Actress Cameron Diaz, 38, was quoted this week declaring marriage a “dying institution.” Ms. Diaz added, “I don’t think we should live our lives in relationships based off old traditions that don’t suit our world any longer.”
Well, I’m not certain marriage ever did suit most people who tried it. From what I hear in my psychiatry office, and from what I hear from other psychiatrists and psychologists, and from what my friends and relatives tell me and show me through their behavior, and from the fact that most marriages end either in divorce or acrimony, marriage is (as it has been for decades now) a source of real suffering for the vast majority of married people.
To go further, I would venture that 90 percent of the married patients I speak with would rank their marriages in the top two stressors in their lives, while only 10 percent would rank their marriages as one of the top two sources of strength in their lives.
As a healer, I can’t help looking askance at anything that depletes energy, optimism, mood and passion to the extent that marriage does. It is, without a doubt, one of the leading causes of major depression in the nation.
In my opinion there are four important social, cultural and psychological reasons marriage causes so much pain.
First, the involvement of the state in marriage has been a colossal mistake. The granting of marriage licenses by government debases an institution which is actually the proper domain of churches, temples and other entities focused on God and Spirit. Government involvement means that love and commitment become sterile, linked to legislation and weighted down with legal implications that are psychologically suffocating. Smart, aware people feel consciously or unconsciously disempowered from the moment they say, “I do.”
I wanted to marry my wife, not the governor of Massachusetts or a Superior Court Judge.
The government, in fact, should have no role in marriage, whatsoever. There should be no income tax distinction between married and single people. Each person should file as an individual. That would simplify the debate about same sex marriage (or marriage between three people—which I guarantee you is in the offing), because the state would be out of the marriage business entirely. Laws should exist, instead, that simply commit parents to financially support their biological children. Beyond that, it should be left to the individuals involved (husbands and wives) to go see their priests or ministers or rabbis about getting married and to then go see lawyers to write any financial contracts between them that they wish to.
Getting government out of our marriages would do a lot to make them feel less confining.
A second reason marriage is a dying institution is the invention of oral contraception. Once human beings understood that they could express themselves emotionally, romantically and sexually without necessarily creating multiple families and perilously dividing their assets, the psychological pain of living without sexual passion (even by choice) was significantly intensified. And, make no mistake about it, marriage that includes cohabitation is a really tough environment in which to preserve such passion. The vast, vast majority of men and women, in fact, are no longer physically attracted to their spouses after five or ten years (that’s being kind), if they have seen one another most of that time. Human beings just are not built to desire one another once we have flossed in the same room a hundred times and shared a laundry basket for thousands of days.
Very few normal people who live together for long enough want to keep on doing it. Roommates tire of each other. Sons and daughters grow up and move out. Siblings end up at each other’s throats.
To give marriage a chance at long-lived passion, couples now need to build in space from one another and time apart.
They need to work very hard to stay interesting to one another, not just stay around one another. Too few couples are determined to do this, and it is very, very difficult, in any case.
The third reason marriage is a dying institution is because it inherently deprives men and women of the joy of being “chosen” on a daily basis. It’s natural to like the feeling of being wanted (most people thirst for it), and the fact that leaving a marriage involves “lawyering up” and suffering greatly means that most husbands and wives have to wonder whether their spouses really want to stay, or simply don’t want to go through the hassle of leaving. If it were a relatively simple process to decide to live apart (and honor a financial contract for the support of children), then we might actually exert more effort to be attractive to our spouses for longer. We might appreciate the fact that they’re still around.
Fourth, our collective experience with marriages failing in such great numbers is itself one of the reasons the institution is dying. No one likes being part of a group of hypocrites. The fact that millions of Americans take vows to stay in marriages for life, then leave those marriages—once, twice, maybe three times—has so trivialized and mocked those vows that many silently chuckle to themselves while listening to them. Once enough divorced parents have wept with joy at the placing of rings on the fingers of their daughters or daughters-in-law, the backbone of marriage as an institution must snap.
It’s only a matter of time now. Marriage will fade away. We should be thinking about what might replace it. We should come up with something that improves the quality of our lives and those of our children. And we should keep government out of it, if we know what’s good for us.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, and co-author, with Glenn Beck, of the bestselling book “The 7: Seven Wonders that Will Change Your Life.” Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.