(Part one of a two-part series on marriage.)
Did you know that marriage wasn’t always about love?
In fact, it used to be more of a first natural step into adulthood, a practical economic partnership, and a societal expectation, than any epic love story.
It wasn’t so long ago that marriage was as a matter of convenience, built on economic and political security, patrimony, and lineage — the power balance tipped nearly completely to the male side.
The late 18th century saw a shift toward romanticism, companionship, love, and affection to counter the isolation of modern life. However, the balance of power still remained in a man’s favor. Women simply had far less choice in those days.
Although, love and marriage were tied, passion, sexual fulfillment, and romance were often pursued outside of marriage. Straying was accepted as the norm for men.
A man married less for his love of his wife’s intelligence and wit, and more for her practical skills of housekeeping, cooking, and childbearing. Likewise, a woman expected financial security in return, not to be swept off her feet by romantic gestures.
It was an arrangement.
In The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel, leads us through the evolution of marriage and of infidelity. The author ponders what a wife was to do in the early 60s, when she discovered her husband cheating.
Typically nothing. Infidelity was not often confronted.
You may be thinking of what you would do if your spouse cheated, and it likely wouldn’t be non-confrontational.
So why would a wife in the 60s stay silent? At the time, a woman’s choices were limited. With different divorce laws, no career of her own, and potential for family rejection, leaving wasn’t a viable option, Perel writes.
Perhaps your grandmother or mother, depending on your age, entered into marriage during this time of limited choice. As the decades passed, she likely watched in awe of the changing tides.
The state of womanhood (and marriage) shifted with the sexual revolution of the 60s and abortion laws and no-fault divorce laws in the 70s. Women began to take control of their bodies, their lives, and their futures, exiting the home and entering the workforce in higher numbers.
With these changes, came choices. A woman could choose to have kids and when (or not). She could choose to work outside of the home. She could choose to divorce her womanizing husband and remarry, without great fear of stigma.
The fabric of marriage has changed too — from an arrangement, to a soul stirring partnership of passion, equality, and sexual fulfillment.
Sex is no longer purely a process for reproduction, but a channel for pleasure and deep connection. The idea of monogamy has shifted from one person for life, to being faithful to one person at a time.
It’s jaw-dropping to view then from now. We’re enjoying the incredible impact of several decades of hard-fought battles, resulting in a completely different life for a woman.
What do we want now?
Men and women in Western society prize individuality, personal freedom, and self-actualization. Many of us expect our romantic relationships to be a source of emotional riches. We want to share our inner life with our life partner. We want to be treasured. We want it all.
New Marriage and New Problems
Certainly the new marriage is enlightened and expanded, when contrasted to the fairly heartless arrangements of old. Finally, marriage is an open door for expressing a range of emotions and basking in authentic connection.
But is it so perfect? Is this new marriage infidelity- and divorce-proof? Sadly, not at all.
New expectations set us up for new problems, as well as the same old issues but for different reasons.
Shared emotions, authentic intimacy, and a strong sense of identity are now central to long-term partnership or marriage. They’re no longer “nice to have” but musts. This creates tension because we now want the best of both worlds. We have contradictory ideals.
We still long for the old-fashioned ideals of safety, security, dependability, and familiarity. Yet, we expect the new ideals of ever-present passion, awe, adventure, novelty, and self-expression.
We expect marriage to embody all of these things, for our partner to be and provide all of these things. We expect ourselves to be the adventurous traveler, career-focused leader, nurturing mother, culinary genius, and exciting lover — all of these things.
Great expectations may lead to great disappointment — perhaps greater than ever before.
We have become emotionally entitled, which creates far greater chances of disappointment, disillusionment, and betrayal when our partner, our relationship, or we fall short of perfection.
We now enter marriage, usually after we’ve “lived a little” or a lot. We’ve explored our sexuality, loved other people, climbed the career ladder, and focused on leveling up. We bring that better, seasoned self to marriage, and so does our partner. Or so we think.
Infidelity is a thing of the past, we tell ourselves. Things are different now.
We have an incredible sex life and always will, we say. We love each other completely. There’s no need to go outside of the marriage.
That’s what we think.
But in reality, it still happens.
A spouse might stray or file for divorce not because he is unhappy, but because he’s afraid of missing out on something or someone else who could make him even happier.
Like the child with far too many gifts, we’re always asking, “What’s next? Is this all there is? Is there more?”
A fast-paced, forward-focused perspective hardly leaves room for enjoying the present. Instead of appreciating the good in our partners, we wonder if there’s someone better. Don’t we deserve someone better?
The bombardment of filtered, shiny couples on our social media feeds doesn’t help either. We take this partial view as the truth and look at our own relationship through the harsh eyes of reality. It doesn’t quite stack up.
So what do we do about this dilemma?
We’ve reached the so-called pinnacle of freedom in relationships and in our lives as women. Yet, many of us are deeply unfulfilled and unhappy.
Modern love and marriage have left us dissatisfied and disillusioned.
Yet, the next iteration of marriage that might resolve our problems doesn’t seem to be right around the corner. How can you prepare for marriage with realistic expectations? In part two, we’ll explore how to best position yourself to face this dilemma.
Want to create realistic expectations and sustainable happiness in your relationship? We’d love to connect and help you create your best life in either couples or individual therapy.