We see it in movies, read it in modern children’s stories, and hear it in romantic songs: love is the most beautiful, most desirable, and most precious asset of humanity. Many argue that if there is anything that can save the world from itself, it is love. But how is it that love itself has led to profound systemic issues, by dissolving the adhesive that held society together—the family?

Studies in the field have fueled public debate about the failure of marriage and the decline of the family. Different statistics yield different results, and sociologists still oscillate between 41% and 50% regarding the divorce rate in the United States, while the mass media battles between apocalyptic headlines and those that “demystify” them. In the midst of it all remains reality, namely that we are dealing with a new “social animal,” postmodern marriage, which has given birth to unprecedented problems in history.

In the December 2014 issue of the Signs of the Times magazine, we outlined the consequences that the last 25 years have had on the family and, consequently, on society. At least in the countries of the European Union, the divorce rate is on the rise, while the marriage rate is declining. In addition, new adjacent phenomena are observed, such as the doubling of the divorce rate among the +50 age group and an increasing number of children born outside of marriage, both in the EU and in the United States.[1] Among the consequences are serious economic disadvantages for single-parent families, the loss of social benefits, and a decrease in the chances of success for children raised by a single parent. All of these only serve to widen the gap of social inequality even further.

However, the warnings of experts, academic approaches, or the review of the phenomenon fail to prevent the failure of many marriages, and neither do they succeed in being an encouragement for young people considering starting a family. Studying the effects is not the best strategy, but studying the causes that lead to the dissolution of a marriage and the solutions by which this could be prevented give marriages a better chance of success.

The new unknowns

Many of the things that guide our lives are inherited from the modern era, a period characterised by optimism in our ability to find Truth and the confidence that science can explain life and how to live according to new discoveries. Revolutions, new forms of government, declarations of independence, and the establishment of human rights have been considered the correct and relevant elements and actions today, albeit with certain amendments.

Entering postmodernism, we threw certainty out the window and embraced relativism. If there’s any constant today, it’s that people contradict each other on almost everything. On the other hand, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre warns that we’re living in a “new dark ages,”[2] in which we can no longer communicate about the things that matter, political correctness being taken to extremes. Morality and truth are relative, and once again, the answers to life’s big questions elude us. “We are post-truth, post-universal, post-certainty,”[3] says Dr. Julie Rubio, a professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University in the United States.

Today, we can no longer have the same certainties that our grandparents or great-grandparents had. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the fruits of modernism have completely rotted, but increasingly more people are touched at some level and in certain respects by postmodern scepticism. This doesn’t mean that people no longer seek or live for truth, but they struggle to find it themselves and live out their own faith, Rubio says. Often, the most affected domains are those with a significant dose of tradition, such as a political regime like monarchy, an institution like the church, or a union like the traditional family.  

The love that conquered marriage

Among all, the decimation of the traditional family could have the greatest impact, both in the personal lives of postmodernists and at the level of society as a whole. Stephanie Coontz, a leading author in the field of history and family, was skeptical of the idea of a “family crisis.” The research she began in the 1990s aimed to combat the notion that marriage was in an unprecedented crisis, explaining that it has always fluctuated. Ultimately, she says, for thousands of years people have lamented an unprecedented family crisis, ancient Greeks mourned the declining morality of women, Romans spoke of divorce rates and instability, and the first Europeans who settled in America lamented the decline of the family and the rebellion of women and children. Other sociologists, such as Amy Kaler, who studied the phenomenon in Africa, came to the same conclusion: “The invention of a past filled with good marriages is one way people express discontent about other aspects of contemporary life.”[4]

However, Coontz’s discovery is that the current rearrangement of marital and solitary life is historically unprecedented. However, the “marital crisis” varies drastically from country to country, Coontz says. While in the United States the main concern is the high number of extramarital affairs, Germany and Japan are concerned about declining birth rates. Afghanistan, India, and Africa are trying to convince girls to marry later, and Singapore—earlier. In Spain, the problem is that too few people get married and even fewer have children, while in the Czech Republic a higher percentage of single people would be welcome, which would also lower the high divorce rate. Additionally, each region has a different culprit for the problems it faces. However, by reviewing historical trends, Coontz has identified some common themes alongside all these differences: the relationships between men and women have changed drastically in the last 30 years, marriage has become more optional and fragile, and the link between marriage and childbirth is weakening.

Coontz’s conclusion is that modern marriage has undergone continuous metamorphosis over the past 150 years, as people in the 18th century began to embrace the radical idea that love should be the fundamental reason for entering into matrimony. The “sentimentalization” of marriage in the 19th century and its “sexualization” in the 20th century marked the formation of the new system, which culminated in the undermining of marriage as an institution. It’s not that people didn’t experience romantic love in the past, but rather that it wasn’t necessarily associated with marriage, which was a rationally conceptualised and built institution. “For centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today. It organised the production and distribution of people and goods. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labour by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything, from sexual relations to the inheritance of property.”[5] The destruction of an institution with such a role cannot go unnoticed, even if we were swept away by the wave of love.

The love that destroyed marriage

Following the paradigm shift, people were thrilled by how satisfying, intimate, and passionate this partnership could be. Marriage was no longer just a place to find strategic fulfilment, but also a place to find profound meaning in life, and as time passed, it became the place that promised the most fun. Sociologists of the time noted that a “fun morality,” very different from the old “goodness morality,”[6] was taking over society, Coontz says.

