The institution of marriage, and the meaning we make of it, has changed dramatically over time. When looking at a brief history, we can see that the very concept of marriage has moved from being a legal, contractual term to one that now embodies a huge spectrum of dynamics, expectations, and emotions. As discussed in his paper Marital Expectations and Exits in the Nineteenth Century, Hartog mentions how in the modern day, “husbands and wives… mold their marriages to suit their purposes and identities. There are, then, as many types of marriages as there are married couples, each one the product of the distinctive choices and investments of its partners.”
This wasn’t the case even a century ago, when the definition of marriage was much more focused on legality. It was, above all, considered a civil contract, and any nuances surrounding emotional or sexual wellbeing are essentially unfound during this time. The purpose of marriage was mostly that of a business arrangement, and grounds for divorce needed to be severe. The success of your marriage wasn’t measured in happy years or fulfillment, so often judges would deny miserable couples the ability to divorce without proper cause.
Consider how different the expectations for marriage have shifted from then to now. When examining the barriers to divorce in the 18th and 19thcenturies, it’s clear that society as a whole did not consider love or happiness to be essential qualities within a marriage. Fast forward to present day, and we are expected to fulfill a huge array of roles for our partners. As said by Esther Perel, “once we strayed because marriage was not supposed to deliver love and passion. Today we stray because marriage fails to deliver the love, passion, and undivided attention it promised.”
Perel has spoken quite a bit on the topic of the increasing (and often contradictory) expectations we’ve placed on the modern-day marriage, in which we look to “our partner to provide the emotional and physical resources that a village or community used to provide” (Perel). We no longer simply seek romantic fulfillment from our partners – we also turn to them as a best friend, financial counterpart, therapist, co-parent, and a list of other roles. With increased expectations comes increased rates of failure, as couples struggle to keep up with the many demands placed upon them.
So how do we manage these heightened expectations around marriage? To begin, it may require us to alleviate the pressure for our partner to “do it all.” Research indicates that people with access to more social resources (meaning a larger support system) tend to have more successful marriages. Consider what areas are essential for your partner to cover, and what areas you can invest into other relationships. Sometimes, our spouse isn’t the best person for the job and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a failure as a partner.
Secondly, we need to stop thinking of love and relationships as a commodity. Perel describes how “when a jacket doesn’t meet our expectations, we can easily purchase another one. The same is not true about our relationships. We have to work to make our expectations come to reality, setting expectations is only the start.” We need to invest time and energy into our relationships to ebb and flow with the changes that will inevitably come. Neither the partnership nor the person remains static – as us matchmakers often say, people do not exist in a vacuum! Our partner’s value and benefit to us is and always will be unique, nuanced, and everchanging. Both parties need to be intentional about adopting a healthy mindset around this.
Harvard Medical School professors Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds say that couples can also help combat the strain on modern day relationships by striking a fine balance between sharing common interests and living an integrated life together, but while still “making sure you have enough separateness that you can be an object of curiosity for the other person” (Schwartz). Maintaining a sense of “exploration” around your relationship can often be one of the most impactful qualities in determining marriage success – to be able to share experiences together, but still maintain a sense of mystery.
In reality, just like the individuals who comprise them, every relationship and what it requires is different. If you’re looking for relationship counseling or are currently seeking a partner, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team to learn more about how we can offer our expertise to guide you in the right direction. While our qualified team of matchmakers are what we’re most known for, we also offer counseling and date coaching to those in need.