by William J. Doherty
from an article called
"Consumer Marriage and Modern Covenant Marriage"
Until the twentieth century, marriage all over the world could be called "Institutional Marriage." It was based on economic security, raising children, and men as the head of the household representing the couple in the world. Families were large and expectations for emotional intimacy between the spouses were low. Husband and wife roles were separate. Divorce was rare, and couples expected to stay together unless someone did quite awful things. The key value in the Institutional Marriage was responsibility. Marriage existed for the welfare of children and families, not primarily for the personal happiness of the spouses.
The social changes of the twentieth century brought on the "Psychological Marriage." Here the emphasis was on the emotional satisfactions of marriage relationships based on friendship, intimacy, sexual satisfaction, and gender equality. For the first time in history, families existed for individuals rather than vice versa. The key value of the Psychological Marriage was personal satisfaction. Commitment in marriage was a "given," as seen by the low divorce rates at the high-water mark of the Psychological Marriage during the post-World War II era.
The social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s changed the face of marriage again by bringing in a powerful form of me-first individualism combined with a call for far more gender equality than the Psychological Family had delivered. Expectations for marital closeness and happiness skyrocketed along with the divorce rate. For the first time, the "soft" reasons for getting divorced became both acceptable and common, supported by legal changes to "no-fault" divorce. For the first time in human history, marriages could be ended by one of the spouses saying, "It's not working for me anymore." The era of Consumer Marriage was dawning.
During the go-go economic years of the 1980s and 1990s, when market economies triumphed over socialist economies all over the world, the consumer culture captured the hearts- and marriages-of Americans in new ways. Psychological Marriage mutated into Consumer Marriage, marriage with high psychological expectations but now, spiced with a sense of entitlement and impermanence. The chief value of the Consumer Marriage is making sure that one's needs are being met and that one's spouse is doing a good job.
In practice, most couples embrace a variety of values for their marriage, including the values of responsibility and commitment emphasized by the Institutional Family. But these values are always in danger of being trumped by the consumer values of personal gain, low cost, entitlement, and keeping one's options open. In consumer culture, the exit door is always available. Commitments are always provisional, as long as the other person is meeting our needs.
In some circumstances, we manage to convince ourselves that we need only provide money to keep the relationship intact, as when a noncustodial parent considers the payment of child support his only parental obligation. And when the price gets too high or the relationship supplies little or nothing in return, even money may be withdrawn in favor of another "product." The parent owes no loyalty beyond payment, as in the consumer relationship with breakfast cereal or a car.
Has the consumer culture brought some good things into contemporary marriage? Yes. Good consumers in the marketplace are well-informed. They insist on high-quality goods and service. They spend their resources wisely.
When it comes to marriage, good consumers choose their mates carefully rather than impulsively. They learn what it takes to make a marriage work. And they expect to be treated lovingly and fairly by their spouses.
As a culture, we have no new, coherent alternative to Consumer Marriage. The more stable Institutional Marriage is dead, and most contemporary men and women do not want to bring it back. The price in personal freedom and equality for women is too high. The Psychological Marriage, which assumed commitment but did not work on building it, was not sturdy enough to withstand the me-first consumer world. It's not that most people go into marriage with a full-blown consumer attitude; indeed, most believe that they are fully committed for life. The consumer model kicks in when problems arise and gridlock occurs, as they do in almost every marriage. That's when we begin to ask if what we are getting from the marriage is worth the price of dealing with its problems.
We need a new ideal of marriage that re-emphasizes the commitment and responsibility of the Institutional Marriage while embracing emotional satisfaction elements of the Psychological Marriage and the self-advocacy elements of the Consumer Marriage. We need an ideal of marriage that fosters commitment and individual well-being, both permanence and equality between men and women. An ideal that accepts divorce but sees it as the tragic exception and not the norm. I call this Modern Covenant Marriage
Every cultural trend, including consumer culture, has something to teach us. Modern Covenant Marriage is like Consumer Marriage in one important way. It embraces the importance of spouses advocating their needs and rights in the relationship. It stresses that people should not sit still while being taken advantage of by their spouses.
But Modern Covenant Marriage goes beyond Consumer Marriage in most other ways. Covenant marriage involves a commitment not only to the other person but also to the marriage itself. I eat Cheerios, but I am not committed to General Mills. In a covenant marriage, the spouses have an abiding commitment to the "we" as well as to the other spouse, to the marriage along with the person. The marriage becomes the third party in their couple relationship.
This "third party" commitment is especially easy to see if you have children, because you realize how much your children rely on your marriage relationship, in addition to relying on each of you individually. Kids whose parents divorce may still have two parents to depend on, but not a marriage. It is a huge loss.
Modern Covenant Marriage requires the habits of the heart and mind, where the well-being of your spouse and your marriage is as important as your own well-being, where the soft reasons for divorce are off the table, and where efforts for continued improvement are tempered with acceptance of human limitations.
The battlefields of divorce are strewn with the carcasses of couples who started out with love, commitment, and good intentions. As stresses and dissatisfactions mount, and they inevitably do, the seductive forces of consumer culture are too strong to resist without an alternative model of marriage.
Skills are needed to maintain a Modern Covenant. Modern Covenant Marriage puts high demands for self-awareness, empathetic understanding, and negotiation skills. Researchers have found that the ability to deal constructively with conflict is a key factor in long-term successful marriage.
But skills are not enough, as evidenced by the fact that male therapists, who presumably have good communication skills, have higher-than average divorce rates. Knowing what to do to help your marriage, although necessary, is not enough to see you through the hardest of times. A covenantal commitment is needed, but with a modern sensibility that recognizes the dignity and worth of both spouses along with the abiding importance of the bond they have created.
We have to find a new way to be married in a new century, or else I fear that nothing we do for the generations that follow us - no technological or medical breakthroughs - will offset the debilitating losses that failed marriages will inflict on our children and their world. We have to name the problem of consumer marriage before we can fight it. And we have to unleash the human capacity for sustained moral commitment from the tentacles of marketplace that is slowly choking it, generation by generation. The stakes could not be higher.
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