Jump directly to the Content

Marriage 2001

Despite the challenges of each generation, people still love to get married. A look at where we've been points to where we're going

Marriage has gone through profound changes over the last five decades, but we continue to speak about it as though it's the same old familiar pattern. To see how much has changed, look at the shift from the forties, when my parents got married, to the sixties, when I graduated from high school, to today.

I got my diploma and headed off to Stanford University in 1968, less than a year after the famous Summer of Love. "The times they were a-changing." The sexual revolution, Viet Nam, drugs—my friends and I were convinced the world would never be the same again. Yet we didn't think about how such changes would affect marriage. We thought it would be about the same as it had been for our parents, except better because we (like most youth of most times) thought we were better than our gray and jaded parents.

Our parents, the World War II veterans, thought so, too. I mean they thought marriage would work out for us as it had for them. They were just glad when we got married. Finally, the kids were beginning to settle down and act like regular people.

In a way, we were. Marriage is very slow to change. Today's young people can listen to their grandparents tell how they fell in love, or what their first apartment was like, and feel that nothing is different. The sweetness of love, the struggles of partnership, the passion of sex—these move, but only within an orbit that is determined by human nature.

In the fifties, a man's career was to provide for the family, not his ego.

Yet in 50 years, marriage has changed dramatically. As a parent, I realize what my parents did not—that my children must marry under circumstances neither I, nor my parents, ever knew. It's sobering to contrast my parents' circumstances, marrying in 1946, with what my own children can expect in the decade to come.

  1. In 1946, the vast majority of marriages were "till death do us part." Now it's a coin flip—as many as half of all first marriages end in divorce.
  2. Most women were virgins when they married then—and a lot of men were, too. Now, only a small percentage of partners lack sexual experience prior to their wedding day.
  3. Then, husbands earned money while wives stayed home to raise the kids. Today's roles are much more fluid, since most women work for pay and many work full-time even when their kids are small.
  4. Then, most people had grown up with a mother and dad, a pattern of family life they expected to reproduce. Now, about half of all children grow up without a full-time father because of divorce. As young adults, they enter marriage with little experience of a strong two-parent family.
  5. Then, the idea of a man marrying another man (or a woman another woman) would have provoked amazement, incredulity or hilarity. Now, any sixth grader can tell you what a gay "marriage" is.

The world is profoundly different for those who marry today—even though the hopes and dreams that lead couples to the altar have stayed roughly the same. Yet the deep transformations that were well underway when I completed high school caught me and my fellow boomers totally unaware.

Putting the Boom in Baby

In hindsight, the marriages of the World War II generation may seem as bland and predictable as their television representatives, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. That's not how they were, however. Fifties marriages were remarkable, created from a deep craving for the solidity of family. This generation had grown up in the uprootings and uncertainties of the Depression and World War II. Now a new era had begun. Men had good-paying jobs that enabled them to support a family and buy a home. They knew exactly what they wanted: domesticity. They sought a safe, secure home life, where a man and a woman could live out their sexual destinies together and raise kids. It was somewhere between "Me Tarzan, You Jane" and "The Swiss Family Robinson."

Baby boomers brought consumerism to everything they did, including marriage. Consumerism is about happy choices, not about commitment

No matter how you describe it, it was a powerfully attractive vision. The average age at which Americans got married dropped drastically, to just 19 for women. The number of children soared higher than it had for decades, to a peak of 3.7 children per woman in 1957.

My own parents were typical. My dad, at age 11, lost his father to cancer. My grandmother loaded up her two boys and moved to San Francisco during the Depression, and they got by with whatever menial jobs they could scrape up. Dinner was a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese; my dad still loves the stuff. For him, the war turned out to be a godsend. The army sent him to college, where he met my mother. He did his lonely tour of duty in Europe, and when he got back to San Francisco he had his agenda all set: He would get married, finish college on the GI Bill, and start a family.

