Will alternative lifestyles and partnering relationships replace the institution of marriage or is it simply experiencing a cyclical crisis that reflects the economic contraction? The most recent public opinion poll in the US finds that 4 out of 10 people believe marriage is obsolete. The majority stay married in a quasi-content situation out of consideration for children, relatives, friends, tradition, religion, social status, and social acceptance.
Americans under the age of thirty believe marriage will become extinct, although in reality at least 70% of all adults have been married at least once. On the one hand, this is remarkable for an industrialized urban society with a 'disposable' fast-food culture peddled by a corporate marketing machine on a daily basis. On the other hand, the high marriage rates make sense as a byproduct of the commercialization of culture. As a 'big gala event' to satisfy atomistic proclivities, which are contrary to the essence of marriage as a partnering relationship of self-sacrifice for the other, marriage starts out as a mirage.
Besides the one-hundred year-old movement toward institutional equality for women and the reality that more women have been entering the workforce in the last half century, there are other social and psychological dynamics at work. The more the conservative and/or religious the married couple, the less likely they are to divorce. Traditional societies (Muslim, Hindu, Catholic) are much more likely to encourage marriage and discourage divorce than secular societies, especially in Western countries. Although marriage seems to be more compatible with traditional societies that rest on a collectivist value system, it has also existed under individualistic/materialistic Western value systems for a very long time, partly because it meets peoples' psychological/emotional, physical, religious, social, economic needs.
In large measures marriage is socioeconomically determined, thus there are variations in marriages rates and divorce rates during economic expansion vs. contraction. In the Western World, people in the past few decades have been getting married at a later age, in comparison with those of the WWII generation, and certainly much later in comparison to those in many 'traditional' societies.
It is also interesting to note that in the US marriage and divorce rates are stabilizing, with an astounding 55% of all married couples celebrating 15 years of marriage, a figure that drops as we move up in years of marriage.The question of 'content marriage', 'hypocrisy-free marriage' is another issue, even for those sticking with this ancient institution.
There are those who argue that easier divorce laws in the US and Europe in the last sixty years are responsible for the sharp rise in divorce rates. Others maintain that feminism, gay rights groups, the decline of commitment to religious faith, and the increased exposure to licentious print and visual material are responsible for rising divorce rates. It is indeed true that in Western countries there has been a drop in marriage rates in the past fifty years, a rise in divorce, a rise in alternative lifestyles, and a drop in birth rates, the latter more so in Europe than the US. The question is what accounts for these trends?
Moral decline, boredom, routine, and predictability are among the reasons the marriage becomes stale, but lack of common world view, interests, values, and way of life also contribute. High profile infidelity and high profile divorce cases of celebrities filter down to the rest of society that questions the institution itself as a relic of the past that is completely inconsistent with the 21st century secular world of immediate-gratification culture where people dispose of old partners as they do their old automobiles.
The ultimate question is what is the purpose of marriage and can this institution be replaced by another more consistent with human nature? For thousands of years, marriage was a business arrangement based on social class, extended family relations, tribal/village alliances, a form of social security, a religious ritual signifying rite of passage, maintaining attachment to property, and securing extension of the patriarchal lineage. Historically, people in traditional societies married through an arrangement to merge their fortunes, and to satisfy extended family and community, but not for love like Romeo and Juliet. That Shakespearean Renaissance notion was rarely the reality for the vast majority of people until the late 19th century, but even class more or less determined marriage.
A few years ago, a German activist proposed that marriage ought to be based on a renewable 7-year term to which both parties agreed. There are also those who insist that marriage today for some people is more of a business arrangement than buying a home. If marriage is a business, the question is whether the institution itself is finished or simply undergoing a marketing makeover.
Marriage as the ideal of two people merging their 'professed eternal love' is indeed suffering a crisis because people change along with their circumstances, so they are not in the same existential state at 50 as they were at 35 when they married. In short, the contradiction between the permanent and absolute state of marriage versus the reality of the constantly changing state of mind in which people find themselves is the root cause of discord in marriages.
The idea of two people living together as partners with the intent to procreate will continue for centuries, but the duration and modalities of such relationships is unknown. That marriage represents 'eternity' goes against the reality of temporal and fluid human existence. That hypocrisy enters into the marriage relationship is to be expected, as there has to some way to preserve it, so hypocrisy becomes the catalyst to survival.
During the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a drop of childbirth owing to a sense of pessimism about society in general. Could Western Civilization be undergoing a similar experience today with the combination of downward social mobility; disintegration of bourgeois values whose core is rotten and exposed as such by the institutions it upholds.
Some progressive thinkers and feminists could argue that marriage by definition entails conformity to society and traditions, if not enslavement for the woman in a male-dominated world. Therefore, the decline of marriage or the evolution of partnering relationships is a step in the right direction and does not entail the decline morals, social conformity, or civilization.
Considering that people lack any sense of egalitarianism in all societal institutions, marriage is regarded as the one institution where such egalitarian bliss can be a reality, that is, until it becomes clear that reality has been built on myth and illusion. The clash between the 'ugly reality of an unhappy marriage' and the 'myth and illusion' formulated by a romantic imagination before marriage account for people living in semi-content, stale, or miserable marriages, or eventually going their separate ways. Is this the fault of individuals, society that conditions the mind, of both, other?