Is Marriage Overblown? (RJS)

Scot brought an article to my attention a few weeks ago – with little to do with science, yet much worth thinking about. This article, All the Single Ladies, by Kate Bolik was published in Nov. 2011 issue of The Atlantic. In her essay Bolik explores many aspects of marriage and relationship in 21st century America. She begins on a personal level:

In 2001, when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

The opening of this article caught me. I was about the same age, concentrating on graduate school and a potential career when faced with the same kind of question. We’ve been married 25 years now – and I have no doubt that it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But what would life have held under other circumstances?

The article by Bolik points to a real shift in the view of marriage and family, at least in some circles. For most of history marriage was primarily a political and economic contract – it established family ties and provided a team to face the challenges of life, the efforts of two adults were a requisite in most circumstances. This necessity of marriage was especially true for women, but was also true for men.  But marriage is no longer necessary for prosperity or even for parenthood. Marriage is something expected, to be entered into if the right circumstance appears, but not lightly or out of necessity. Not only is marriage unnecessary – many are increasingly feeling that it isn’t even desirable. Kate Bolik quotes a statistic from the Pew Research Center: “a full 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete.” If marriage is not obsolete – the value and purpose of marriage is at least viewed as overblown and distorted.

Do you see a growing view of marriage as obsolete?

And a related question …

Do we over idealize and stress the married couple?

Bolik’s opening story of her break-up with Allan weaves through her essay as she rambles through many different lifestyles and aspects of modern life and modern relationships, exploring different factors at play in the comparison of reality with the idealized marriage.

Ten years later, I occasionally ask myself the same question. Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again.

The idealization of marriage as a search for the perfect partner rather than a “good enough” mate is one of the issues complicating marriage – there is an expectation of an effortless perfect soul mate rather than a relationship that grows and flourishes with effort and attention.  But this is compounded by the stress and emphasis that is placed on the married couple as a self-sufficient and exclusive pair, not just in sexual intimacy but in all aspects of relationship. One of the ideas Bolik explores is the context of our modern idea of marriage as an exclusive pairing. This is, she suggests, a short-lived and highly context and culture driven view. It wasn’t this way for most of human history. The modern marriage is being called to bear a load that stresses many unions.

Our cultural fixation on the couple is actually a relatively recent development. …

It wasn’t until we moved to farms, and became an agrarian economy centered on property, that the married couple became the central unit of production. … It was in our personal and collective best interest that the marriage remain intact if we wanted to keep the farm afloat.

That said, being too emotionally attached to one’s spouse was discouraged; neighbors, family, and friends were valued just as highly in terms of practical and emotional support. Even servants and apprentices shared the family table, and sometimes slept in the same room with the couple who headed the household, Coontz notes. Until the mid-19th century, the word love was used to describe neighborly and familial feelings more often than to describe those felt toward a mate, and same-sex friendships were conducted with what we moderns would consider a romantic intensity. …

But as the 19th century progressed, and especially with the sexualization of marriage in the early 20th century, these older social ties were drastically devalued in order to strengthen the bond between the husband and wife—with contradictory results. As Coontz told me, “When a couple’s relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever. But by overloading marriage with more demands than any one individual can possibly meet, we unduly strain it, and have fewer emotional systems to fall back on if the marriage falters.”

Some even believe that the pair bond, far from strengthening communities (which is both the prevailing view of social science and a central tenet of social conservatism), weakens them, the idea being that a married couple becomes too consumed with its own tiny nation of two to pay much heed to anyone else. In 2006, the sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian published a paper concluding that unlike singles, married couples spend less time keeping in touch with and visiting their friends and extended family, and are less likely to provide them with emotional and practical support. They call these “greedy marriages.” I can see how couples today might be driven to form such isolated nations—it’s not easy in this age of dual-career families and hyper-parenting to keep the wheels turning, never mind having to maintain outside relationships as well. And yet we continue to rank this arrangement above all else!

The emphasis on maintaining connections outside of the exclusive pair is seen in many other cultures as well. I read a book many years ago directed to an Asian culture that, in giving advice to the groom, stressed the importance of maintaining these outside relationships and recommended leaving on a trip without his wife within a month or so of marriage to avoid becoming too attached. This struck me then as weird – and unwise – but the emphasis on the couple as the source of all happiness and connection may bring its own problems. This brings, to my mind at least, a number of questions well worth considering.

Are we asking too much of marriage and the nuclear family?

Do you think that this emphasis on the pair bond weakens community?

Does it impact the church for good or ill?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Daren Redekopp

    What an interesting and provocative take on the marriage scene today. Anyone who takes their marriage seriously will by definition find themselves spending less time with other family and friends, but must this truly weaken community? Quite the opposite. Nevertheless, we as a culture have imported an unhealthy individualism into the marriage bond that leaves parents and close friends in the cold when they should be invited into the warmth of a union that could bear more weight than each of the individuals alone. All of that is to answer the first question by saying that we are asking too little of the marriage.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    I think evangelical Christians in American in general idolize marriage to the detriment of singles. I don’t know that I can speak to the wider American culture o that issue though. I am roughly Bolik’s age and was dealing with the singleness/marriage issue at the same time she was, only I WANTED to be married. I felt like a 2nd class citizen at church bc it was so focused on family and marriage, which of course like a downward spiral, further played into my too strong desire to be married.

    I’m happy to say I worked out my issues and found contentment in singleness only to meet my husband about 2 weeks later (and I wasn’t looking). But during that rough time, I went to a counselor to discuss my issues/angst over singleness. One thing he told me that struck me weird at the time, but also made sense was that “Your spouse AT BEST will meet only 30 percent of your needs. AT BEST.” Why it rang true to me was because I had such a strong group of girlfriends and guy friends that did life together and I found a lot of my needs met through then during that time. They were my “family”. Many of them are still my friends that I connect with over FB since I have long since moved away, but the lesson I learned is that I need people. A lot of other people. They strengthen me, encourage me, sharpen me, challenge me and help me to become an overall better and more interesting person. They filled me up in ways that my spouse cannot. I have newer friends who do the same for me now where I live. And I am okay with that. And so is my husband. He has friends like that too. I’m thankful I can go away, get my cup filled and come back ready to fill up my family because I have relationships outside my nuclear family. Life is so much better.

  • DRT

    Since I have gotten to know quite a few people from the Indian subcontinent, I have had a lot of opportunity to inquire about arranged marriages. In many, perhaps most, ways arranged marriages seem to me to set up a dynamic that is more healthy. It is natural for them to recognize that they have to work on their relationship to make it healthy. They naturally have many more outside relationships with both family and friends. They chose partnerships that are made for the right reasons.

    But, I feel we have made a lot of progress in the past 60 years. I feel kids are having less unrealistic expectations of the marriage. But the last bastion of marriage being the end all and be all is the church. We need to make strong individuals.

    My 90 year old grandmother, when she was alive, told me that the best thing that happened in her marriage was when they stopped caring what the other person thought. I knew exactly what she meant. We need to be out of the codependent mode of relationship and be able to stand on our own in order for the marriage to be healthy.

  • Adam Shields

    There is a very good book about some of this called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions by Dan Brennan. His basic thesis is that we need to encourage cross gender friendships outside of marriage to actually strengthen marriage. His theory is that increased cross gender friendships allow us to develop better understanding of our marriage relationship (if married) or give us better insight to the opposite sex if we are not married. This allows us see the opposite sex as people, not just potential sex partners. (This is a christian book and he spends a good bit of time using the metaphors of brother and sister within the church).

    In general, I think we need more friendships, not just more cross gender friendships (although those are particularly suspect in the Evangelical community.)

    I lead a small group for newly married couples with my wife. I can tell you that the couples in our groups have not been anti marriage. Instead they can be a bit too pro-marriage. Most of them have parents or close friends that have suffered from divorce and there is a lot of fear and desire to do better with their own marriage.

  • Jason Lee

    I think a big related issue is how people idolize WEDDINGS. It has become a consumer good. Less thought and preparation is given to how to work through difficult and disappointments of long-term marriage relationships. Much of some people’s dissatisfaction with marriage may stem from the fact they they never had realistic expectations from the start and were more focused on “getting married” and having a wedding.

    One reason marriage shouldn’t go away is that it is the most robust institution for protecting children from instability. Studies repeatedly document that divorce, cohabiting unions, and single parent households have deleterious effects on children (throughout their childhoods and beyond) as compared to having two . These are tough facts for our individualistic culture to swallow. But the question is, to we care about children’s well-being more than our personal dreams and ideas of personal satisfaction?

  • Wyatt

    I am with ProdigalDaughter (#2). I was just talking to my wife the other day about this very topic.

    My belief is the evangelical church does idolize marriage AND family. Singles are belittled, pushed aside from many ministry opportunities; spiritual gifts…who cares? God help you if you are divorced or have ever been divorced. God help you if you have been widowed.

    Then if you are married another fence goes up. You better have children and they better all be believers and get baptized. The married couple w/o children for whatever reason is also marginalized but perhaps not so much as the single person because at least they are married.

    So we spend a lot of time, money and pastoral hot air propping up marriage and family.

    Do you think that this emphasis on the pair bond weakens community? Absolutely. If you sacrifice singles on the altar of marriage and family, the community is weakened. You are establishing an economy of which God does not approve.

    Does it impact the church for good or ill? ILL!! The minute you start marginalizing people because of their marital status, you discount their calling, the spiritual gifts they have been given by God and setting up a man-made, arbitrary, potentially and often abusive environment. How could this possibly be good?

  • Amos Paul

    The problem in Western Society is the explosion of sexual/romantic love as primary and how that decides whether or not one is ‘satisfied’ or ‘in love’. The problem isn’t marriage–a sort of relationship that ideally strives to embody the fullest extent of all forms of love between two humans.

    Indeed, as a Christian, I don’t see how valuing or encouraging marriage could possible be a bad thing… It’s the best decision I ever made. It’s traditional. It’s long lasting. It’s holy. It’s not out of style. It’s ordained by God as a perfectly natural and predominant component of human life. Marriage is awesome (though not that we should value it to the *detriment* of single people–who are just as valuable as married people, obviously).

    Maybe if Westerners were more prepared for real marriage rather than sexual/romantic fantasies this wouldn’t be such an issue.

  • ChrisB

    The most popular culprit seems to be the loss of the “in love” feeling. Does the perpetual adolesence contribute to an expectation of perpetual puppy love? When and where did people get the notion that marriage is supposed to feel like your first kiss forever?

  • Percival

    “You complete me” when said to any person other than God is idolatry.

    Overblown reliance on marriage, romance, and weddings are full of pifalls.

    Good post RJS.

  • Ann

    I know for me, the necessity of marriage for parenthood is still true. There wasn’t a day since my daughter was born that I didn’t think in the back of my mind, “How does anyone do this alone?”. Not. One. Day.

  • Adam

    I think that those actions and behaviors that we use to make a healthy marriage also make a healthy community. Conflict resolution, honesty, trust, inter dependency, etc.. These are all great things to have in relationships outside the context of marriage, but these kinds of behaviors require commitment.

    We hardly hold to marital commitments anymore. What’s to say we’ll hold to commitments with people we’re not married to?

    I see marriage as a kind of model and training ground for what community should be. You are not required to be married to learn how to do community but marriage is a great place to learn. And if you don’t learn that in marriage, you’re probably doing it wrong (greedy marriage).

    So, maybe it’s a chicken and egg situation. Is the obsolescence of marriage destroying community or is the destruction of community obsoleting marriage?

  • Paul

    If marriage is mostly a bond used for mutual benefit of the family and community then it is becoming obsolete for some & should be seen as such. If marriage is more than such a bond, we should be careful in undervaluing it.

    I like this article in that for me it again helps bring to our attention as Christians that we need to be passing along a much richer theology of relationship, marriage & celebacy to the next generation.

  • nathan

    To the questions:

    For ill.

    I married in my late 20’s and I can say that the valorization of marriage and the neglect of how to understand singleness rightly was a deep hindrance.

    I’ve seen other people almost destroyed by the craziness of how we talk about marriage.

    Everyone should read Coontz’s book The Way we NEver Were.

    This rips the face off our cultural myths and lies about family, marriage, etc.

  • Gary Lyn

    As a pastoral counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked with many couple in counseling, I can affirm the danger of placing the expectation for most or all of one’s emotional needs to be met by the partner in a relationship. In fact, I spend a lot of time exploring this in premarital counselng, along with extensive exploration of the picture each carries around of what a healthly successful relationship looks like.
    Also, I don’t think it is just evangelical churches that give in to the idolatry of marriage and family. I think there are subtle ways that many churches, and members in that church, express their belief in the normality of the marriage relationship as seen in our culture. Take the term “family ministry.” I would propose that we are not called to minister to families. We are called to minister to persons…and one aspect of personhood is participation in a family of some kind. A church I served had begun a “singles group.” One Sunday after the Advent/Christmas season, several people commented about the practice of families coming forward to light the Advent Wreath: four families made up of mom, dad, children (it wasn’t that way the next year). There are many more examples of this subtle idolatry of family and marriage.

  • Pat Pope

    It’s interesting. On the one hand, I see women my age (47) and younger choosing to have children and not marry the father. In some cases, they may not even live together. For some women, they want a child (it’s something THEY want) and it’s almost as if a relationship with the father is not deemed as necessary. For some, the relationship is very casual. He’ll swing by now and then and they may even have a physical relationhip, but that’s about it. Some even knowingly get involved with someone that is married or committed to someone else. One woman that I grew up with lives with her mate. They have two children together but he has other children from other relationships and doesn’t want to get married because she doesn’t want her money going to support his other children. He does not put any of his money into the house since they’re not married. They struggle financially, but this is the setup that they have. I could name other similar scenarios.

    On the other hand, I see young 20-somethings that are married, having children and spending their time with other 20-somethings in the same boat. They seem to enjoy family life.

    I don’t know how the numbers break down on these two different groups, but I’ve seen a significant amount of both groups. I suspect one’s family history, upbringing and life experiences play a role. Personally speaking, I grew up in a home with both parents, but it’s a relationship in which my father does not respect my mother and she’s taken far more than any one person should take. Out of my family dynamics, I was shaped into or took a more independent role in life. I have been single my entire life and though I believe in marriage, the one thing I will not do is settle. I’ve done that aplenty when I was dating. Now if I were to marry, it would have to be to someone who brings something of worth to the table and who is intelligent and respectful. I believe wholeheartedly in the saying, “I can do bad all by myself.”

  • Dan Brennan

    Thought-provoking article and great questions. I think there are a number of evangelical communities over idealizing marriage. A quick way to see this is to see the “crisis” among evangelicals of deeply integrating singles into the evangelical community. 
    I think another area by which we can see this is the impoverished language and glaring neglect of friendship among evangelicals. There are exceptions here and there but overall, evangelicals have such little room in their ecclesiology for communion in friendship. We need a vision for deep friendships flourishing *with* marriages, not as a rival to marriages. 
    I think there has been so much emphasis among evangelicals that marriage is the only deep relationship where spiritual and sexual formation takes place. This ignores hundreds and hundreds of years of spiritual and sexual formation in friendships.

  • DRL

    Interesting that hetersexuals would be questioning the value of marriage just as the LGBT community wants it so desperately.

  • Dan Brennan

    DRL, it is a great irony. Marriage is still a much sought after relationship and for the LGBT community, it symbolizes something. On the other hand, in America, our track record for divorce is far ahead of other nations. My own personal opinion about this is that we have exalted the romantic/sexual couple as the peak experience of relationship.

  • Heather

    I see two main issues here. One is that singles feel marginalized in the church. Our society is nuclear family focused, rather than extended family and/or community focused.

    The other issue is that of protracted singleness for those singles who truly desire to get married. That’s fine if Kate B. from the article is happy. Many single Christians at 39 would not be happy, especially if they want children and their fertility is running down. I think RJS is right in that people are searching for near perfection rather than someone who is truly a “good match.” Because we don’t need to be married these days, for economic survival, etc., people feel they have the luxury to hold out for their ideal mate, even if they have an unrealistic idea of the type of person they can hope to attain. Marrying at younger ages has its disadvantages, but fertility will not last forever, especially for women.

  • rjs


    I think there is a third main issue as well – the burden that is placed on the marriage relationship. The counselor’s advice in Prodigal Daughter’s comment (#2) is to the point. We expect the marriage relationship to bear 100% of the load, or nearly 100% of the load. It cannot do this – we need a broader range of interactions and a bigger community.

  • rjs

    Jason Lee (#5),

    Kate Bolik acknowledges the importance of marriage in child-rearing. Children do better with more than one parent, and with a permanence and dependability to the relationship.

  • Heather

    And a fourth huge issue is the high rate of divorce, even in the church. People feel like they really need to be so very positively sure, with no doubts. They’ve seen so many other believers divorce, often their own parents. Both men and women also then feel like they need to be financially self-sufficient before getting married. If divorce was rare, and if people felt supported by a bigger community, as RJS said, the whole thing would not feel so risky.

  • Pat Pope

    And then at the very end of the spectrum is the woman on Dr. Phil now who’s about to marry for the 11th (!)time.

  • normbv

    Population tendencies are trending downward as peoples move away from historical agrarian societies. If the trends that this article tends to point toward continue then the ability to sustain even equilibrium in the world population will start to regress. There is a theory that once we start to go negative the trend becomes difficult to reverse. Cultures that once were alive die and go extinct. That seems to be the probabilities when evolutionary instincts are no longer in play. We may be playing with new dynamics that could have possible negative repercussions upon the lot for humanity.

    Frankly I’m a little distressed by the tone of this article and some of the comments (but not all) as it seem to forebode social directions that may not be in a cultures best interest. The nuclear family in my own personal opinion should be the focus of a cultures fight against it disappearing into oblivion. The church should be on the forefront of this battle while striving empathetically with all members whatever their condition. However the future is still tied to the strength of the core family and it needs to be protected and encouraged at the highest level.

    Marriages are the idea yet they do not come about like fairy tales. Men and women must both work hard at learning to live with someone who is different and self-centered. It is at the heart of the model that Christ teaches us how to be like him and to pass that model on to our children for generations to come. Part of the marriage experience is learning the fundamentals of give and take; putting it to the test constantly. Perhaps marriage is like a refining fire in a sense.

    Who says that we have to drift into all fashions of modernity without putting up a fight?

  • JohnM

    “Do you think that this emphasis on the pair bond weakens community?”
    Since we are talking about marriage here, emphasis on pair bond as opposed to what? Pairings without bond? Some other arrangement than pairs? Don’t confuse pair bonds (between a man and a woman, if I need to say it) with the romanticization of said bonds, or our idolatry of “the relationship”.

  • Dan Brennan

    Heather, #19, I would say that the glorification of the romantic couple as the passionate couple that is from God (that’s such a popular evangelical message) creates a high bar for looking for the perfect “sexualized” friendship. When I emphasize “sexualized” I am meaning here that some kind of sexual compatibility (during dating) and after marriage is required or else its looking for Mr. Right or Ms. Right all over again.

    I think the rise of romantic-absorbed friendship (i.e. the passionate romantic couple totally absorbed in each other as “best friends” and relying upon each other for their deep relational needs plus sex) and the fall of the romantic-absorbed couple (once they get married and the romantic absorption beings to wear off and they find their spouse can’t meet all their deep relational needs) is huge. I’m not trying to throw romantic love out with the dirty bathwater. This is a matter of emphasis.

    This sets a high bar for singles looking, waiting, postponing along with creating despair for singles who desire authentic companionship.

  • Christy

    I second the recommendation of “The Way We Never Were.” I think the evangelical world tends to romanticize the family of the past a bit, and Coontz does a good job of demonstrating that there are no good old days.

    I agree that the culture (and church) puts too much emphasis on marriage as the sexual and romantic end-all, be all, and it’s hard for reality to live up to that. Some people are looking for perfection or an unattainable ideal.

    I think another factor, however, based on me and my entirely non-scientific sample of friends who are still single or who got married in the 35 – 45 range: It wasn’t that we didn’t want to get married. (I’m 40, and never married myself, although in a relationship that is heading that way.) For all but one of my friends, our biological families are a festival of alcoholism, various forms of abuse, abandonment, serious mental illness, and festering hostility. (and yes, 75% of those are church-going Christian families.)

    Being overly idealistic about marriage is not a problem that I’ve had. I was terrified for years that I would wake up one day and discover I had become my mother and ended up with someone like my father. (And the whole male headship/wifely submission routine didn’t exactly help.) You want to do better than that. At the same time, you’re afraid that you don’t know how.

    Saying,”You should get married! Marriage is awesome and the foundation of society! Insert Christ and his church analogy.” doesn’t help at all when you know how awful and destructive a toxic marriage can be, and when you know that being a Christian has practically nothing to do with whether or not you know how to be married in a reasonably healthy fashion. When I was involved in church, my experience was that there just weren’t any tools available to help people work through that stuff. They just want to make sure you aren’t having sex.

    A lot (although by no means all) of people I know who have talked about “just haven’t met the right man/woman/something’s missing/not ready to settle down” are actually really scared, and since we don’t have to get married to survive, we don’t.

  • rjs

    John M,

    What I mean by emphasis on the pair bond is what is called “greedy marriages” in the last paragraph of the quote. The marriage is expected to provide all, or almost all, companionship, emotional support, practical advice … The pair moves together; but the individuals neither form nor maintain significant or strong connections with neighbors, fellow church members, coworkers, even extended family.

    I do not deny the importance of the couple and I agree with pretty much everything normbv says in #24. Yet, I would still suggest that we all still need broader substantive friendship and fellowship interactions as well – and that these interactions are especially important in the church.

    And we need a community culture in the church that values and includes everyone – married and single. An overemphasis on the importance of the couple creates divisions in the church as many have noted above.

  • rjs

    Thanks Christy,

    Yours is another important perspective we need to hear. I think the fear aspect may play a role in Kate Bolik’s story as well – although it is a bit under the surface.

  • Jennifer

    I just wanted to echo Adam Shield’s recomendation of “Sacred Unions Sacred Passions”. In it Dan Brennan does a great job of talking about how you can hold marriage in very high regard, and still have other close friendships with the opposite sex (or same sex) too.

    I think this kind of conversation is only going to get bigger in the Christian community – Sacred Unions Sacred Passions is a very good addition to the conversation.

  • Dr. Daniel F. Camp

    In marriage, we are called on to pursue holiness, not happiness. The marriage relationship is intended to help husband and wife focus on God. Post-fall, it is a place of love (as described in 1 Cor. 13), and most significantly forgiveness and reconciliation; all of which are a reflection of and crucial to our relationship with God through Christ. Many Christians cry out “I deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is MY RIGHT!” Too bad that’s American culture, not scripture. Yet, that Americanized idea of individual rights and self-serving happiness has permeated marriage (and all relationships for that matter) through and through.

    When we return to relationships as a pursuit of holiness and finding our place in the Kingdom of God, then these debates will become obsolete. Marriage will be honored, sacred singleness will be valued, divorced will know healing, and widowed will be highly esteemed. Until then, we will be forever immersed in the idolatry of “self.”

    (For more on the pursuit of holiness in marriage, Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage is a good read.)