My mother, meanwhile, had graduated from college and begun work for a fledgling Christian organization. When children came, she unhesitatingly quit the job she loved and took up mothering. In just over six years, four children were born. I was the second. She had her hands full raising us and keeping up with church and neighborhood involvements, until my older brother was ready for college. That's when she became a teacher to help pay the bills.

The goal back then was domesticity, and both partners worked for it—one to earn the pay, the other to make the home. If a man was a good provider, if he didn't drink or beat his wife, if he was a "good father" to his children, he was a good husband. A good wife had to be a decent cook and housekeeper, take care of the children and provide emotional support to her husband. According to sociologist David Popenoe, polls taken at the time show that more than 90 percent of people could not imagine an unmarried person being happy. When asked what they thought they had given up for marriage and family, most women said, "Nothing."

Today, the fifties serve as an ideological battleground. For conservatives who regret the changes that have come, those years are a reminder of the good old days. For liberals who push society to escape oppressive patriarchal arrangements, they are a dreaded Dark Ages. Their constant cry is, "We can't go back to the fifties!"

Young adults today are slow to give up their individual rights for some promised good.

Indeed, we can't. But we would do well to recognize what we've lost and might regain. We've lost the emphasis on marriage and children that provided so much stability. Back then, a man's career was to provide for the family, not his ego; a woman's ambitions were put on the shelf if they conflicted with the children's needs. That was certainly stultifying to some, but it created a strong social fabric.

Since the fifties, we've chased personal happiness, career and self-fulfillment and assumed that marriage and family would somehow fit in. One sign of this shift is the percentage of couples who say they would stay together "for the sake of the children," which sank from about 50 to 20 between 1962 and 1977.

We've lost something else, something far more surprising: the pure sexual drama of marriage. In Goin' to the Chapel: Dreams of Love, Realities of Marriage, Charlotte Mayerson describes some startling discoveries about the Ozzie and Harriet generation. While talking in-depth to 100 middle-class women of all ages about their marriages, she found that those who enjoyed a passionate sexual relationship with their husbands were almost certain to have come of age in the fifties. In contrast, sex just wasn't that important for younger women.

"Time and time again, the younger women [say], 'On a scale of one to ten, sex, I would say, gets a three,'" Mayerson writes. These younger women had plenty of sexual relationships before they married, and the thrill was gone before the wedding day. For many older women, however, the excitement of sex had been a reason to marry, and the passion remained. Those "Ozzie and Harriet" marriages, Mayerson suggests, could be considerably more passionate than those that have come since the Sexual Revolution.

The Expressive Marriage

Baby boomers didn't rebel against domesticity, we just took it for granted. Marriage wasn't a treasure for which we worked and sacrificed. We thought of it as an adventure that happened because you fell in love. And it competed with other adventures—sex, travel, success, saving the planet.

Sex, for example, became detached from marital plans. Thanks to the apparent security of the birth-control pill and the use of antibiotics against venereal diseases, the boomer generation felt safe to experiment with sex. Nearly all my non-Christian friends (and some Christians, too) were avid participants in the free sexual merry-go-round. I wasn't, mainly because of the tightly committed Christian fellowship my wife, Popie—then "just a friend"—and I were in.

In other ways, though, we were very much a part of the trends. Boomers were the first young generation with money of our own to spend. Consumer capitalism, with its potent TV advertising, gave us a sense of limitless, pleasurable choice. We brought consumerism to everything we did, including marriage. Consumerism is about happy choices, not about commitment.

We were also the only generation in which every second student (it seemed) was studying psychology. This (at least as psychology was popularized at that time) created a sense that states of mind were extraordinarily important and infinitely changeable. So we came to relationships with an overwhelming interest in creating happy states of mind. Marriage was where, with our beloved, we would express ourselves and find bliss. Our goal in marriage was not domesticity, but self-expression.

