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The Future of Marriage

Right now, about 40% of Americans think marriage is obsolete as a concept. They are not sure it is even necessary. As a result, less couples than ever before are married, and marriage rates will continue to decline into the future.
12/04/2014 04:25pm ET | Updated February 3, 2015
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The definition of marriage has changed dramatically over the past ten years. In the way we think of and define "marriage," there has never been a more intrinsic and foundational change happening than right now. Our structural definition of the legal, emotional, and sexual act of committed partnership is on the cusp of something totally new.

There is such a major shift in how we define marriage that it can be compared to the 1960's and 1970's sexual revolution, where we saw all boundaries and mores and values challenged and struck down at their cultural roots. Now, in this century, we see a new era, the 2010's and 2020's are witnessing a revolution in marriage that has never been experienced before.

And there is more to come.

Marriage, up until now, has been defined by five things:

One, being married to one person,
Two, marriage is between a man and a woman,
Three, marriage meant that you were partners for a lifetime,
Four, marriage was a promise based on integrity as well as a legal contract and,
Five, marriage meant sexual fidelity to one person; forever.

Now, marriage is defined differently. And not just by liberals or democrats in the blue states.

One, Marriage is still defined by being married to one person, unless of course, you are a Mormon. But you can also stretch the definition to include things like polyamory. Polyamory means "poly, many" and "amorous, love" which translates to being in a relationship where you can love more than one person at the same time. More polyamorous couples are living in openly agreed to multiple partner relationships in this country than can fill the island of Manhattan. And that is only the people that openly identify as 'poly.' Some have this arrangement but do not care to call themselves 'poly' or check off the box when researchers come around to ask who the other partner is that's sleeping in the guest room. Although polygamy is not legal in the U.S. (polygamy means to marry more than one person at the same time), polyamory is a lifestyle where couples choose to be in loving and committed relationships with more than one person, sometimes living all together in one home.

Two, marriage is no longer defined as purely an agreement between a man and a woman. The DOMA, or Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down in much of the U.S. and gay marriage is legal in 35 states, as of the writing of this article. Which means that it is legal for two men or two women to marry; or two transsexuals or two gender diverse people of any identification to marry legally. Marriage is no longer defined by gender, but by love and the desire to commit, regardless of sexual identity.

Three, when we marry, we no longer assume we will marry for a lifetime. Divorce in this country is so prevalent, that it would be unusual to think that it never occurs to a bride or groom when they say their vows,

"Hey, if this doesn't work out, I can always get divorced."

Most couples don't want to think about divorce at the altar. In fact, most couples think they are different and special, and that divorce will never happen to them. While, in fact, the rates of divorce still hover at about fifty percent of all married couples.

The divorce rate was lower around 2009 and 2010, when the recession forced couples to stay together out of financial need, and because of the housing market they stayed together in houses they couldn't sell. But in 2011, the market improved, and a surge of couples put their homes up for sale and went to divorce court. The divorce rates rose back to their previously high numbers.

Four, marriage has always been a legal contract as well as a vow. Divorce compromises what we may have honestly thought at the time was a sincere desire to do right by our spouse. Divorce can be heartbreaking, for both partners. In this country, since the sixties, when it became legal for women to divorce and sue for custody and child support, the process has become available to everyone. But it is expensive, and legal fees can run as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. The emotional frustration of the legal system is caused many times by couples seeking revenge and trying to gain financial remuneration for their heartache. Both children and families suffer. Until recently, we have not had many alternatives.

Now, we have a new system of divorce developing in our country. The sharp rise in divorce mediation, collaborative divorce, and divorce counseling has helped couples to divorce with integrity and with respect. It helps to keep the children in caring shared custody arrangements. Step family relationships are smoother. Things like 'conscious uncoupling,' or 'divorcing with integrity' are a possibility for any couple looking to end their marital contract with dignity and respect for their partner. It is not necessary to rewrite the whole history of your marriage to justify a divorce.

More couples are creating rituals to end their marriage, with love and respect for the lives they have shared. While divorce is still hard, we are becoming more culturally aware that there has to be a better, less expensive and less painful way to do it, if so many of us are going to experience it at some point in our lives.

