The institution of traditional marriage is disintegrating. The pace of disintegration is accelerating. It may not be obvious to most, but over the last 50 years, old patterns of family formation and operation have been first eroded and now, increasingly abandoned. There is a growing sense of chaos and uncertainty about the future of our basic unit of social organization. Some have even forecast the demise of traditional marriage.
Much of what we know about these changes and trends has come from the Pew Research Center. For example: People are marrying later -- into their late 20s on average, but into their 30s and 40s as well -- rather than their late teens and early 20s, as they did when a hit song of the time proclaimed, "Love (sex) and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage... You can't have one, without the other." The advent of reliable birth control changed that tune.
Pew data confirms, growing numbers are not marrying at all. Instead they are forming couples that live together for varying periods and with varying levels of commitment. There is the endemic breakdown of family structure among the chronically poor. There are the live-togethers -- testing the relationship, planning marriage and saving money. And there are the couples who have determined that the costs of marriage outweigh the benefits, and so are in relationships committed to both each other and to remaining unwed.
This pool of unwed couples and parents, together with the divorce rate that hovers around 50 percent, have resulted in a dramatic decline in the proportion of children living with both of their biological parents, from 85 percent in 1967 to 58 parents in 2014.
These changes are contributed to by changes in the economic relationship of couples. Data for 2014 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that during the same 50 year (1967 - 2014) period, the number of families supported by a husband's income alone dropped by nearly half from 36 percent to 19 percent, while the percentage of full-time working wives grew to 56.4 percent. And 28 percent of those wives earn more than their husbands.
Are all of the trends toward further disintegration? Will marriage become old-fashioned, like having a land line? To the contrary,the basics of marriage have transformed before. There are signs that a new collaborative marriage paradigm is in the offing.
For more than 500 years the sine qua non of marriage was love and romance. They have been part of our evolutionary makeup forever. They push us in the direction of forming bonded couples for purposes of breeding and rearing offspring. Thankfully, they are not going away. But, technology and science have altered the need and undermined the effectiveness of our evolutionary survival tools. Over the past half millennium, life spans have more than doubled and infant mortality and childhood deaths have been dramatically reduced. An early start to reproduction is no longer essential to humanity's survival. While, in the past male and female duties were distinct and defined, today's couples are able to share and divide the tasks and responsibilities of life as they choose, varying them over time as needs and priorities change.
It has been theorized that love and romance (at least of the kind experienced by people of traditional marrying age) are not built for the long haul. They remain important in the initial mate selection process, but increasingly, couples are looking at a set of follow-on criteria that seek to embody rational considerations. Couples are seeking assurances of compatibility (a two billion dollar computer compatibility matching business). Where in the past, couples thought it romantic to venture out together to face, and hopefully conquer, the challenges life would send them, today's young, better educated, economically mobile couples are testing the romantic impulse. They are experimenting with ways to ensure themselves of a better, stronger basis for lasting commitment. They are beginning to want a collaboratively worked-out and agreed-upon vision and plan for the future, before they commit to each other.
My professional contacts tell me that family and divorce lawyers around the country are beginning to be approached by couples who want their relationship in marriage to be negotiated beforehand and committed to writing. Marriage and mental health counselors are being approached by couples who are not seeking therapy or counseling for problems in their relationship, but for advice on how to foresee and avoid having problems arise. These new professional roles aren't limited to the U.S., but are showing up in Canada, England and Australia, and there is interest and movement in Europe as well.
Couples, committed family-rearing relationships, and weddings are not going away, but changing societal conditions, including the rate and trauma of divorce need to be addressed, as noted here, by making the decision of who to marry a blend of the romantic and the rational, and making the operation and conduct of the marriage relationship one that more consistently uses the tools of collaboration and teamwork.
The pieces of this "new marriage" -- a vision for the future, a plan for moving toward that vision, and a documented partnership agreement, are being developed and integrated to meet the need for a system that will produce more successful, durable and satisfying marriages and minimize the need for divorce. Ironically, it is collaborative divorce professionals who are leading the effort to build a new and better marriage, one that will hopefully serve us well for the next 500 years.