More and more people are asking themselves, “What is the purpose of marriage? Do we need or even want to be married anymore? What does it take to have true companionship?”
In order to get the answer, it’s important to look at the history of marriage and understand its purpose and relative appeal.
So, what is the purpose of marriage?
Dictionary.com defines “marriage” as “an interpersonal union established in various parts of the world to form a familial bond that is recognized legally, religiously or socially, granting the participating partners mutual conjugal rights and responsibilities and including, for example, opposite-sex marriage, plural marriage and arranged marriage.”
In the United States, marriages tend to be legal, religious, and/or social between either opposite-sex or same-sex couples. And everyone wants about the same things.
It appears that the purpose of marriage has changed over the years, with the primary elements today being:
1. Emotional partnership and connection.
2. Personal fulfillment and growth.
3. The expression of love and sexuality.
Everyone wants to have love, sex, and a strong foundation for the building of a family.
As a marriage therapist, I occasionally encounter couples who do not want children but still consider each other family (along with various dogs and cats).
And of course, there are couples who practice polyamory or open marriages, where sex is not monogamous.
The history of marriage
Until around 1850, we lived in the age of “institutional marriage.” The union was based on the need to help each other with food production, shelter, and protection. This was its purpose.
Then roughly, between about 1850 and 1965, because of the shift from rural to urban life, American marriages focused more on intimate needs like loving, being loved, and an active sexual life.
Sociologists call that era, “companionate marriage.”
Why do people get married?
Today, most people are focused on a “self-expressive marriage.” They look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.
And while satisfying, these higher-level needs yield greater happiness. It requires more time, energy, and work to get there.
Unfortunately, average Americans are investing less in their intimate relationships, to the detriment of these relationships.
They are stressed, overworked, and financially challenged. And in fact, people from lower socioeconomic levels divorce 30 percent more often than their wealthier counterparts.
As long as socioeconomic circumstances or individual choices undermine the investment of time and energy in our relationships, our marriages are likely to fall short of our era’s expectations.
The research findings seem to indicate that the average American marriage is weaker than the average marriage of the past, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate.
But the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being, than marriages used to be.
What makes a strong marriage?
Researchers believe that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can, in fact, achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality if they invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership.
In this way, marriage in America has become an “all-or-nothing” proposition.
A married couple can choose to invest more time and energy in their marriage if possible. If not, they might be wise to adjust their expectations and cultivate an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other’s self-actualization.
Relationship therapists have a greater understanding of how to help couples than ever before. We’ve come to believe, through the study of neuroscience, that humans are “wired for connection.”
There are a variety of paradigms and techniques being utilized in therapy to help couples get happier and more connected in their marriages.
There are books, workbooks, podcasts, classes, workshops, and retreats all aimed at helping couples to elevate their levels of happiness and commitment.
The good news is that with help, marriages can flourish today like never before.
Men and women tend to want and need different things in their marriages.
In his book, “His Needs, Her Needs, Building an Affair-Proof Marriage,” William F. Harley interviewed a large sample of people.
He found that wives are happiest in their marriages when their husbands offer the following:
Affection: Frequent non-sexual, non-demanding touching.
Conversation: The number one way for women to connect is a mutual verbal dialogue that involves good listening.
Honesty and openness: Share your thoughts, emotions, and activities. Don’t hide or deceive.
Financial Support: Provide financially for your family and take care of them.
Family Commitment: Be active in supporting and nurturing the children and your wife.
Sexual Fulfillment: Men feel emotionally close to their wives when they have regular physical intimacy.
Recreational Companionship: Men tend to connect through activities — games, outdoors, sports, movies, etc.
An Attractive Spouse: Wife makes an effort to keep herself up — hair, makeup, and clothing, etc.
Domestic Support: Keeps the home nice and inviting and she regularly demonstrates that he comes first in her life.
Admiration: Men need to be admired and feel that you believe in them.
What are the signs of a healthy marriage?
In light of this research, the signs of a healthy marriage would most likely include all ten of the needs listed by Harley for both parties to feel fulfilled.
Other signs of a healthy marriage include:
Respectful, open, honest communication
Vulnerability and intimacy
Teamwork or Partnering
Gratitude for one another
For those choosing marriage, hard work and devotion can result in a happier version of marriage than ever before.
Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit her website.