The promise to live with our loved one “until death do us part” has gradually lost its meaning. Today, it is considered unrealistic to get married with the idea that the relationship will last forever.
The people who support this idea believe that love is fickle and it doesn’t last long enough to form the basis of a lifelong marriage. According to a survey of 5,000 British couples, love lasts, on average, two years, six months, and twenty-five days. After this period, partners stop trying to please each other: 60% of the women stopped dressing nicely for their husbands, 70% of the men admitted that they gave up trying to be tidy and started letting dirty laundry lie around the house, and 60% of couples no longer had romantic moments.
Researchers at the Italian University of Pavia have revealed an even more daunting conclusion: romantic love lasts only a year, and this is due to a chemical in the brain responsible for falling in love. The level of oxytocin, also called the love hormone, is at its peak in the beginning of a relationship, but decreases over time. At the behavioural level, oxytocin reduces fear and increases confidence. In mothers, it determines maternal instinct. This is actually the key, say the Italian researchers: biologically, attachment to a partner is similar to the maternal instinct, which makes some couples longer-lasting and others less so.
The four pillars of short-term marriage
A qualitative analysis of the sociological studies conducted on this subject highlights four main reasons why, in Australia, for example, the average duration of modern marriage is only 8.7 years.
The first of these is the idealisation of marriage, which leads to unrealistic expectations. Both partners expect to find in each other the perfect partner who will bring happiness, an expectation that ends in disappointment and discouragement. “Now it’s not only love and romance but also self-fulfilment and personal growth,” says Pamela Smock, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, in a Newsweek article.
The second factor is the attitude towards marital fidelity, seen as a rather old-fashioned concept. Infidelity is no longer followed by social exclusion, which has led to an increase in the variety of ways (such as marriedsecrets.com) in which married people can have affairs with other married people, deliberately and premeditatedly.
The third pillar is the fact that divorce is also becoming more widely accepted and perceived as normal. If in the past, unhappy married couples hid their grievances and remained married so as not to be ostracised by society, today, couples see divorce as a much simpler solution to their “irreconcilable differences.”
Giving up the stigma attached to divorce has given rise to a lax attitude toward having and raising children out of wedlock, which is the fourth pillar of short-term marriage. Due to social programs that support single mothers, today it is easier for women to raise their children on their own, or to adopt children without intending to marry.
What makes the difference?
Writing about love, American psychiatrist Scott Peck stated that true love is an act of will that transcends the feeling of love. And neuroscience confirms it. Short-lived love is actually the state of being in love, which is just the first phase of a relationship.
American psychiatrist Robert A. Johnson identified three phases through which a relationship goes from the first days until its maturity: the romance stage (the stage in which hormones such as oxytocin, testosterone and cortisol are released), the stage of conflict (the stage in which partners have to resolve their differences; it is perceived as a stage in which the two are no longer in love) and the stage of emotional, affective, and physical intimacy. The latter is the phase of true love—the interactions between the two are no longer based on hormones, but on a conscious and rational choice to maintain their relationship.
If in the 1900’s marriages lasted, on average, 18 years until one of the partners died, today the number of those celebrating 50 years of marriage is increasing. About 5% of couples reach their golden wedding anniversary. Although small, the percentage testifies that marriage “until death do us part” is not an illusion.
“My life has been beautiful,” Wihelmenia Jones said at her and Leroy’s vow renewal ceremony. “Even the difficult times are part of the learning experience,” she said, noting that if she could start over, she would choose her husband again.
When governed by true love, marriage can be more than a lifelong relationship. Some would keep it for several lifetimes.