The Dynamics of Modern Marriages
By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
Until recently, couples formed around promises of emotional exclusivity and social fidelity, uniqueness in each other’s mind and life, and (more common until the 1940s) virginity. Marriage was also a partnership: economic, or related to childrearing, or companionship. It was based on the partners’ past and background and geared towards a shared future.
Nowadays, couples coalesce around the twin undertakings of continuity (“I will ALWAYS be there for you”) and availability (“I will always BE there for you.”) Issues of exclusivity, uniqueness, and virginity have been relegated to the back-burner. It is no longer practical to demand of one’s spouse to have nothing to do with the opposite sex, not to spend the bulk of his or her time outside the marriage, not to take separate vacations, and, more generally, to be joined at the hip. Affairs, for instance – both emotional and sexual – are sad certainties in the life of every couple.
Members of the couple are supposed to make themselves continuously available to each other and to provide emotional sustenance and support in an atmosphere of sharing, companionship, and friendship. All the traditional functions of the family can now be – and often are – outsourced, including even sex and emotional intimacy. But, contrary to marriage, outsourcing is frequently haphazard and unpredictable, dependent as it is on outsiders who are committed elsewhere as well. Hence the relative durability of marriage, in its conservative and less-conventional forms alike: it is a convenient and highly practicable arrangement.
Divorce or other forms of marital breakup are not new phenomena. But their precipitants have undergone a revolutionary shift. In the past, families fell apart owing to a breach of exclusivity, mainly in the forms of emotional or sexual infidelity; a deficiency of uniqueness and primacy: divorced women, for instance, were considered “damaged goods” because they used to “belong” to another man and, therefore, could offer neither primacy nor uniqueness; or an egregious violation of the terms of partnership (for example: sloth, dysfunctional childrearing, infertility).
Nowadays, intimate partners bail out when the continuous availability of their significant others is disrupted: sexually, emotionally, or as friends and companions. Marriages are about the present and are being put to the test on a daily basis. Partners who are dissatisfied opt out and team up with other, more promising providers. Children are serially reared by multiple parents and in multiple households. The ancient institution of monogamous marriage is ill-suited to the exigencies of modern Western civilization. People of both genders live and work longer (which renders monogamy impracticable); travel far and away frequently; and are exposed to thousands of tempting romantic alternatives via social networking.
But the roots of the crumbling alliance between men and women go deeper and further in time. Long before divorce became a social norm, men and women became two disparate, incompatible, and warring subspecies.
The 20th century was a monument to male fatuity: wars and ideologies almost decimated the species. Forced to acquire masculine skills and fill men’s shoes in factories and fields, women discovered militant self-autonomy, the superfluousness of men, and the untenability of the male claims to superiority over them.
In an age of malignant individualism, bordering on narcissism, men and women alike put themselves, their fantasies, and their needs first, all else – family included – be damned. And with 5 decades of uninterrupted prosperity, birth control, and feminism/ women’s lib most of the female denizens of the West have acquired the financial wherewithal to realize their dreams at the expense and to the detriment of collectives they ostensibly belong to (such as the nuclear family.) Feminism is a movement focused on negatives (obliterating women’s age-old bondage) but it offers few constructive ideas regarding women’s new roles. By casting men as the enemy, it also failed to educate them and convert them into useful allies.
Owing to the dramatic doubling of life expectancy, modern marriages seem to go through three phases: infatuation (honeymoon); procreation-accumulation (of assets, children, and shared experiences); and exhaustion-outsourcing (bonding with new emotional and sexual partners for rejuvenation or the fulfilment of long-repressed fantasies, needs, and wishes.) Divorces and breakups occur mostly at the seams, the periods of transition between these phases and especially between the stages of accumulation-procreation and exhaustion-outsourcing. This is where family units break down.