Europeans find the American cult of marriage (and of the related rite of passage, the mega-wedding) somewhat freakish. We tend to get married somewhat later (there is no such concept as the “starter marriage” over here), and we divorce a bit less. Also, it seems to me that we do not load our spouses with expectations that they’ll be the exclusive source of intimacy, companionship, and fulfillment. That is for reasons both good and bad, as (I speculate) we are on average better at maintaining our pre-marriage friendships alive, but at the same time we tend to stay much closer to our family of origin, marital mobility being lower than it is in the United States – in much the same way people are markedly less willing to relocate for work.
An article published a couple of years ago by history professor Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, makes some interesting points about how Americans got to fold their expectations for bliss into one relationship alone, the one with their spouse. Of course, things didn’t start out that way: for centuries, marriage was pretty much an economic arrangement, period:
Until 100 years ago, most societies agreed that it was dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion. […] From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.
The Victorian refusal to acknowledge sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.
By the 20th century, however, we somehow got the idea that “individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage”:
[…] society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection. The insistence that marriage and parenthood could satisfy all an individual’s needs reached a peak in the cult of “togetherness” among middle-class suburban Americans in the 1950s.
And it didn’t get any better with the shift to a post-industrial society:
[T]he time Americans spend socializing with others off the job has declined by almost 25 percent since 1965. Their free hours are spent with spouses and […] with their children. […] As Americans lose the wider face-to-face ties that build social trust, they become more dependent on romantic relationships for intimacy and deep communication, and more vulnerable to isolation if a relationship breaks down. In some cases we even cause the breakdown by loading the relationship with too many expectations.
The solution, it seems, lies in the domain of portfolio theory: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Why something so obvious got obliterated by American culture, I guess, is for behavioral economists to explain. In Coontz’s words:
The solution is not to revive the failed marital experiment of the 1950s, as so many commentators noting the decline in married-couple households seem to want. Nor is it to lower our expectations that we’ll find fulfillment and friendship in marriage.
Instead, we should raise our expectations for, and commitment to, other relationships, especially since so many people now live so much of their lives outside marriage. Paradoxically, we can strengthen our marriages the most by not expecting them to be our sole refuge from the pressures of the modern work force. Instead we need to restructure both work and social life so we can reach out and build ties with others, including people who are single or divorced.