex marriages to polyandrous marriages.
Circa 900BC, the world only knew one type of marriage, at least the Judeo-Christian history, which is the best documented type that indicates that marriage was between a man and a woman with the option of an increase in the number of wives if the man was wealthy enough to provide for them (New Advent Para. 2). This point introduces a very interesting yet somewhat underestimated or contemporarily downplayed variable in the marriage institution, which is the economic perspective.
Research indicates that, in the past, marital unions were majorly determined on economic and social grounds rather than the emotional basis of marriages in the 21st century. According to the proponents of this school of thought, this qualifies to be the reason why the marriage institution today is highly unstable, as people no longer look at unions for their profitability purpose. In fact, today, if a woman singles out a wealthy male and targets such a man for his wealth, she shall be referred to derogatively as a gold digger.
Conversely, arranged marriages of the past were very stable despite the lack of emotional basis. The proponents for this school of thought cite economical stability of the husband or the wife in cases where women had large fortunes as the cause of stability as opposed to unwise or unprofitable unions based solely on love and affection, or on the notion of soul mates.
Brief background into the history of marriage
Marriage dates back into time immemorial. What becomes apparent as one transcends centuries looking is that, in the past, unions were strictly between a man and a woman who were monogamous. The notion of polygamy started later during the Abrahamic era. Even then, it was only in very special circumstances that the man could take more than one woman to wife.
What has become known as polygyny or polygamy today began innocently enough as a permissiveness of society towards promiscuity among males (Sociology Guide Para. 3). This was a manifestation of the excesses of a patriarchal society. Men saw this patriarchal status as a justification of their superiority over women. Soon enough, the worth of women was diminished and equated to that of property. A wealthy man could take as many concubines as he pleased to his harem (this was the case in Arabic cultures).
In other cultures, this was manifested by the permissiveness of society towards male sexual expression, as it became acceptable for men to have affairs though it was a cardinal sin for a woman to be caught in a sexual transgression. The offence was punishable by death during Jesus’ time. It is interesting to note that, even then, men who were responsible for women committing adultery rarely suffered equal punishment.
Another piece of evidence for this chauvinistic attitude is found in the meaning of the word ‘prostitution’, which originated from the Latin term, prostituta, which means a harlot or a woman who offers up her body indiscriminately, usually for money. Further evidence is in the term ‘male prostitute’, which only got attested in 1948 (Etymology Online Dictionary Para. 4).
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These examples are an indication of the evolution of the status of the marriage institution. In the past, dowry was a very significant part of marriage because the economical aspect was a critical decision maker. Chastity was also very crucial as evidenced by the number of “shotgun” weddings, which occurred on a very short notice when a certain male compromised a woman’s virtue.
Variables that have contributed to the status of 21st century marriages
Upon a fast tracking to the 21st century, marriage has become a fundamentally different institution from what it was in time immemorial. Today, people have a very different perspective concerning what they consider an ideal marriage (Cherlin ‘The Marriage-Go-Round’ 18). This case can be seen from the myriads of marriage types that have infiltrated the post modernist society.
Some of these interesting developments in the marriage institution include same sex marriages, cohabitation (come-we-stay), polyandry and polygamy, and open unions (whereby the partners are married to each other, but they are allowed to have other sexual partners and relationships without the bonds of matrimony).
Other than these types of unions that have been formally recognised and even named and studied by sociologists, millions of married couples are having affairs from even the sixth month of the marriage. Such kinds of shocking news lead one to enquire, ‘why should we get married in the first place?’
This question is interesting. To source its answer requires one to travel back in time and look into traditional marriages. The reasons for marriage back in the days were interesting because they were politically, socially, or economically motivated except for the shotgun wedding scenarios.
People married to form strategic alliances between kingdoms, families, or to benefit from the spouse’s fortune. They married because they were avoiding a scandal that was likely to ensue after having been caught in a compromising situation or in honour of age-old promises between their predecessors whose promises usually consisted of conditions and a promise of a reward or sanction if the conditions addendum to such a promise were either complied with or defaulted upon respectively.
In short, love and affection were rarely the reasons why people got married. Today, the society has completely turned around from these old motivations to marriage. People get married only when they are in love with each other or when they end up pregnant after having engaged in premarital sex and so marriage is hastily done in a bid to save face (Cherlin ‘The Marriage-Go-Round’ 27).
In short, the post modernist society has the traditional view towards marriage backwards because, whereas people in the past were accustomed to getting into matrimony as strangers and then growing into love with each other, today, people fall in love first after which they get into matrimony based on this love.
The unequal distribution of wealth in the society, and specifically the gap between the rich and the poor, is also another significant factor in the analysis of post modernist society. Of course, this perspective requires a wider review of the economics of the post modernist society, specifically concerning the gender differences in wealth that are manifested in today’s society as compared to those in the past. This shall be the first factor that shall merit a discussion in this report.
The Dynamics of Economic Balance
The civil war in the early periods of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States of America is a magnificent example for use to explain this factor of economics. At the time, civil rights activists and feminists came together to advocate for equality of men and women as they felt that the society was a reflection of the male chauvinism that was suffocating and insulting to women’s dignity and development as a sex since time immemorial (Sociologyweb Para. 5).
