Marriage As An Institution
The first recorded history of marriage as an institution was gleaned from the ancient civilizations. In “civilized” societies, women were considered property owned by men, first by their fathers and then by their husbands. Early Romans and Greeks often gave women to men as prizes for some heroic deed. Wives had to be faithful to their husbands, while husbands could have concubines. Archeological and anthropological studies have shown that other early forms of marriage were thought to exist in Polynesia. Before Christian missionaries arrived, the Polynesian men and women were thought to have had many partners who formed unions out of love. The Christian missionaries defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman (monogamy) and changed the nature of Polynesian marriages to fit their beliefs. Other cultures condoned polygamy, in which one man could have several wives.
When royal families dominated the Western world, the motive for marriage was often to create a political alliance between countries through royal blood. Later, when the power of royalty declined, money replaced bloodline as a source of power. Then marriages were entered into for economic convenience. Although the Polynesians were believed to marry for love, marrying for love was not a typical reason for marriage in the Western world until the Victorian Age. Whereas many cultures still had arranged marriages and marriages of convenience, marriage by choice was popular in the newly formed United States. However, the choice of marriage partner was officially made by the man, not the woman. A woman had no legal rights of her own in many cultures. In Western society in the 17th through 19th centuries, she was known legally as “the wife of Mr. Smith or Mrs. John Smith,” for example, and continued to be her husband’s property. A woman’s status in society was determined by the status of her husband. Thus, if a woman wanted some semblance of power, she had to marry a powerful man. Even then, whatever status she did have was only obtained through marriage.
In the United States and much of the Western world, the definition of marriage has changed to include many different forms of marriage. Marriages between samesex couples have been legalized in some jurisdictions. This legalization has heightened the controversy surrounding gay and lesbian couples. On the one hand, same-sex couples want the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples. On the other hand, the major religions of the United States do not condone same-sex marriages. Such critics believe that legalizing gay marriage would violate the sanctity of marriage. Yet research shows that marriages began to change long before gay couples sought legal recognition. Heterosexual couples often live together without marriage, and many stay committed to the relationship without a marriage license. Women now choose to have children without marrying or involving fathers in child rearing. Divorce occurs frequently and no longer carries the stigma it once had. To some, legalizing same-sex marriage is just another step in the path to redefining marriage as an option for couples, whether or not children are involved. At the time of this writing, the controversy over gay marriage continues.
Marriage As A Research Topic
The history of marriage as a research topic did not begin until the 1920s. Before that time, ideas about marriage were not scientific, but rather in the form of traditional religious prescriptions for an ideal marriage. At the turn of the 19th century, when problems in marriages and families were acknowledged as societal problems, a focus on the marital ideal was replaced with a focus on direct observations of actual marriages. The desire to solve problems in marriage led to many years of research on marital quality. The goal of these studies was to determine what predicted marital success.
The first research studies on marriage were primarily sociological studies, surveying large segments of the population and using demographic data (e.g., age, income, education) to identify the individual factors that predict marital satisfaction. Then clinical psychologists became interested in marital research in order to design therapeutic techniques to solve marital problems. However, demographic data did not explain the reasons that problems occurred. Researchers began to realize the need for studying the behaviors of spouses during interactions with each other. Such research demonstrated that interpersonal interactions capture valuable information that cannot be found by examining individual characteristics. Behavioral observations of marriages became a very popular and useful method for distinguishing the behaviors between happy and unhappy marriages. Often couples were observed while discussing their own marital problems. It was assumed that knowing how happy and unhappy couples behaved during discussions of problems could help design marital interventions. Such interventions would presumably teach couples what to do and what not to do in order to improve the quality of their marriages.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the study of personal relationships began to emerge. Such research gave marital researchers who were not clinically oriented a forum in which to present their work. Sociology and clinical psychology once dominated the study of marriage, but relationship research is now a multidisciplinary endeavor, including such disciplines as social and organizational psychology, communication studies, and anthropology. Although marital quality remains as a major focus of research on marriage, many other areas of study have been examined. Behavioral observation is still a valuable method, and research on marriage has expanded to include spouses’ perceptions and thoughts about themselves and each another. Coupled with observational research, investigators can identify what spouses are thinking while they are interacting, paving the way for a multilevel image of marital interaction.
There are so few studies examining marriage in different cultures that it is not possible to present a universal definition of an ideal marriage. Much of what is presented below as the successful marriage is based on research in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe and thus reflects the values of the Western world.
There are many different processes and characteristics that make up a successful marriage. Marital satisfaction and stability are thought by most researchers to be the barometer of marital quality and are thus predominant foci of marital research. Instead of presenting an exhaustive list of behaviors and characteristics that comprise a successful marriage, this entry will focus on one process that many researchers agree to be important to marital satisfaction—communication.
Communication is often touted as the crucial component of successful marriages without specifying the type, style, and context of communication. A distinguishing characteristic of satisfied versus dissatisfied couples is the way they communicate about a disagreement, problem, or conflict. Happy couples are less likely to blame each other for problems and more likely to shift the conversational focus to more constructive ways of communicating. If one partner starts saying something destructive or negative, the other partner does not automatically respond with another negative statement. In satisfied marriages, one partner or the other is able to reframe the problem in constructive terms. They are more able to shift focus to see their problems as something they work on together, rather than as the responsibility or fault of the one spouse. Satisfied spouses are flexible and can shift from a focus on the self or the other partner to a focus on the relationship.
Unhappy marriages are those in which conversational styles are rigid and inflexible. When one spouse says something negative, the other spouse responds in kind. Thus, a negative remark can turn into a series of negative exchanges without resolution. When discussing a problem or conflict, the couples seem stuck in a vicious cycle in which the conversation becomes more and more destructive. If time and again they are unable to shift their focus from partner blame to a relationship problem, negative feelings toward one another can eventually turn into contempt. Once that vicious cycle starts, it is very difficult for distressed couples to stop the negativity. Satisfied couples, on the other hand, are able to shift from a destructive to a constructive conversational style.
In the past century, beliefs about marriage as an institution have undergone rapid change in the United States. In addition to adapting to the industrial and technological changes in this society, attitudes about marriage also responded to increases in the freedoms and choices among women. As women gain more status in society in general, they also seek more power in the marital relationship. Because men were thought to be the traditional heads of households, more power for women was expected to lead to more equality in marriage. As women gain more status in the workplace and household, men are expected to take on more tasks traditionally thought of as women’s work (e.g., housekeeping and child rearing). Research has shown that attitudes do not match behavior in marriage. Husbands are not increasing their share of the household labor to match that of wives, but there are some marriages that are built on equity and equality. These are termed peer marriages, marriages that distribute power in ways that satisfy each partner and at the same time preserve the relationship and do not rely on traditional gender roles as guidelines. These are marriages in which the spouses are equals. Although true peer marriages are in the minority, the majority of marriages strive to be more egalitarian. It is these marriages we know the most about. Peer marriage remains a model to which most marriages aspire.
If a young couple gets married today, projections indicate that at least 40% of them will end in divorce. Unfortunately, the majority of couples seeking marital therapy do so when the marriage seems beyond repair. Thus, several marital researchers and therapists want to help couples by teaching them about making relationships work before they get married. Educating premarital couples about marriage is a hopeful trend that holds the promise of preserving marriages of the future.
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