Popie and I, like every couple I knew, wrote our own wedding vows. This was considered not just a mark of sincerity but of originality. Our marriage had to invent itself! We weren't following in our parents' footsteps, we were breaking new ground.

Children we didn't think of. They were thought to be more an interference to marriage than the object. Our object was to have an adventure, to be happy! No wonder that the divorce rate, which had been so low, zoomed upward. We set our hopes incredibly high, and brought almost nothing to them beyond sincerity.

I feel some fondness for the marriages of the sixties, probably because I have a happy marriage. For those who shared common values or faith with their partner, who had a well-trained talent for getting along with others, boomer marriages were wonderful. We talked more than our parents had, and experienced deeper friendship. Women enjoyed satisfying careers that they would have missed in previous generations. Increased flexibility in gender roles had men learning to care for children and women gaining some financial power.

Overall, though, baby boomers made disastrous marriages. The divorce rate reached levels never before seen. As many as half of all first marriages ended in failure. It is undoubtedly true that divorce increased partly because women had new freedom to escape abusive or deeply unhappy marriages. Judith Wallerstein, who published the first groundbreaking studies of the impact of divorce on children, says half of the men who divorce and 80 percent of the women are glad, years later, that they did.

Their children, however, are devastated by their parents' failure. Even after you factor out all socioeconomic differences, the damage is undeniable. Children of divorce are twice as likely to drop out of school, three times as likely to conceive a child while still a teenager. By every measure, they are considerably worse off than their peers from intact families. Any social change that produces such results for half of the next generation can only be considered a catastrophe.

Caution, Danger: Generation X

Couples marrying in the current decade look like drivers who have just witnessed a fatal accident. They're driving slowly, determined to be careful. Ten miles down the road, however, you can bet they'll forget and go back to driving the way they always did.

The children of divorce, researchers find, are determined not to repeat their parents' mistakes. Their mental pictures of marriage are fuzzy, while their ideas about divorce are sharp. After all, they've been raised to believe that a family is composed of "people who care about each other" regardless of gender or genetic kinship. Such a fuzzy picture doesn't provide any clear guidelines.

"Divorce has leveled off from its peak in the early 1980s," writes David Popenoe. "But most of the leveling is due to an increase in non-marital cohabitation. The marriage-wary and divorce-prone are now more likely to cohabit out of wedlock, and of course, those who don't marry can't divorce."

A friend of mine, just married, is typical. Both she and her new husband have been intimate for years. They've lived together, broken apart, come together again. She's a Christian believer, he isn't—that's one dilemma. Some members of her family don't like him—that's another. Finally they decided to marry. They'd like to have children, and neither one is getting any younger. They had their wedding last week. You could almost see them shrug as they took their vows.

Nineties couples are cautious, but their care doesn't usually translate into the kinds of change that might make their marriages succeed. Many would have to go back to their grandparents to locate traditions to sustain their marriages. Sexual experimentation is no longer a hopeful revolution, yet they keep at it because they know no alternative.

They marry later, they marry less often, they don't want strings attached. Beyond that, they face daunting economics. The previous generations enjoyed rapidly rising standards of living, but the economy has been sluggish for this generation. Lifestyle expectations have risen, but income has not. Many start out carrying large debts, and to achieve a middle-class lifestyle most will need two full-time incomes. Having children puts great stress on these marriages, especially since women usually catch the brunt of the work (and the dissatisfaction) of trying to combine career with child-rearing. Today three out of five divorces involve children. (Before 1957, children were involved in fewer than half the divorces.) Yes, they could make do with less, freeing one parent to stay home, but most young adults find it difficult to imagine such sacrifice. They are slow to give up their individual rights for some promised good.

