The Precarious Future of Marriage


Luke Leiden

Traditional marriage appears to be on its way out. But whether it’s truly dying or simply transforming remains to be seen.

Picture this: it’s your wedding day. You slowly walk down the aisle, your singular soulmate of the opposite sex smiling at you the whole way. You exchange vows. You promise to be true, to always be there, to only have a sexual and emotional connection with that one person until the day you die (40+ years from now). Everyone gathered there celebrates as you take your kiss, in awe of the beautiful and legally restrictive institution that is monogamous heterosexual marriage. 

There aren’t many people that can currently imagine this scenario with excitement and minimal revulsion. But this description of many’s personal hell is what marriage looked like for the majority of the past few millennia. Only recently has this very specific definition begun to be redefined, as people worldwide have questioned the validity and obsolescence of marriage as an institution. Today, slight deviations from traditional marriage are not difficult to find, but how will these deviations continue to expand and develop with time?

The most important element of historical marriage is monogamy: the state of being married to only one person at a time. While monogamy does continue to be the preference of many, due to reproductive tendencies, territorial natures and social pressure, there is an increasingly strong anti-monogamy movement taking hold nationally. Polyamory, the state of being involved in multiple consensual romantic and sexual relationships, is particularly popular, as many find polyamorous relationships significantly more honest and open than the alternatives. Moreover, there are many health benefits to polyamory, as noted by senior Sara Reardon, who describes monogamy “doesn’t make any sense sexually.” Nevertheless, monogamy itself shouldn’t be done away with entirely, given the importance of parental figures in raising happy and healthy children. But what form exactly these figures take remains much more flexible.

Another traditional aspect of marriage is that it takes place between a man and a woman. But with the striking down of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and the national legalization of same-sex marriage, this particular aspect no longer holds true. Men can now marry men, women can marry women and everyone else in between can marry literally anyone. Marriage is no longer something decided by gender, but by mutual love and commitment. 

Marriage is no longer seen as a life-long commitment either, with consistently high divorce rates providing no illusion that every marriage will be successful. In fact, 40-50 percent of marriages end in divorce, a fact that is both deterring and of great consequence, particularly for children who are forced to experience it. Senior Grace Fink explains, “I am convinced that if someone in a relationship has divorced parents they are 737,383,863 times more likely to get divorced themselves,” a statistic that may not be 100 percent accurate but has been more or less corroborated by several studies

As a result of these increased expectations for unsuccessful marriages, divorce itself has also changed significantly, weakening marriage’s status as a strong legal contract. Across the nation, divorce is becoming more peaceful and less expensive. Some couples may choose to stay married while severing all romantic ties, while others seek out alternative means such as divorce mediation, counseling, and options like “divorce with integrity” and “conscious uncoupling,” in an effort to minimize the harmful expenses of an event that is becoming more and more common. 

Lastly, marriage was defined by a guarantee of fidelity. Given the estimate that 45-55 percent of people will stray at some point during their marriage, this is in no way still considered a given. Rather than being a negative change, infidelity provides options for more open, honest and overall happier relationships. As mentioned above, sexual monogamy is rarely a beneficial construct healthwise. According to David Barash, an evolutionary psychology professor at the University of Washington, the urge to stray sexually actually “indicates… that you are a healthy mammal. Congratulations!” This has led to the development of fluid monogamy, a movement that mirrors polyamory in how marital integrity is no longer maintained through sexual exclusivity, but through honesty and communication. 

It’s clear that marriage is already being rapidly redefined throughout society. While at this rate marriage in the future may be entirely unrecognizable, experts do predict many of the changes we are already seeing to carry forward. For one, same-sex marriages, open marriages and polyamorous relationships will see a strong increase as social norms shift to become more accepting. As a result, the role of sex in marriage in particular will have a redesigned role—one that is no longer exclusive or stigmatized. Also, there will likely be a further deviation from the legal power of marriage in the creation of shorter, more flexible marriage contracts that must be renewed in a manner similar to that of a driver’s license. 

People will likely be getting married at later and later ages and childbirth will consequently decrease, especially with the presence of more desirable alternatives like egg donorship and surrogate parenting. And the marriage rate will see a steady decline, for a number of factors. For one, marriage is no longer necessary to experience fulfillment in life, whether that’s through having children, sharing property or sexual intimacy. As elaborated by senior Grady Clark, “the world is going to be a vastly different place [in the future] and such things as settling down and ‘starting a family’ are going to be secondary to survival.” 

Other reasons for this decline may be due to religious and political changes. According to licensed therapist Vanessa Rivera, “I think if we see an ongoing decrease in Christian beliefs within major players of social policy, the previously highly coveted financial benefits of marriage will decrease. There are so many tax and financial benefits that have been exclusive to monogamous marriage but with those restrictions continuing to ease, marriage won’t hold the power it used to have.” 

Despite all of this, it’s human nature to want a primary partner, an evolutionary desire that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Especially as an adult, where Reardon describes, “relationships [are treated] more as a partnership than friendship/sex/validation,” a soulmate will always be a welcome asset. But we are quickly realizing that there’s room for more than one soulmate, and the exact situation that defines these relationships is much more complicated and open-ended than we could imagine. 

At the end of the day, love is love, and it would be a real shame to allow religion, social pressure, economic needs, etc. to obstruct what someone needs to be happy. Therapists like Rivera are particularly attuned to the consequences of these limitations, observing “great shame from those who want to remain unmarried when society expects them to get married, the shame from a marriage that ends in divorce… and the plummeting self-esteem and pressure from those seeking to get married who feel they are still seeking the right person.”

No one knows for sure what the future of marriage holds. Given the great need for love that is experimental and unrestricted, that is absolutely a good thing.