Is My Marriage That Different From My Grandparents' Marriage?

The institution is always changing. But it doesn't feel as though the emphasis on love and companionship is significantly different now than it was in the past.
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Earlier this year, my wife and I wed in Southern California with all four of my grandparents in attendance. I'd never known a world in which they weren't all happily married until earlier this month, when we lost my maternal grandmother. She'd been married to my grandfather for 63 years, nearly twice as long as I've been alive. My paternal grandparents aren't far off that mark, and my parents are just three years shy of their 40th anniversary. My wife's parents are still married, too.

It is widely held that the meaning of heterosexual marriage has undergone a radical change over the last 40 years. As Peter Berkowitz once articulated it, "The sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s have pushed the bearing and rearing of children from the core of marriage's social meaning. Ask twentysomethings and thirtysomethings what they hope for from marriage. They will, of course, tell you that they want love and that they definitely want companionship -- indeed, that they expect their spouse to be their best friend. And obviously they want to share the pleasures of sex. Then ask them about children. Many will pause and say well, yes, certainly, they are thinking about children, and eventually, somewhere down the line, they expect to have one or two. But children, once at the center of marriage, have now become negotiable, and what used to be negotiable -- love, companionship, sex -- has moved to the center."

As a man in his early 30s who married a woman in her late 20s, planning on love, companionship, sex, and kids at some time in the future, I certainly fit Berkowitz's description of "the new order." Nor can I deny certain changes. My wife and I got married later than our forebears. We'll have children later. And we have modern rather than traditional attitudes about career and division of household labor. But comparing marriages four, five, and six decades old to my own, I don't feel as though the particular change from a decidedly procreative union to one substantially based in love and companionship is as pronounced as is often suggested. In my personal experience, having grown up next door to one set of grandparents and a five-minute walk from the other set, love and companionship have long been core to marriage.

Think of the math. My grandparents raised their kids in a couple decades -- that is to say, for less than a third of their time together. The subsequent love and support they gave their kids and grandkids cannot be overstated. But the child-rearing obligation that traditionalists want to preserve -- a stable, two-parent household composed of a child's biological parents -- was met decades ago. Once their kids left home, once my parents got married and had me, my grandparents didn't imagine the core of their marriage as exhausted. They expected "to love and cherish, in sickness and in health," 'til death. They've spent their "empty nest" years with one another as business partners, traveling companions, and friendly competitors in gin rummy.

That wasn't ever negotiable.

I once conducted an interview about another couple from the World War II generation. Their granddaughter shared the advice her grandparents gave her prior to her wedding. "They sat me down and told me, 'Anyone can get a divorce nowadays. But we never did because, as individuals, you die alone. And do you want, grandchild, to be 80 years old and to look back on your life having stopped and started and stopped and started? Or do you want to look back knowing that you went through and got through and learned from and moved forward with one person?' They kept it up, not because of the children or the social implications, but because they were always curious about what would happen at the end. And their comment to me was that the end proved much more worthwhile to them, having gone through it together rather than having done it alone."

That's just one couple's advice, but am I wrong in thinking that lots of people from their generation would nod along, thinking it captured a core part of how they saw marriage? I'm curious. I'd like to hear from older Americans about every subject covered in this article. Am I just failing to appreciate that people of my grandparents' generation thought of marriage more differently than I can even conceive? Child-rearing is important to me. Like every married couple I know in my generation, my wife and I made sure we were agreed about "kids or not" long before we married. I married a woman I knew would be a fantastic mother. Once we have kids, they'll be at the core of our lives. But if either of us were, heaven forbid, struck tomorrow by a disease or a physical accident that left us unable to have kids, I'd still feel lucky to be married to my spouse, and I'm certain everyone I know in my grandparents' generation would understand that. In fact, they'd be upset if we divorced, even if we reasoned, "the purpose of marriage is child-rearing." This despite the fact that both of us would be perfectly capable of thriving on our own in an economic sense, and wouldn't face anything like the bygone stigma around divorce.

My idea of marriage has been powerfully shaped by my traditional grandparents, my parents, and even old novels like Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Trinity. True, when it comes to women's equality and same sex marriage, I hold the liberal views of my generation. But marrying a romantic love is much older than my generation. So is marrying a best friend. So it doesn't feel like the institution I joined in October is different, at its core, from the one that my grandparents and parents joined. And I suspect -- I can't prove, but would bet if I could -- that the gulf separating my conception of marriage from my grandparents is narrower than the gulf separating my grandparents' conception from their grandparents, or certainly their great-grandparents.

Am I wrong? So many people talk about a significant shift to love and companionship as a very recent change. I keep thinking that I must be missing something. I understand that if you go back farther in time, contemporary notions of love and companionship did not prevail. But knowing my grandparents and other people from their generation, whose marriages were not arranged, tied to property, or otherwise transactional, it sure seems like that shift predated their unions. Readers with thoughts or insights on these questions are encouraged to email the address below.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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