This was a relevant complaint at the time because the society had always been rather private and silent on the status of women. Society was clearly patriarchal. However, since the industrial age and the intermittent world wars had proven to the world that women too could get an education and manage to provide for their families in the absence of their men, the government had no justifiable excuse for continuing to undermine women’s capacities.
Consequently, in the US, the Affirmative Action took effect. The results were reflected in the increased emphasis on the ‘girl child’s’ success. Women thrived. They went to school and got scholarships to college. The barriers to college entry were utterly destroyed. If anything, they got a more favourable treatment than their male counterparts did (Cherlin ‘Public and Private Families’ 84). The effects of this mollycoddling are now felt as society is filled with prosperous women who do not need to rely on men to survive.
Suddenly, society is confronted with a phenomenon that has never before been manifested in such great proportions throughout history. Therefore, there is no hope for alluding to past solutions to apply them into the current problem.
Initially, marriages were stable because the woman relied on the man for all and any expenses that she accrued as evidenced by age-old common law principles in matters such as bankruptcy of women whereby married women could not be adjudged bankrupt. In case a woman was actually bankrupt, her debts would be answered upon the head of her husband.
Now, women can afford to stay single indefinitely because, when they age, they simply move out of their parents’ homes and get a personal apartment. This case means that parents no longer need to stress about supporting adult daughters. This situation on the other hand results in less pressure being exerted upon the daughters to get married. This factor advises the next segment of this report’s discussion.
The appeal of and availability as an option of singlehood
In the 21st century, there is nothing surprising or shocking about being a woman who is more than 40 years old, and not having a husband. Neither is it shocking for a man to be without a wife at a similarly advanced age. It is only an issue if the said adult still lives with his or her parents at that advanced age.
Research indicates that, as time lapses and adults fail to marry, or get married at a particular point or a period in their lives usually when their peers are getting married, they are likely to remain single for the rest of their lives or marry when they are very old. The same case applies to newlyweds that are widowed shortly after their wedding day.
In 1901, only one out of ten households contained a single individual contrary to one out of every three households today that have a single person (Sociologyweb Para. 6). Conversely, in 1971, two-thirds (2/3) of people in single households exceeded pensionable age, which is sixty -five for men and sixty for women. Today, only half of those in single households exceed the pensionable age.
Apparently, more people prefer to remain single in the twenty-first century. There are various reasons proposed to explain these alarming figures, including that the rate of marriages is declining, with an increase in divorce and separation. Secondly, people are delaying marriage or opting to cohabit until they are older.
To explain this situation, the age bracket between 25 and 44 is dominated with bachelors. However, beyond 65 years, the numbers are opposite, with doubled women relative to men who are single at this point of their lives (Sociologyweb Para. 2). The explanation for this case is that women have a higher life expectancy.
Nevertheless, the reasons why people are choosing to remain single deserve further discussion. The next segment carries out an in-depth analysis of divorce as a cause of singlehood, which is a factor that is affecting the institution of marriage in the twenty-first century. It is interesting that this next segment is double pronged because divorce too affects the institution of marriage. Therefore, the segment shall discuss it under both faucets.
The Increased Rate of Divorce
The available several causes of divorce include individualism; dissatisfaction of conjugal rights, independence of women, social and legal permissiveness, and mass media influence.
Most cultures in the 21st century are very individualistic. If two individualistic individuals come together in marriage, they are likely to carry this trait into wedlock. It becomes manifest in spending their time separate from each other with each pursuing personal interests.
This case is especially common when the two individuals are career-oriented with distinct professional goals that are different but equally important to them. Alternatively, when the husband has this trait, it means that he spends most of his time at work and/or hiding behind the excuse of being the sole breadwinner as the justification for staying away from home for so long.
This scenario usually culminates in the development of romantic relationships with females at work, which if discovered, could result in divorce. Women too are integrated in the career world. When they see their male colleagues, who may be married, carrying on in this lecherous manner, it serves as a strong reason against marriage.
Dissatisfaction of conjugal rights
Dissatisfaction of conjugal rights is usually the next step after the development or continued sustenance of individualism. The spouse shall then start eying attractive options at the place of work, usually out of the boredom of having had only one partner for an extended period. An interesting observation now is that the survival rate of a marriage usually has a lot to do with the past sexual experiences of the spouses.
If the spouse was accustomed to jumping in and out of relationships on a monthly basis, it may only take one month after the wedding for such a person to cheat. On the other hand, if the spouse had a more disciplined outlook to relationships prior to getting married, it is likely to last longer before feelings of boredom invade his or her mind. Other parties become interesting candidates for adventurous affairs.
However, this explanation is not absolute, as there are those couples whose past life was very promiscuous, yet they survived longer than their more chaste counterparts did. In the end, the determinant is usually the amount of diligence exercised by both spouses about making their marriage work.
