The Best Explanation of Why Marriage is Screwed Up in America
Everyone knows relationships and marriage are a mess these days
Depending on who you believe, the divorce rate is somewhere between 40%-50% for first marriages. It goes up considerably from there once you move on to 2nd and 3rd marriages. 40% of children are now born to unmarried women. Then there’s the “sex recession”:
“If you feel like the chaos of modern life is getting in the way of your sex life, you’re not alone. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 18, 28, or 48, chances are you’re having less sex than your contemporaries in the 1990s. It’s a shift in sexual behavior that researchers have dubbed a “sex recession.”
This trend is most pronounced among teenagers and young adults. According to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 1991, 54 percent of teenagers reported having at least one sexual encounter. By the year 2015, the number dropped to 41 percent.
And yet, this so-called sex recession extends beyond young adults. The research of Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has shown that the average American adult reported having sex nine fewer times per year since the late 1990s, from around 61 times per year to 52 times per year in the early 2010s.”
“… Between 2000-2002 and 2016-2018, past-year sexual inactivity rose from almost 19 percent to almost 31 percent among men ages 18 to 24…”
This is not a description of a nation with a healthy way of looking at relationships or marriage. We can reel off every reason under the sun for this. Men no longer need marriage for sex and women no longer need marriage for security. The pill. Feminism. There’s no longer any stigma around divorce. Men have gotten more feminine, and women have gotten more masculine. The system incentivizes many women to divorce. Social media causes many women to errantly overvalue their attractiveness to men. Men and women are getting married too late. The increasing cost of having kids. The decline of Christianity in America… we could come up with an almost unlimited number of possibilities to debate.
However, there’s no need to do that. The reason being is that one of my favorite podcasts, Lewis Howe’s School of Greatness, did a podcast with Esther Perel. I was already familiar with Esther Perel. I’d heard her interviewed before multiple times and had read one of her books, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (by the way, it was excellent). I wanted to hear Lewis Howes interview her because Perel is a very rare bird indeed. She’s a “relationship expert” who is still married to her first husband and genuinely seems to know what she’s talking about. She has a deep, historical knowledge of how marriage and relationships have been structured in the United States and Europe over the last century. She takes an analytical, not emotional approach to the topic and as an extra added bonus, she’s been a couples’ therapist for 35 years. This is a woman who genuinely knows what she’s talking about.
That may sound like a big build-up, but Perel lived up to the hype. I thought she did a better job of explaining why marriage is going wrong in America than anyone else I’ve ever heard. In fact, I thought it was so good that I paid to have the podcast transcribed, so I could present the key excerpts to you. The whole episode is worth a listen (Not just saying that, either. It’s great), but what you are about to read explains the changes in what we expect from marriage, the cultural changes, and even sexual changes that have so damaged marriage and relationships in America:
Esther Perel – One of the fascinating things for me in looking at sexuality is that it is probably one of the dimensions of a relationship that has changed the most in a very short amount of time. For most of history, and it is still the majority of the world, sex is for procreation. Sex is a marital duty on the part of the women. Nobody cares particularly if she likes it and how she feels and if she wants it, and men have the privilege to go and find sex elsewhere. In a very short amount of time, we are talking about 60 years, we have contraception which is the liberation of women for the first time to free sex from reproduction, from mortality, from death in pregnancy, and in childbirth, all of that. And for the first time, sexuality moves from just biology and a condition to a part of our identity and a lifestyle.
Lewis Howes – In 60 years?
Esther Perel – In 60 Years. ... And many times, we used to marry and have sex for the first time. Now, we marry and stop having sex with others. Monogamy used to be one person for life. Now, monogamy is one person at a time. And people go around telling you, “I am monogamist in all my relationships”. And it makes perfect sense to say that. …And the fact that sexuality in long-term relationships is rooted in one thing only – desire. I feel like it. I want to. Not I have to. Not, we want many kids. After two kids, the only reason to continue doing it with you is because we feel like it… …We've come to marriage after years of sexual nomadism. So, monogamy is a concept that has already been redefined throughout.
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Lewis Howes – It is confusing all of us.
Esther Perel – And how do we sustain it? And that’s why I became fascinated in the nature of erotic desire and how we sustain desire. Because it is the first time ever that we have a grand experiment of humankind, where we want sex with one person …that is fun and connected, and intimate and playful, and we live twice as long. Go figure. It's an amazing idea.
...Lewis Howes – Things are more complicated now in relationships than it used to be 50-100 years ago?
