Changing Expectations and Marital Patterns
A large discrepancy exists between the American marriage ideal and actual marriage practices. Although cohabitation, high divorce rates, and extramarital sexual involvement are all antithetical to the traditional ideal, they are widespread. In fact, the most politically conservative area of the country—the so-called Bible Belt—has some of the highest rates of divorce and numbers of unwed mothers, which may be partially correlated to younger ages at marriage and higher poverty rates (Coontz, 2005; Stockdale et al., 2011). Some reasons for the contradictions between ideal marriage and actual marriage practices have to do with changes in both the expectations for marriage and the social framework of marriage.
Contemporary couples usually marry for love and enter marriage with expectations for fulfilling their sexual, emotional, spiritual, social, financial, and perhaps coparenting
needs (Li & Fung, 2011). One survey found that three times as many respondents believed the main purpose of marriage was mutual happiness and fulfillment rather than bearing and raising children (Crary, 2007). Ironically, as people’s expectations for marriage have risen, our society’s support networks for marriage have declined. Extended families and small communities have become less close-knit and supportive, placing increased demands on marriage to meet a variety of needs. Couples are often hard – pressed to find outside resources for help with household tasks, child-care assistance, financial aid, and emotional support. Although the challenges of sharing everyday life in marriage can enrich and fulfill some couples, such challenges can disillusion others (Patz, 2000). Furthermore, people now live much longer—life expectancy is in the high 70s—than they did in the past, requiring marriages to keep pace with the ever-changing needs of each partner over many more years (Bennett & Ellison, 2010).
The arrival of children poses significant challenges to marital happiness for couples (Ali, 2008). An analysis of 90 studies found a 42% drop in marital satisfaction following the birth of a first child, and a slightly smaller drop with each additional child. Up to 50% of new-parent couples experience as much marital distress as couples who are in marital therapy to address their problems, and men and women report similar amounts of deterioration in relationship functioning (Doss et al., 2009; Picker, 2005). In marriages most likely to remain happy in parenthood, research has found that the husband understands his wife’s inner life, admires her, and actively keeps romance alive (Gottman & Silver, 2000).