Independence of Women
Independence affects marriage in two ways. First, since women are now employable and that they can comfortably make their own income, they can easily get out of an unhappy marriage, which is unlike the olden days. Traditionally, despite the horrendous treatment that the wife was receiving in her marital home, she stayed on because she had nowhere else.
Going back to her maiden home was some sort of proof that she was a failure as a woman. However, concerning this point, it is interesting to note that illiterate women who have no skills to market may still find themselves enslaved to their husbands, even in the twenty-first century. This assertion is deductable from the countless accounts of abuse in the matrimonial home and a closer review of the victims’ personal credibility in terms of independence.
The second dimension to independence is that women are more focused on their jobs today so much such that what was initially known as the “second shift” in the representation of the role a husband plays in the household after he comes home from work has been renamed the “third shift” for women.
It is inclusive of their professional lives’ demands, household chores and childcare, and emotional needs and fulfilments. Women are finding themselves very involved in work that they hardly have the time to deal with the emotional drama that comes with being in the relationship. This case causes the relationship to suffer, with divorce rates escalating.
Social and Legal Permissiveness
Society and the law have become more accepting of divorce. Whereas it was initially almost impossible to divorce one’s spouse, today, divorce proceedings in court last for a month for the case to be settled. If anything, the only contentious issue is the distribution of the marital property or the prenuptial agreement, which is another interesting development in the twenty-first century marriage arrangements.
The society blatantly encourages divorce for unhappy unions as evidenced by marriage therapists and married or divorced friends telling their troubled colleagues to leave their marriages. In the past, marital problems were dealt with rather than pushing them under the rug and/or being allowed to fester because people knew that they were stuck with each other. Therefore, they had to work things out, which is no longer the case and divorce is seen as the exit clause in the event of major marital differences.
Mass media influence
Celebrities, who unfortunately, are the people’s icons, record the highest rates of divorces. When girls and boys dream about their future spouses, they fantasise about celebrities. When such impressionable youths then see such celebrity couples getting divorced barely two months after the wedding, they are disillusioned and misinformed about the marriage institution.
Over time, their entire perspective on marriage becomes ruined. That case has led to the outrageous permissiveness that infests the twenty first century in the first place because, thanks to the fast dispersal of information, centuries-old traditional values of marriage and the family institution are being eroded within hours of watching certain movies or news bit on the latest contemporary marriage that went awry.
Most couples in the twenty first century are forming a pattern of cohabiting rather than getting married. Watching the TV Series, “Better with You” that is directed by James Burrows neatly covers such a situation as Ben (acted by John Cooke) and Maddie- Maddeline (acted by Jennifer Finnigan) have been cohabiting for nine years.
When the sitcom begins, they call their arrangement a “Valid Life Choice”. Sixty percent of couples that start cohabiting for the first time eventually get married. Seven out of ten couples give the same address on their marriage license while 56 percent of these carry out religious wedding ceremonies (Cherlin ‘Public and Private Families’ 97). It is becoming a norm to move in together and blatantly engage in sexual relations before marriage.
The reasons for this include the availability, affordability and increased efficiency of contraceptives, and the geographical separation from the traditional family set ups, which allow couples to live together while not married without censure from relatives and other older generational members in the society among others.
Status of marriage in the post modernist society
The marriages that are prevailing in the post modernist society seem to follow a certain pattern. They seem to be symmetrical in the role of men and women although the extent of this symmetry is highly debatable. It has been the cause of much contention among feminist groups.
The evidence of this symmetry is made manifest in the interchangeable and flexible roles of man and wife and the professional lives of both spouses as both are usually engaged in a paid employment meaning that the husband often helps in the housework. In fact, it does not make sense to leave it all to the wife yet both were in the office throughout the day.
Additionally, since the wife is making a relevant contribution to the family’s income, the husband may feel obligated to help in the house. This income contribution also means that the wife and husband both engage in decision-making. Finally, the wife and husband in a symmetrical marriage share common friends and leisure activities thus giving them time and opportunity to bond and build their relationship.
Criticisms of this deduction are mostly voiced by feminist activists who state that helping in the home is irrelevant as men count ironing their clothes as a form of helping. Women are still the primary homemakers and child caregivers in the home. Therefore, symmetry cannot be said to be in effect. Additionally, women have an emotional toll that they have to bear solely. Their role cannot be said to be equal to that of the men.
This report has carried out a comprehensive study of the marriage institution in the post modernist society by first looking into the history of marriage and then looking at the matters that have come up since time immemorial to distort marriage. These factors include economic liberation of women and the social and legal permissiveness towards divorce among others.
The factors prove the inevitability of change in the marriage institution. Finally, it has looked at the symmetrical status of the twenty-first century marriages. In conclusion, it posits that marriage has evolved significantly since historical times and will only continue to do so as society continues to evolve.
Cherlin, Andrew. The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family Today. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
Cherlin, Andrew. Public and Private Families: An Introduction (Sixth edition). London: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.
New Advent. Catholod Encyclopedia: History of Marriage, 2009. Web.
Sociology Guide. Marriage, Family, and Kinships, 2012. Web.
Sociologyweb. Sociology Changes in the Family, 2013. Web.