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Why do we marry?

Posted on November 4, 2013 at 5:20 PM
November 4, 2013
This week’s post begins with a small “housekeeping” note: I’m going to start a running list of resources at the end of this blog.  The list will be alphabetical, and I’ll just keep adding to it as I use more references. None of it is required reading (although much of it is very interesting); it’s just a list of a few of the works that have informed my thinking on the subject of relationships.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming!
I ended my last post on a somewhat provocative note, asking, “Do we still marry for dynastic reasons?” At first glance, it might seem a silly question.  These days, how many of us have an actual “dynasty” to consider?  In the traditional sense, perhaps, not many of us, but in the broader sense, many of us do, indeed, consider the future of our family and fortune when it comes time to marry.
Of course, back in the day (and I do mean back), the most important dynastic reason for marriage was the production of legitimate heirs – those who would, one day, inherit the actual dynasty.  Historically, any family who owned property or other considerable assets had a vested interest in making sure their children “made a good marriage” (by financial measures, not emotional ones). It’s also important to bear in mind that, for much of history – in fact, well into the 20 century – the status of women was very different from the way it is today.  Until recently, women were not permitted to vote, own property, testify in court, or sign a contract (among numerous other things).  Before modern times (and even in some places today), a woman was basically her father’s property until she became the property of her husband; even today, a bride is walked down the aisle and “given away” in marriage.
Don’t worry; I’m not about to jump up on my soapbox about women’s rights!  I just want to acknowledge that the history of marriage – and of the rights of women and children – has left a significant mark upon our current idea of marriage.  What we expect marriage to be, what we think it should be, and what we unwittingly keep making it, is partly a legacy of what it has been in the past.
But with one in two U.S. marriages ending in divorce and infidelity affecting an estimated 40% of allegedly monogamous couples,marriage has hit a pretty bad patch. What, then, is the solution?  Do we throw up our hands, declare marriage a “bad deal,” and give up?  Do we try to turn the clock back to…when?  Exactly when was it that marriage was really working for everyone involved?
Many people idealize the 1950s, thinking that “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best” had it right. Mom at home, Dad at work, and the kids in school, seems like a picture of domestic bliss.  But that’s what it was – a picture – and it wasn’t even a particularly accurate picture.  It was a picture of actors portraying roles. They acted their parts.  It’s easy to make everything turn out well in 30 minutes when everyone knows their lines. But let’s not kid ourselves.  Jane Wyatt was a working actor.  She may have had children of her own off the set, but she was bringing home a paycheck.  Not exactly traditional.
These days, we want marriage to provide some of the traditional benefits – like stability, companionship and children – but we also want emotional support, sexual satisfaction, and emotional intimacy.  In short, we want our spouse to be our “best friend” (with benefits!).  But that’s not what traditional marriage has been about.  Traditionally, marriage has been more about what you do rather than who you are.  Next week, I’ll talk more about that, and about how we can improve our marriages by improving ourselves.


Coontz, Stephanie (2005) Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage
Gottman, John (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Graff, E. J. (1999) What is Marriage For?
Lerner, Harriet (1989) The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts    of Change in Key Relationships
Lerner, Harriet (2001) The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate
Mazur, Ronald (2000) The New Intimacy: Open-Ended Marriage and Alternative Lifestyles
O’Neill, Nena & O’Neill, George (1984) Open Marriage
Random Facts (website) 63 Interesting Facts About Marriage, retrieved from on October 21, 2013
Real, Terrence (2007) The New Rules of Marriage

Categories: Marriage