Marriage is traditionally conceived to be a legally recognized relationship, between an adult male and female, that carries certain rights and obligations. However, in contemporary societies, marriage is sometimes interpreted more liberally and the phrase ‘living as married’ indicates that for many purposes it makes no sense to exclude cohabitation. It should be noted, however, that even this more liberal definition usually excludes homosexual couples. Although cohabitation is increasingly accepted, and is now the normal prelude to marriage, people continue to make a distinction between living together and a ‘proper’ wedding and marriage.
Much recent sociological research, both in Britain and America, has been concerned with the growing fears that marriage as an institution is in decline. These fears stem from two roots, the first being concern for increasing marital breakdown and subsequent divorce, and the second the fact that marriage is going out of fashion, with more people cohabiting and even rearing children outside matrimony. Certainly, divorce is on the increase, and if current divorce-rates in Britain continue then one in three marriages is likely to end in divorce. In recent years, the median age at first marriage has increased and teenage marriages have declined significantly, with a growing proportion, albeit still a small minority, never getting married. At the same time, rates of cohabitation are increasing, with it now being virtually the norm to cohabit before marrying. Moreover, an increasing number of children are conceived and born outside marriage. Looking at these statistics, one might reasonably conclude that the future of marriage looks bleak, but marriage still remains the preferred way of life for the vast majority of the adult population. Even among those whose first marriage fails, a majority are sufficiently optimistic to marry a second time.
Why do people marry? In Western societies, the emotional aspects of marriage are stressed, and what Lawrence Stone calls affective individualism prevails (see The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, 1977). Choice of a mate is influenced primarily by the desire for a relationship offering affection and love-although, as Peter Berger observes, the ‘lightning shaft of Cupid seems to be guided rather strongly within very definite channels of class, income, education, racial and religious background’ (see Invitation to Sociology, 1963). The tendency for people of similar backgrounds to marry (marital homogamy) is strong, but there is no clear understanding of why it occurs, or whether the degree of rigidity in mate selection differs among different social groups. Surprisingly, some recent American research suggests that the higher the class position, the less the homogamy (, Dating, Mating, and Marriage, 1990). The same study also indicates that homogamy is a poor predictor of marital success.
Concern with marital success and marital adjustment has played an increasingly prominent part in recent research. As David Morgan (The Family, 1985) suggests, marriage has become ‘medicalized’, with therapists and marriage-guidance counsellors at the ready to tackle marital problems and enhance marital quality. This raises the question of how marital success should be measured. Clearly, stability is not a sufficient indicator, as some couples stay together even though they are totally miserable, whereas others divorce, despite having a relationship that some would envy. A variety of marital quality inventories have been developed and recently it has been recognized that marital quality and marital problems are in fact independent. For example, conflict and arguments may be signs of caring and engagement in some marriages.
Marriages clearly face different problems at different times of the life-cycle , and raising a family, especially for parents of younger children, is associated with high marital strain. Remarriages appear to be at greater risk of breaking up than first marriages, especially when step-children are involved. This may be in part because remarriage is an incomplete institution, in the sense that societal expectations and norms still reflect the traditional expectation that marriages will last a lifetime. As Anthony Giddens has pointed out, terms like ‘broken marriages’ and ‘broken homes’ embody the traditional ideal and have unfortunate negative connotations, especially regarding children whose parents are separated or divorced.
Increasingly, research is focusing on the interrelationship of employment and family life, including marriage. The primary focus has been on how women's employment has affected the marital relationship. Using longitudinal surveys, American researchers have found that women who contribute a higher share of the household income are more likely to divorce than women who contribute a lower share, or housewives. It may be that wives who become less dependent upon their husbands financially are no longer willing to tolerate a subservient position-and have the resources that enable them to leave. Another important question is whether the employment of women has led to greater egalitarianism within marriage. Some family researchers have painted a rosy picture of how families are becoming more symmetrical, whereas others continue to exercise scepticism, asserting that the traditional division of labour within the home persists, even when women also hold full-time employment.
Jessie Bernard (The Future of Marriage, 1972) has claimed that there is not one marriage but two-the wife's marriage and that of the husband. Studies have consistently shown that marriage tends to be more beneficial for men than for women, with married men being in better psychological health, and showing fewer symptoms of stress than married women. Some feminists who see marriage as an oppressive institution have urged women not to marry. The inequalities of marriage, however, are reflections of the inequalities of the sexes in society. As Chris Harris states, ‘it is to be expected that however great the formal equality between the spouses, wives’ sense of inequality in marriage will persist as long as they cannot, for whatever reason, participate on equal terms with men in the labour-market' (Family and Industrial Society, 1983). Bernard goes further, suggesting that the metamorphosis of housewife to bread-winner sends tremors through every relationship. Dual-earning marriages are sowing the seeds of change. However, despite the dire statistics, marriage seems to be a rather resilient institution; perhaps, very gradually, the benefits for both husband and wife will become more balanced. See also role, conjugal ; domestic division of labour ; dual-career marriage ; family, symmetrical ; household allocative system.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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