Esther Perel – Yes, absolutely. Why? For a very simple reason: for a long time, we live and we still, in many parts of the world, live in traditional societies where relationships are clearly codified. There are clear rules, there are obligations, there's a tight structure from which you can't get out, but it tells you clearly who you are, where you belong, where you're rooted, and what's expected of you. And you don't have too many questions about “whose career matters more, and who's going to wake up to feed the baby, and who has a right to demand for sex.” Every husband knows exactly what they can ask from their wife and the wife knows exactly what she should not tell her husband and children know their place and adults can all interact. All of this was super regulated. You know exactly that on Sunday you go to visit your family and that you have to call your grandma and you go to church, you go to any other religious institution where you go, to pray to be with the community, etc. …Nobody needs to explain to you why it's important. You just went, because I said so and because that's what you do, that's what we do and that's what we don't do because what will the neighbors say? And there is a community that looks over you all the time, the streets are narrow like that, and everybody knows what's going on in the neighbor’s house.
…This tight structure of our society has moved into what we call today network societies. Network societies are not tight knots, its loose ends, its loose threads, with commitments that can be revoked at any moment. That's why women are constantly writing to you. I thought we had something, and the next day he disappeared. I thought we had developed a sense of trust. Where is the care? Where is the loyalty? Where is the continuity? All these things now… have to be negotiated. Everything that was a rule is now a negotiation, a conversation. “Who's going to go to work? Are we going to move you to the West Coast or are you going to move with me to the East Coast? Are we going to have children? Are we ready to have children? How many children do we even want? On and on and on.
… And all of these questions are rather new questions. Why? Because in the past or in other parts of the world today, you kind of know who you are. Seriously, you're the son of somebody. It starts with that, then you probably will even do what your father has done. If you are a man and maybe not too much of any outside the house if you are a woman, or you may begin charting a course of working outside the house, and all of these things are very, very normative and we don't have any of that at this moment. I call it the “identity economy.” We spend our time trying to figure out who I am… I think communities, people have always compared themselves, but there was a different type of social control, the one that we have on social media today.
…How have relationships changed? I think we've never had more expectations of love and work than we do today. I think we expect today from love and work, many things that we expected before from religion and from community. We want our relationships to be transformative, transcendent, meaningful, spiritual, purposeful, erotic, passionate…
…Lewis Howes – How should we navigate this moving forward, this concept of monogamy?
Esther Perel – ...And I think that in the era of self-fulfillment and the right to happiness, we don't have more desires today than the previous generations. We just feel more entitled to fulfill our desires and we feel that we have a right to be happy. …We really take ourselves a little too seriously and sometimes at the detriment of other people to whom we do have an obligation and a commitment to. Not just our partners, but the world…
There's a lot of sentences today that I never heard (in relationship counseling) 20 years ago. “This is a raw deal. I'm not getting my needs met. Where is my return on investment?” Excuse me, somebody owes you? It's like, “Wow, I am in a relationship for what it's going to give me.” Don't misunderstand me, that’s an important piece, but I'm also in a relationship for what I'm going to give to this person, for what I'm going to give if I want children. …It's like the level of narcissism has to be shrunken a tiny bit on occasion.
…Lewis Howes – You've seen a lot of intimate relationships work and fail over 35-plus years. What's the percentage of people in your mind who are in intimate, long-term relationships? Marriages are not married but together are actually happy most of the time. Thriving. Beautiful, I’m sure, these challenges, but like they're able to work through them with semi-ease. How many relationships in your mind are super happy and thriving after decades of the changes of the times, society, work, family, all the dynamics that happen in life?
Esther Perel – So, I have two ways of answering. The first one is cultural. Your definition of happy, thriving, and fulfilled is probably very different than many other cultures where being healthy, having enough to eat, having children, having grandchildren, having good jobs, being respected in the community, is happy and thriving.
...We have super high expectations. We want everything… we want a partner to be an entire community. My best friend, my trusted confidant, my passionate lover, my intellectual equal, my co-parent, and on top of it I want, with you, to deal with all the vicissitudes of everyday life and all of what we need to get. All of that, and then we should also be passionate, great lovers, fantastic travelers.
So, Eli Finkel has the best answer for you and he's a researcher on marriage, and basically what he says is that the good relationships of today are better than the relationships of history. But they are very few because what you call that happiness, is the top of Olympus. It's climbing the mountain and at the top of the mountain the view is fantastic, but the air is also thinner and not everybody can climb the mountain. The people who get to the top, their top is probably better than the tops of the past.