There are several ways in which family unions can be analyzed. They can be static, focusing on structures (e.g., role relations) or they can capture dynamic processes (e.g., such as how role relationships between husband and wife or parent and child change over time) and how they are related to socio-cultural changes (i.e., the impact of the women's movement on the increasing age of women at first marriage). Here let's consider how family processes change from the genesis of the marital unit until it concludes with the death of one spouse.
There seems to be a human need for genesis stories, from the Big Bang cosmogony of physics to the child's question "Mommy, how did you and Daddy meet?" In addition, there is the assumption that the quality of beginning experiences shapes or frames all that follows, evidenced in our cultural efforts to provide happy childhoods and our personal efforts to "start off on the right foot." There seems to be little question that courtship has changed. How have these changes affected the quality of eventual marital relations?
From a sociobiological perspective, courtship rituals are determined by the differential energies invested by the two sexes when raising their young. The sex contributing the most time and energy raising the young tend to be more coy and selective of their mates, who compete for attention.
In Feudal times, bride-capture was an accepted means for obtaining a wife in many parts of the world, and the practice continued into the nineteenth century. A man wishing to marry a woman would enlist the help of his best friend, the first "best man", and together they would set off for the hunt. Many women, knowing in advance of their pending "capture," didn't bother putting up a fight.
In Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America, historian Ellen Rothman argues that courtships have become more sexually intimate than those in past but are also less emotionally intimate. (For illustrations of this greater emotional intimacy see Digital History's Courtship in Early America.) One indicator of such change can be found in the love letter. In part, this change reflects the trend toward marriage becoming a more romantic and sexual union (see review of Eva Illouz's Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism) . While about a century ago courtship was to be "more carefully supervised and more formal than at any time since the Revolution" (check out "The Language of Love," rules of romance Victorian-style) within three decades this courtship structure had nearly disappeared, replaced by the dating system that moved courtship out of the home and into the public world outside of family surveillance.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Instead of marrying that guy or gal next door, one whom one knows well, contemporary marriages are between strangers. In our accelerated society I guess that we could have predicted it: speed dating. How about ten or twenty 6- or 8-minute dates in one evening? Plenty of time to discover compatibility--and one only needs a few hundred seconds to make that wondrous first impression!
If there are accelerated dates then why not accelerated matings? On the college campus scene, changing demographics (in 1997 there were 79 male students for every 100 females, down from roughly 240 in 1950) and contracting free time have produced new forms of pairing in addition to dating: "hookups" and "joined at the hips" relationships. According to "Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: Women on Mating and Dating Today," a report (released in August, 2001) funded by the Independent Women's Forum and conducted by the Institute for American Values (Norval Glenn, principal investigator), "Ninety-one percent of the respondents said hookups, defined as 'when a girl and a guy get together for a sexual encounter and don't necessarily expect anything further,' occurred 'very often' (50 percent) or 'fairly often' at their schools." Forty percent of college women had themselves experienced a hookup (10% having had six or more such encounters). Only half of the respondents reported having been on six or more dates; one-third reported having dated only two times or less. On the other hand, many women were also entering accelerated relationships featuring virtual inseparability with their mates. Eighty-two percent of the college women agreed with the statement "Being married is a very important goal for me." Observed Elizabeth Marquardt, one of the report's principal authors, "The college social scene does not seem to support these women's aspirations for long-term commitment." Perhaps that, in part, underlies the growing number of anti-Valentine sites on the web.
A "hot" topic many researchers are pursing these days is cyber-romance. Want to meet a nice Midwesterner? Go to Country Singles. For one hundred bucks a year match.com online matchmaking can put you in touch with "thousands of terrific professional singles." Guys, feel threatened by the modern female? Mail order a traditional bride from a developing nation.
Another courtship topic receiving attention is dating violence. According to a study appearing in the August 1, 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (n=4163 Massachusetts public school students; Jay G. Silverman principal investigator), one in five high school girls has been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner--significantly increasing her likelihood of drug abuse, suicide or other self-destructive behavior.
A 1989 study of the National Institutes of Health found that the percentage of Americans who lived with someone before their first marriage quadrupled from 11 percent in the late 1960s to 44 percent in the early 1980s. By the early 1990s, according to the Census Bureau, more than half of all marriages now follow cohabitation, with the number of people living together without marriage having increased some 80 percent between 1980 and 1991.
Concurrent with this demographic trend were reports of high divorce rates in Western societies where cohabitation had become commonplace, and that those married couples who had once cohabitated were more likely to break-up. Here, using the results of the 1994 NORC General Social Survey, let's investigate the social distribution of this phenomenon and some of its implications. That year, Americans were asked the following questions:
Twenty-nine percent of those surveyed said they had, indeed, lived with their eventual spouse prior to marriage. Below is a breakdown of these individuals:
PERCENT HAVING PREVIOUSLY COHABITED
WITH CURRENT SPOUSE BY AGE AND SEX
Besides the age variations in premarital cohabitation, several other correlates are worth noting:
PERCENT HAVING PREVIOUSLY COHABITED
WITH CURRENT SPOUSE BY WHETHER/NOT PREVIOUSLY MARRIED
Let's turn to Americans' attitudes toward the practice. Here are the marginals of the first two questions:
So what is the relationship between whether or not one previously cohabited with one's current spouse by believing that it is good idea for a couple who intend to get married to live together first?
PERCENT BELIEVING IT'S A GOOD IDEA TO LIVE
BEFORE MARRIAGE BY OWN COHABITATION HISTORY,
MARITAL HISTORY AND SEX
|FIRST MARRIAGE||PREV. DIVORCE|
Okay, so what's the bottom line? Is there any difference in the marital satisfactions of husbands and wives whether or not they cohabited before marriage?
PERCENT "VERY HAPPY" WITH
BY COHABITATION HISTORY, MARITAL HISTORY AND SEX
|FIRST MARRIAGE||PREV. DIVORCE|
Observe that having cohabited with one's eventual spouse produces little difference in the marital satisfactions of women. For men, regardless of their previous marital history, those not having cohabited are significantly more likely to report being very happy than those who had.
Since the contemporary norm is for strangers to marry strangers--as opposed to entering a union the the proverbial guy or gal next door, whom one has known for most of one's life--and with the commodification of all aspects of marital life in our service- oriented economy, the emergence of new industries for checking out the biographies of potential spouses should come as no surprise. Private eyes of GAL-SADD Investigators, for instance, will check out the background of prospective beaus. You may wish to check out your relationship with a compatibility calculator.
Is there the threat of past romantic liaisons threatening your relationship? In Japan, where the vast majority of men demand a virgin bride and a majority of unmarried women have had a lover, plastic surgeons and gynecologists perform "hymen rebirth" operations. Practitioners, according to the London Sunday Times, have profited handsomely "out of human perversity, ... [reconstructing] for a big fee, what one man has destroyed, so that another man can destroy it afterwards" (cited in Charles McCabe, "Becoming a Virgin," San Francisco Chronicle, October 9, 1974:45).
Increasingly we hear of prenuptial agreements being made between prospective spouses. One genre, such as Stanford's Hillel Foundation's "Private Tenaim", details and compares the expectations individuals bring to their relationship, such as how children are to be raised and willingness to take in enfeebled parents. Another, representing a new legal niche in a society of divorce, addresses the distribution of familial assets should the marriage fail. See, for instance, Michael Fay's "Prenuptial Agreements: Promoting or Undermining Sound Family Relations and Sound Family Businesses?"
Marriage is a lottery in which men stake their liberty and
women their happiness.
--Madame Virginie de Rieux, 16th-century French writer
By the mid-1990s the average wedding cost in the United States was approaching $20,000. What better way to spend this than at Walt Disney World where, since 1991, one can have a Fairy Tale Wedding? For only $100,000 (at least in 1993) one can have the full Cinderella wedding, with the bride arriving in a glass carriage drawn by six white horses and with a reception backdropped by a 60-foot high replica of Cinderella's castle. Dessert is a chocolate slipper filled with mousse.
Examples of marriage rituals from around the world:
In the early 1990s, according to the Census Bureau, the median age of Americans at their first marriage represented the highest age for both men and women since 1890, when their ages were 26.1 and 22.0. (For full statistical breakdowns see the Centers for Disease Control's FASTATS. The significance of these folks presenting such information is anyone's guess!) As can be seen in the graph below, the ages of men and women when first saying "I do" has increased significantly from 1956, when their median ages were 22.5 and 20.1 respectively. This delay in marriage was greatest among African Americans, with 22 percent of black women age 40 to 44 having never been married, compared with 7 percent of white women and 9 percent of Hispanic women.
What difference does age at first marriage make upon the fate of the union? Looking at the combined results of the 1973-94 NORC General Social Surveys, we find among Americans 30 years of age and older (just to give them time to get married and divorced), the following relationship between between age at first marriage and divorce history:
PERCENT OF AMERICANS 30 AND OLDER
HAVING DIVORCED BY AGE AND SEX
|AGE AT FIRST
It has often been noted how males typically receive the better deal in marriage. For instance, click here to see the spousal differences in contributions to household chores. Such gender inequities in duties may, however, be diminishing among younger generations. For example, according to 1997 and 1946 Gallup surveys, the percentage of husbands helping with cooking has increased from 40% to 73% and the proportion helping at least frequently with dishes has increased from 31% to 47%.
Over the years, NORC General Social Surveys have asked married individuals: "Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Consistently more than 6 out of 10 Americans described their marriage as being "very happy." Looking at the combined 1973-94 General Social Surveys we find:
PERCENT OF ONCE-MARRIED INDIVIDUALS
THEIR RELATIONSHIP AS "VERY HAPPY"
BY LENGTH OF MARRIAGE, SEX & EDUCATION
In 1987, ABC News and the Washington Post surveyed Americans about the quality and equality of emotional communication in their relationships. Among the findings of those in romantic relationships:
Certainly one measure of power inequality in marital relationships is the age difference of spouses. Over the course of this century, as female rights have increased the age advantage of husbands over wives has declined from roughly 4 years to 2. According to the 1994 NORC General Social Survey, wives are older than their husbands in 17.5% of American couples and equal in age in an additional 13.4%. The more education the wife has the more likely she will be the same age or older than her spouse, from 21% of those without a high school diploma to 37% of those with at least some post-secondary education. Below is a breakdown of age differences by respondents' age and marital history. In the right-most column observe how, in general, this age difference increases with age.
MEAN AGE ADVANTAGE (IN YEARS) OF HUSBANDS OVER
BY RESPONDENTS' AGE AND MARITAL HISTORY
Of course, let not those successful fiftysomething males seeking out their younger "trophy wives" forget Benjamin Franklin's 8 reasons to marry an older woman in his "Advice to a Young Man" (June 25, 1745):
1. Because they have more knowledge of the world, and their minds are better stored with observations; their conversation is more improving, and more lastingly agreeable.
2. Because when women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their influence over men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a thousand services, small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old woman who is not a good woman.
3. Because there is no hazard of children, which irregularly produced may be attended with much inconvenience.
4. Because through more experience they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an intrigue to prevent suspicion. The commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your reputation, and with regard to theirs, if the affair should happen to be known, considerate people might be rather inclined to excuse an old woman, who would kindly take care of a young man, form his manners by her good counsels, and prevent his ruining his health and fortune among mercenary prostitutes.
5. Because in every animal that walks upright, the deficiency of the fluids that fill the muscles appears first in the highest part. The face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the neck; then the breast and arms; the lower parts continuing to the last as plump as ever; so that covering all above with a basket, and regarding only what is below the girdle, it is impossible of two women to know an old one from a young one. And as in the dark all cats are grey, the pleasure of corporal enjoyment with an old woman is at least equal and frequently superior; every knack being by practice capable of improvement.
6. Because the sin is less. The debauching of a virgin may be her ruin, and make her life unhappy.
7. Because the compunction is less. Having made a young girl miserable may give you frequent bitter reflections, none of which can attend making an old woman happy.
8th and lastly. They are so grateful!
In Sheryl Tynes's study "Educational Heterogamy and Marital Satisfaction." (Social Science Research, 1990, 19:153-174), she found in her sample of roughly 200 couples (oversampled for professionals) that when husbands had more education than their wives, both partners reported less than happy marriages with more disagreement and less positive feedback. Conversely, when the wife had more education, both partners reported more satisfaction with the marriage. Let's investigate this relationship using the combined 1973-94 NORC General Social Surveys, looking at the relationship between educational heterogamy and responses to the question "Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Let's further break down spouses' responses by their educational level.
In our sample of 17,453 married individuals, wives had the greater education in 31.6% of the relationships, husbands more in 36.9%, and in 31.5% of the unions the spouses had identical years of schooling. Females are most likely to have the educational advantage in the oldest cohorts (in about 42% of the marriages of those born before 1910), among African American couples (45% vs. 30% of white couples), and among the lower social classes (in 41% of lower class families versus 34% of working class, 29% of middle class, and 24% of upper class families).
PERCENT OF HUSBANDS AND WIVES "VERY
WITH THEIR MARRIAGE BY EDUCATION & SPOUSAL EDUCATION DIFFERENCES
|0-11 YRS||HS GRAD||SOME COL||4+ YRS COL||0-11 YRS||HS GRAD||SOME COL||4+YRS COL|
As can be seen, our results differ from those of Tynes, whose generalization only seems to apply to males with the most and least education. For women with at least a high school diploma, the results show the reverse to be the case: the greater the husbands' education relative to the wives', the greater their likelihood of reporting to be "very happy."
The following table, from the combined 1973-94 NORC GSS, generated some interest in our Spring 1997 Family course, where we considered the relationship between spousal age differences and responses to the statement "Do you agree or disagree with this statement?: Women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men."
From the right-most TOTAL column we see that with increasing educational advantages of wives, Americans are increasingly likely to agree that a woman's place is at home. When breaking this down by sex, observe that this relationship is only significant for husbands: those men in marriages where the wife has the greater education are 50 percent more likely to agree that a woman's place is at home than those marriages where the educational advantage is in the male's favor. For women, on the other hand, educational differences has no relationship with their attitudes toward women's place in society.
How would you interpret these results? The absence of relationship among females could be explained in terms of their gender role, which, according to Deborah Tannen (You Just Don't Understand!), seeks to minimize interpersonal differences in order to maintain interpersonal bonds (unlike the male role, which is based more on competition and hierarchy). It is tempting to interpret the increasing likelihood of husbands agreeing that a woman's place is at home as educational differences shift in their wives' favor as some defensive reaction to the threat of their spouses' greater power in their relationship.
But with the sociological imagination, hopefully you sense their might be other, more sociological factors at work. First, for instance, there is the matter of social class. The lower the class the greater the likelihood of Americans to agree a woman's place is at home (in this study, 41% of lower class individuals agreed, compared with 34% of working class individuals, 29% of the middle class, and 24% of those in the upper class). Further, the lower the class the greater the likelihood of wives having the educational advantage (which is the case in 41% of lower class couples, compared with 34% of working class couples, 29% of middle class couples, and 24% of couples in the upper class.
Second, recall that this is a longitudinal data set and that Americans in general are, over time, decreasingly likely to agree with this statement (from 36% in 1973-76 to 16% in 1991-94). Also decreasing over time is the percentage difference in the percent agreeing a woman's place is at home between educationally-dominant wife vs. husband households: in the 1973-76 period, 43% of those in the former agreed compared to 30% of those in couples where the husband had the greater education; by the nineties, these percentages were 15% and 14% respectively. And then there are matters of age: in this combined sample, those 65 and older are 10 percentage points more likely to have educationally-dominant wives (38%) than those 18 to 30 (28%). This difference in age groups is greater the earlier the survey: in the mid-70s, 44% of those 65 and older were in couples where the wife had the greater education versus 23% of those 18 to 30. By the 1990s, this 21 percentage point difference between the oldest and youngest couples disappears to almost zero.
If we control of survey year, age, and education, 30% of husbands in unions where they have the greater education agree a woman's place is at home versus 26% agreeing where the wife has the most education. In other words, for them, the relationship flip-flops, albeit slightly. For women, when these variables are controlled for, those in relationships where they have the greater education are slightly more likely to believe a woman's place is at home (27%) than where the husband has the greater education (23%).