The Death of Marriage?

Oct 5, 2011 by Tom Dellner

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s Annual Conference—held last week in Fort Worth, Texas—was an unmitigated success on all fronts. It was well attended. The continuing education workshops covered a variety of timely and compelling subjects and were ably led by talented experts in the particular field. The research poster presentations were eye-opening. And, of course, the Fort Worth barbecue and Tex-Mex can’t be discounted.

But for me, the best aspect of this year’s conference was the integration of the perspectives of gifted scholars from disciplines other than psychology into the plenary session line-up. For example, AAMFT brought in Dr. Keith Hampton—Assistant Professor in the Anneberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania—to discuss the impact of technology and social media on family and other relationships. (You can read my take on his fascinating presentation here.)

Dr. Meredith F. Small
Dr. Meredith F. Small

Another interesting perspective from outside the world of psychology came from Dr. Meredith F. Small. Dr. Small—Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, an acclaimed author and an in-demand speaker who’s made numerous guest appearances on NPR’s “All Things Considered”—offered an anthropologists’ perspective on marriage and family.

Dr. Small peppered her remarks with statistics and factoids about the fast-evolving institution of marriage—and most of them do not bode well for marriage, at least as the institution is conceptualized by traditional American culture. Some of the more telling examples come from Europe, where people tend to marry once, or not at all (unlike in America, where we get divorced at a high rate, but where 85 percent of divorcees remarry). In Sweden, 60 percent of women never marry. In France, not only do couples marry half as frequently as their American counterparts, there’s even a union that can be ended with a simple letter from one spouse to his/her (now) ex.

Dr. Small went on to describe a rapidly declining birth rate and a worldwide trend toward state-sanctioned same-sex marriages and families.

She is convinced that all of this is going to have a tremendous impact on children, although she is quick to note that the nature of that impact is yet to be fully understood. This much is sure, though, according to Dr. Small: traditional marriage and child rearing are now de-coupled in America, as has been the case in Europe for a decade or more.

As for her view of marriage and how the institution came to exist, Dr. Small takes a very different position than most anthropologists, and it may go a long way toward explaining some of the trends noted above. She disagrees with the traditional view that marriage evolved as a procreation strategy—the most effective away to pass along one’s genes from generation to generation.

Instead, Dr. Small believes that the evolution of the cultural institution of marriage has its roots in the need to form the elaborate and complicated social networks required to survive. It is, according to Dr. Small, “an evolved survival strategy based on a cooperative alliance.

“We’re born not to be monogamous, but rather to be cooperative and connected.”

She concluded with an answer to the question, “Is marriage dead in western culture?”

“No. We still have and need cooperative ventures,” she said. Then, after a pause, she added, “And the wedding industry would never let that happen!”

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