Conservatives and sceptics of the time quickly concluded that the new system would be the death of traditional marriage, while proponents of the new liberalisation believed that emotional and sexual fulfilment would lower the divorce rate. What followed was the relaxation of divorce and adultery laws in most countries, and ultimately, the conservatives’ prognosis was closest to reality. However, the process took time. For a long time, historians and legislators wondered why marriages began to break down only after the 1970s. Coontz believes that the correct question is why they didn’t fall apart during the crises of 1790, 1890, or 1920, and the answer is that people couldn’t yet afford to act according to the new aspirations about love and personal fulfilment. “Ironically, then, the fragility of modern marriage stems from the same values that have elevated the marital relationship above all other personal and familial commitments: the concentration of emotion, passion, personal identity, and self-validation in the couple relationship and the attenuation of emotional attachments and obligations beyond the conjugal unit,”[7] Coontz says.

Postmodernism has added even more pressure on marriage, elevating the need for personal fulfilment and selfish love within the couple to new levels. Today, the main causes of divorce are infidelity and incompatibility, but both have the same pattern of thinking behind them: when we said “Yes,” we actually meant “Maybe.” From the outset, marriage is no longer seen to last “until death do us part.” With increased life expectancy, there is enough time for two or even more marriages or deep relationships, accompanied, of course, by equally profound episodes of self-discovery and evolution. The goal today is not to grow together with someone, but regardless of being with someone. Routine, boredom, and lack of excitement are clear signs that evolution is stagnating. As an added ‘bonus’, postmodernism offers a vision of better options, as well as the means to access them. In fact, there’s no point in attaching oneself too long to one person when life is so chaotic and the options are so varied.

The DIY marriage

Perhaps the most informative and reliable advice comes from those whose relationships have stood the test of time. Author Karl Pillemer, a professor at Cornell University, interviewed 1,000 people from this category before writing the book, 30 Lessons for Loving. The conclusions he reached contradict the validity of a marriage according to the postmodern pattern, where a spouse’s goal is to get as much as possible from the other and then move on.

Thus, the best advice for a long and satisfying marriage is to give more than you receive. A marriage cannot function on a 50-50 basis because no couple can live out their marriage keeping score. The attitude should be one of freely giving and being 100 percent involved at all times by both partners. “I think we both are not waking up in the morning and saying: ‘Oh, am I getting what I need out of this?’ We are waking up saying often: ‘What can I do for him, or what can I do for her?’” said one of the interviewees.[8] 

Other authors offer advice from their own experience, from the perspective of both spouses. For example, Mark Driscoll, an evangelical pastor, and his wife, Grace, speak very openly about the delicate issues they have faced in marriage and reduce the “success formula” to seven elements: spiritual fulfilment as a couple, reciprocal love, setting aside intimate time, ensuring a positive atmosphere, assuring the other person that they are needed, mutual devotion, and drawing attention to mistakes and correcting them together.[9]

However, all these pieces of advice cannot overlay a flawed foundation, and the problem remains resolving the main element that leads many couples to the brink of divorce. The new system by which families are formed today is vastly different from the old one. Today, either we make our fulfilment within the couple a supreme goal, or we make marriage itself a supreme goal. In the former case, as expectations rise and we introduce more and more targets of personal fulfilment into the relationship, we become increasingly disappointed when expectations are not met and more critical when the relationship seems empty and unsatisfactory. In the latter case, where we want to be umbilically tied to the person next to us and live like in a cocoon, we risk suffocating the relationship and being left without any other support system when it falls apart.

Love is undoubtedly humanity’s greatest asset, but any imbalance is harmful. What we need today is a dose of the reason that once characterised this union. A well-known ethics specialist, Felix Adler, explained in 1915 that happiness is “ an incident, a concomitant [of marriage], and you cannot make it the highest end, without coming to the intolerable position that marriage should cease when happiness ceases.”[10] People in the past had no secret formula for how to desire a successful marriage and, at the same time, accept failure, Coontz concludes.[11] However, compared to us, they were much more tolerant of what can sometimes be a huge gap between rhetoric and reality, between expectations and daily life. 

[1]“Eliza Berzescu, ‘Young and restless’, Signs of the Times Romania, December 2014, p. 65.”
[2]“Julie Hanlon Rubio, A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, Paulist Press, 2003 (Google books).”
[4]“Stephanie Coontz, ‘Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage’, Viking Penguin, 2005 (Google books).”
[5], “Ibidem.”
[6]“Stephanie Coontz, «The Origins of Modern Divorce», Family Process, vol. 46, nr. 1, 2006, p. 7-16.”
[7], “Ibidem.”
[8]“Karl A. Pillemer, «The Myth of the 50-50 Marriage», 10 Sept. 2012, huffingtonpost.com.”
[9]“Mark Driscoll, Grace Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, Thomas Nelson, 2012 (Google books).”
[10]“Stephanie Coontz, art. cit.”
[11]“Ibidem. .”

“Eliza Berzescu, ‘Young and restless’, Signs of the Times Romania, December 2014, p. 65.”
“Julie Hanlon Rubio, A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, Paulist Press, 2003 (Google books).”
“Stephanie Coontz, ‘Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage’, Viking Penguin, 2005 (Google books).”
“Stephanie Coontz, «The Origins of Modern Divorce», Family Process, vol. 46, nr. 1, 2006, p. 7-16.”
“Karl A. Pillemer, «The Myth of the 50-50 Marriage», 10 Sept. 2012, huffingtonpost.com.”
“Mark Driscoll, Grace Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, Thomas Nelson, 2012 (Google books).”
“Stephanie Coontz, art. cit.”
“Ibidem. .”