And five, marriage is no longer a guarantee of sexual fidelity. Monogamy is defined as 'being married to one person.' It is a legal term, pledging your love at the time of your wedding is not the same thing as making a legal vow against cheating. With the ease of access to online cheating, and the use of internet pornography, it is easier than ever for infidelity to interfere with a marriage. And with smart phones in hand, this is the first time in history where couples can cheat on their partner lying in bed next to them.

Studies show that 45 to 55% of people will stray at some point in their marriage. Some marriages may appear monogamous on the surface, but have secret affairs. Some have affairs and recover, moving on to a more committed type of marriage. Some partners negotiate a more fluid type of monogamy with outside partners or sexual agreements that do not threaten their emotional monogamy. The integrity of the relationship is maintained through emotional commitment, not sexual exclusivity.

These changes are happening now. But what will happen in the future? Fifty years from now?

Right now it takes two to marry but only one to end the marriage. The end of a marriage is usually defined by the decline of emotional feelings toward one partner, who then makes a unilateral decision that leads to a legal decision to end the contract.

In the future, in order to avoid this, marriage will be defined by shorter, more renewable contracts, in five year increments, or smaller two year contracts with options to renew. These agreements will be revisited at the end of their lease, and either renewed or ended, depending on how the requirements and expectations of the contract are being fulfilled. Both partners will make the decision to stay and renew or both will agree to move on. We renew our license every four years, why not renew our marriage contract?

In the future, gay marriage will have been legal for decades. More arrangements between couples will include open marriages with sexual agreements, polyamory will be more common and perhaps even polygamy will be visited in the legal system.

More of us will be bisexual, transexual and even more sexually androgonous than ever before. More babies will be born without clear gender identity and will not have surgery to assign a sex. We will judge less on sexual identity and more on how we treat one another.

More families will live in village like arrangements where expanded child care covers our offspring's needs and more of us contribute to the workplace based on our skills, interests and aptitudes. We will share resources, and work toward the reclaiming of our planet.

Even now, couples are waiting till later than ever before to marry, and some are freezing their eggs, hoping to put off child bearing. This will continue, with fertility treatment moving into egg donorship and surrogate parenting with less IVF and hormone treatment.

In the future, couples will have monogamy agreements that are defined early in their relationship and revisited often, in open, honest conversations that include their desires and fantasies, and are renewed with new visions of their relationship on a regular basis. Sex will be seen not as a threat to the relationship but as a way to maintain the individual's health and well being, and will not become compulsive or split off outside the marriage, since shame around it will have decreased. Sex will be integrated into a full, healthy, partnership, in any way the couple agrees to.

Right now, about 40% of Americans think marriage is obsolete as a concept. They are not sure it is even necessary. As a result, less couples than ever before are married, and marriage rates will continue to decline into the future. There is no longer motivation to marry. Couples no longer need to marry to have children, to pass on their property or to have sex. In one hundred years, marriage may not even exist.

But we will always want a primary partner. It is a basic human propensity to fall in love, to have a special person, an "other, " someone with whom we feel a deeper, more spiritual connection.

But could we have this connection with many partners, not just one? How many soulmates could we have in one lifetime? Right now we are practicing serial monogamy, moving from one marriage to a second and even a third, not really staying with the same mate till death do we part. Is it possible we are starting to recognize that we are living longer, and we may have the time for more than one important relationship within our lifetime?

But perhaps this makes sense. Perhaps as we evolve as humans we will understand that we do not have just one soulmate. This idea is lovely, but limiting. Perhaps we have many soulmates, perhaps a whole tribe of them that travel with us throughout our time on earth, those we have met and those we haven't met yet.

Or maybe, if we advance enough, we will learn that not only is our spouse our soulmate, but everyone we meet and everyone we see, throughout our whole lives, including strangers on the street, people on the news, those in other countries we will never know, those we hate, and those we love, all of them - they are all our soul mates.

Dr. Tammy Nelson is a sex and relationship expert and the author of The New Monogamy. She speaks internationally on global relational change.