Calculation and Idealism: Generation '00

And so I come to the crystal ball—to my own children, the '00 Generation. They will choose their marriage partners from a population in which half or more have grown up without a father, and where most have had other sexual partners. Perhaps half of their peers will try living together before marriage. If these trends continue, will marriage become merely a quaint anachronism? Will "living together" and "domestic partnership" and other transitory relationships become the norm? Marriage will endure, but the definition of marriage seems likely to grow even fuzzier, individuals to grow more individualistic and shy of commitment.

If the World War II generation sought domesticity, and baby boomers pursued self-expression, what do today's and tomorrow's couples seek? That isn't clear. If they want any of the traditional benefits of marriage—sex, companionship, children—they can get those without making any commitment.

Such conditions make a durable, fulfilling marriage more difficult than ever, yet not impossible. We do well to remember that marriage is not an institution invented by society, but by God. He built into human personalities a longing for permanent partnership. Adam was thrilled about marrying Eve not because he lived in a family-friendly society, but because he recognized that "this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23). In every society, no matter how morally depleted, men and women will bond to each other in love. That bond makes the marriage—not the ring, not the ceremony.

The next generation must have a realistic picture of what marriage requires and screen out potential partners who don't fit the picture.

The next generation needs to be much more aware of what they are doing than did previous generations. They need to be both calculating and idealistic—a tricky combination. By "calculating," I mean they must have a realistic picture of what marriage requires and screen out potential partners who don't fit the picture. They need to pay a lot more attention to character, and correspondingly less to romance. Charlotte Mayerson found that women who had, as children, fantasized about marriage often ended up unhappy. Those whose approach was more down to earth, who had seldom daydreamed—very often those whose parents were happily married—had much more success.

Rather than dreaming, they made plans and assessed what kind of people fit those plans. They mention looking for intelligence, integrity, a sense of humor in potential partners. They sought a partner who could be a good friend and a good father. Few mention looking for riches, but "they all expected to marry someone who would make a living and would 'respect himself' in terms of career and earning power."

Idealism is just as important as calculation. If marriage were just a calculation of who and what will make you happy, most marriages would fail, because sometimes the costs and benefits don't add up. Idealism means that you value marriage and you're willing to make it work even if it costs you dearly. The fifties produced marriages that lasted partly because domesticity was an ideal bigger than the happiness of either party. There is a lot to be said for the men and women who stayed together "for the children's sake," and made things work.

Still, I wouldn't want to pass on that tradition unchanged to my children. Instead, I want them to value marriage as a reflection of God himself—of the unity-in-diversity that makes up the Trinity. God loves marriage because it is like him. If my children believe in marriage this way, they will persevere in love because that is the kind of love that Jesus shows. They will value family and children because they believe they have been entrusted by God with the care and nurture of specific people. They will feel, in the passionate love for a partner, some sense of returning to Eden, of acting as God intended men and women to act. These ideals rise considerably higher than the domesticity of the fifties.

Marriage is natural, but what is naturally good can be spoiled by our selfish desires. That is why the most important contribution I can make to my children's marriages is to bring them to Christ. If they are really Christian and not just "church kids," they will determinedly marry Christians. Not only will they share common values, but they will share Christ, who can encourage them and teach them to overcome sin. No marriage can thrive that has not learned to wrestle with sin.

For previous generations, marriage was an inevitable destination. It didn't take any special intention; it was a stage in life. Today, it's an iffy proposition. People want to marry as much as ever, but they aren't nearly as well prepared to sustain marriages. For the '00 generation, marriage will have to be a much more intentional act. They need encouragement, they need mentors, and most of all they need straight talk. We must ask them: "Do you know what you're doing? Are you prepared to make this a success?"

The situation is hardly hopeless. After all, if something like half of all marriages end in divorce, that means the other half don't. We can't guarantee that our children will succeed, but we can certainly prepare them and support them to be numbered among the successful.

Tim Stafford is the author of a number of books, including Knowing the Face of God (NavPress) and Sexual Chaos (InterVarsity). He and his wife, Popie, live in Santa Rosa, California, with their three children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Generations; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters