Attitudes toward marriage in the younger generation have definitely changed over the last few decades. Though many young people are stating that marriage is important to them and that they will most likely choose at some point in their lifetime to get married, their hopes for these marriages to last a lifetime are very small. Mostly they feel that, even though the idea of lifelong commitment is ideal, it is a very difficult goal that very few will actually reach. The esteem they hold for couples who have remained together for lengthy periods of time is high, but they feel they are rare and that the chances of actually being one of those couples themselves is slim. Along with this sentiment is the growing acceptance of bearing children out of wedlock and the general opinion that single-parent households are just as acceptable as a traditional family. Trends also seem to indicate that most young people feel that divorce is quite easy in today’s social and legal climate, and that there is likely little fight or effort to save a marriage, and far less agonizing over the social stigmas of divorce. Also, there is a growing sentiment that cohabitation before marriage, or instead of, marriage is not only acceptable but often the preferred course of events to insure that the marriage would be a happy one if the couple decided to move in that direction (Whitehead & Popenoe, 1999).
All of these opinions are in rather stark contrast to the opinions of the older generations. Not only were older generations expected and expecting to marry, but it was generally accepted that they would remain married for the course of their lives. This does not necessarily mean that they expected to be happy within those marriages, however, they simply believed very strongly in the vows they took during the wedding ceremony and there was simply no question whether they would or wouldn’t weather the rough times with the good — they simply stuck it out. Long courtships structured with extreme amounts of etiquette were observed and most of the older generation dated only a few people within their close community of church, school, neighborhood, and parents’ friends’ children. These long courtships did not include the option of cohabitation as it was viewed as very distasteful — likely because of the strict opinions held about pre-marital sex. Also, many of the older generation still held strong traditional beliefs on securing parental approval prior to any engagement, and pregnancy out of wedlock was absolutely shameful. Single-parenting carried with it a heavy stigma that is born out of that same shame. Of course, single mothers were often nearly desperate to find a man to marry since working outside of the home was almost as bad as being a single mother in the first place.
As far as love itself goes, the most interesting thing to note about generational attitudes towards love is that very little has changed in the perception of love over the years, but individuals’ attitudes toward love change and evolve over their lifetime. Teenagers strive for and dream of an intense romantic love characterized by passion and an extreme feeling of arousal and physical connection with another person. They imagine love being much like in a romantic movie where there are constant episodes of whirlwind romantic activity and an intense desire to engage the other person physically every time they see each other. They not only expect, but wish intensely for this kind of passion and smoldering emotions (Knox, 1970).
However, as people age their views of love evolve into a more realistic view. This is likely in reaction to the practically, every day concerns that come with lovers once they have “settled down” into married life. The worries over securing employment, paying bills, rearing children, and taking care of aging parents all place romance on the back burner. The intensity of the love dies down and takes the form of a more intellectual and spiritual connection. Not only does love evolve in this way, but single people of this age group begin to seek these comforts out in potential mates. The passion is certainly experienced on occasion but the emphasis is on security and partnership, not romance (Knox 1970).
Knox (1970) found that while this shift in perspective is mostly true, he also found that people shift once more at the end of life and swing back into the expectation and experience of romantic love. It is presumed that once all of the complications of establishing oneself in the adult world have been securely accomplished, attentions can then be moved to less practical matters like reviving, or seeking out new love.
All of these attitudes affect the day-to-day concerns of married couples. The most important issue that younger couples grapple is the financial aspects of the relationship. Living expenses as well as the expense of raising children has increased immensely over the last few generations and it is almost completely expected that the woman will work outside the home even after the couple decide to have children. Because of this expectation of a two-income relationship there is added pressure of having separate vehicles to facilitate the two jobs, childcare concerns, and educational pressures. Both men and women desire advanced educations to secure the most lucrative jobs. If the couple have not already attended college before they were married or before they had children this puts added pressure on the spouse that is not going to be attending school to carry the bulk of the financial load. With these complications in mind it is a valid concern as to whether a second income is actually worth the expense of the extra vehicle, extra education, and the extra money spent on childcare in order for both parents to work.
An extremely interesting phenomenon is that, though women are now expected to hold jobs outside of the home even after having children, women still take on the majority of the domestic chores and childrearing responsibilities in the family. Men are still expected to be the primary breadwinners, and though the expectations for them to take part in the domestic chores and childrearing activities have certainly increased, they are still far from equal (Craig 2006).
These financial complications and the imbalance in the division of household responsibility take a serious toll on relationships. It is possible to see a deterioration of intimacy and communication between couples as the time they spend together lessens and the pressures on them to perform and provide grow. The only good news in this area is that the acceptance of marriage counseling and mental health pursuits in general are far more accepted today than they were two or three generations ago. It is no longer taboo to seek help in keeping a marriage together. However, ironically, the divorce rate keeps climbing no matter how much the acceptance of marriage counseling improves.
All in all the attitudes towards marriage and the responsibilities that are attached to the institution have changed quite dramatically over a rather short period of time. Marriage is no longer permanent, and so it is not the secure institution that is once was. Marriage is still a strong expectation in the youth of today, but they are decidedly pessimistic in the longevity of those relationships. Pressures to perform equal functions within the marriage strains an already difficult relationship, and lightening attitudes toward seeking professional help doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. There is some hope that trends will swing back towards a more traditional attitude, but there is no guarantee that it will necessarily strengthen the weaknesses that our advancing culture has caused. Only time will tell whether the institution of marriage will reestablish itself in the hearts and minds of future generations.
Whitehead, B, D. & Popenoe, D.P. (1999). “Changes in teen attitudes toward marriage.”
The National Marriage Project: Next Generation Series.
Knox, D. (1970b) Conceptions of love at three developmental levels. The Family
Coordinator 19, 151-157.
Craig, L (2006). ‘Children and the revolution: A time-diary analysis of the impact of motherhood on daily workload’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 125-143.