Food for Thought

Contemporary Marriage:
From the Ideal to the Real

Have you noticed that the words "work" and "marriage" now commonly occur in the same sentence? Do you remember when they didn't? If you're less than 35 years old or thereabouts, you probably don't remember a time when those words weren't joined. That's because chances are that you were raised in a companionate marriage, sociology-speak for shared responsibility for bread-winning, child-rearing and home-making. Your parent's parents would have been raised in a traditional one (bread-winner/homemaker division of labor). In this short article I'll be taking you through the cultural forces which have led us to companionate marriage, at the end of which I'll lay out ten simple-to-say/not so-easy-to-implement guidelines geared to maximizing your satisfaction in your marriage.

In the days when traditional marriage (pre-1970) was the cultural norm, marriage was the end, as in "happily ever after," rather than the beginning. The "happily" part in the "ever after" was widely assumed to be a simple consequence of having achieved the married state. We didn't work on it; it just happened. Today, the end of single life, while generally considered a very good thing, is understood to be the beginning...of the work.

When traditional marriages worked, it was a beautiful thing... both partners satisfied with their job descriptions. Central to this mutual satisfaction was the appreciation each felt for, and showed to, the other for a job done well. This mutual appreciation caused the happiness part. The expectations were straightforward, understood by all, and, most important, completely achievable. Open communication, shared interest in the kids and great sex weren't entitlements but when, by happy accident, they did occur, they were experienced as the delicious icing on an already pretty good cake.

However, not everyone experienced the felicitous confluence of desire with role expectations and fulfillment. This was especially true when spouses failed to be satisfied with their mates' performance, or were satisfied but failed to let the other know. But many couples didn't have the financial resources to afford a stay-at-home homemaker so there were lots of women who worked at two full-time jobs... one in the home and the other outside with neither well paid (i.e., equal pay for equal work) in either dollars or appreciation. These issues sowed the seeds of the cultural sea changes subsequent to the women's movement of the 1970's and led to the contemporary ideal embodied in the companionate marriage (shared earning, child-rearing and home-making).

The companionate marriage is a really great concept in that it's predicated on a desire to have it all — fairness in shared responsibilities, meaningful careers, honest communication, emotional closeness and great sex — and a belief that that's possible. To say nothing of a belief in equal capabilities. These are really very admirable aspirations and beliefs, which is what makes it so annoying when the happiness part is so extraordinarily difficult to come by in marriages based on these aspirations. But since the alternatives to companionate marriage aren't all that wonderful, most couples these days keep their fingers crossed, hold their breath and jump in.

Prior to the early part of the 1900's, many women with independent incomes chose not to marry (see Jane Austen). They didn't need a breadwinner. The rest of us, men and women both, necessarily chose our partners primarily for their character (kindness, steadiness, responsibility and their ability to provide and work the farm (i.e., traditional marriage). We needed strong and steadfast partners, and lots of children, to be able to make a go of it in agrarian America. As industrialization proceeded and the need for child labor declined, people moved from the farm to the city where they required more education (for jobs), had fewer children (no need to work the farm) and began to enjoy a greater life span. This change led to more time together — both before and after child-rearing — and to opportunities for companionship and growth. Emotional/physical attraction became the benchmark for mate selection and companionate marriage was born.

Given the expectations in a companionate marriage (mutual and shared interests in careers, children and housework), it's not hard to understand why many companionate marriage partnerships, even (or maybe especially) when they work, slip into the feel of a sibling relationship, one in which a bed may be shared with little or no sexual or emotional intimacy. When children come along AND both partners continue to work outside the home, AND if they opt for the increasingly popular practice of "co-sleeping" with their babies/children in a family bed, time and energy for sexual intimacy is likely in very short supply. There is often an imbalance caused by the couples' focus on the children to the detriment of their own relationship, leaving little opportunity for the intimate time with one another necessary to the nurturing of any marriage. Even if the marriage lasts until the children leave home, there's a danger that there may be little closeness left between the partners...that they will feel like strangers to each other.

Companionate marriages tend to be the ones that many — maybe most – contemporary couples want, think they want or think they should want. But, since most of us are initially brought together by attraction (sexual, emotional, intellectual), we also hope for and want a romantic marriage with its attendant, exciting, initial spark and fun — remember the courtship? — and continuing sensuality. But, without a significant conscious effort, companionate marriage and romance are kind of mutually exclusive. Now please don't panic. I'm not saying it's impossible to achieve, just that it's not all that likely to just happen...without mindful intent. Hence, work.

In the next article, "Relationship Guidelines", you will find a list of guidelines to help you to maintain the good feelings of your early relationship and to achieve your goals of fairness and equality in your marriage. Don't expect to do them all, or to do them perfectly. Remember, these are merely guidelines for you to use and adapt to your own needs. They're neither rules, nor a test of you nor of the viability of your marriage.