It is commonly remarked that society in general and marriage in particular are growing more individualistic. We’re less likely to join organizations, to have several close friends we can trust, to conceive of marriage as a lifelong partnership. We’re growing more isolated (it is said), and we see even marriage, which should be an intimate and interdependent relationship, as only a vehicle for personal fulfillment. Far from sharing their daily lives, moreover, spouses are now “alone together.”
In a paper just published in the Journal of Family Theory & Review, Carrie Yodanis and Sean Lauer push back against this idea. Although some prominent family scholars share the widely held view that marriage has grown less institutionalized and more individualistic, measures of how married couples actually live suggest that rather than maintaining separate, autonomous lives, they continue to form interdependent partnerships.
If couples are living individualistically, Yodanis and Lauer write,
spouses should be more likely to do things like live apart; keep their resources separate, including having separate bank accounts; maintain separate social networks; opt not to have children with each other; maintain independent rather than interdependent paid work and caring roles; have separate family names; and not consider their marriage a permanent relationship… Such behaviors would make it possible for spouses to maintain independence, personal freedom, and a unique identity that is separate from their spouse. This would be important for fulfilling individual goals and needs while in the relationship, but it also makes it easier to leave the relationship if and when desired.
Some of these individualistic behaviors have become less rare in the past several decades, as the researchers document, but they’re not clearly moving toward becoming dominant, and indeed, none are even common. Here are the indicators they examined.
1. More than nine in ten women take their husband’s last name when they marry; keeping one’s maiden name is more common than it was in the 1960s, but less so than it was in the late 1990s.
2. As of about a decade ago, more than eight in ten spouses pooled all their finances, which “represents togetherness, commitment, and trust in marriage” (according to studies). Managing individual incomes separately is “only slightly” more popular than in it was in past decades, according to the limited available evidence.
3. Excluding separated couples, a mere 3 percent of married people live in a different household from their spouse, and between 1980 and 2000, married people became less likely “to think that they would enjoy living apart from their spouse.”
4. Married couples still spend time together on ordinary tasks and leisure activities on a daily basis; according to a 2009 study, “couples spend more time together in join activities” than couples did in 1965. Other studies find declines in the activities spouses do together; still, as of 2000, “spouses continued to share 69% of their friends, 66% of spouses almost always ate their main meal together…, and 52% of spouses who belong to clubs or associations belong to at least one of those together.”
Measures of how married couples actually live suggest that rather than maintaining separate, autonomous lives, they continue to form interdependent partnerships.
5. Voluntary childlessness, which should be a marker of spouses being more invested in pursuing their own goals and maintaining their ability to end the relationship, is very rare among married couples. Specifically, “among currently married women age 35–44 in the period 2006–2010, only 3.8% were voluntarily childless, meaning that they had no children and did not expect to have any even though they were physically able to.” That proportion has not changed much in the last few decades.
6. Although dual-earner couples are now the norm, and married fathers spend more time on child care and housework than in the past, most couples’ work-family arrangements remain interdependent. Rather than splitting income-earning, child care, and housework fifty-fifty, as strictly independent and egalitarian spouses would presumably do, husbands tend to do more paid work and wives to do more child care and housework. Thus, “Many wives remain dependent on husbands to maintain their economic standard of living, and husbands remain dependent on wives to care for the home and children.” After increasing from the 1960s through the 1990s, since the late 90s, “the proportion of dual-earning married couples has declined.”
7. Lastly, “individualized marriage should be associated with high levels of divorce” since each partner in an individualistic marriage would put his or her own identity, interests, and desires above those of the other. Divorce undoubtedly became more common between 1960 and 1980; whether it has since increased or decreased is disputed. Yodanis and Lauer cite studies showing a decline, but other scholars believe that divorce rates have actually continued to rise. Whatever the direction of the trend, a 2007 study showed that among U.S. married individuals, “there is growing support for the norm of lifelong marriage—and less support for divorce.” Divorce is tragically widespread, but lifelong marriage remains the widespread ideal.
Despite living interdependently, as such indicators suggest that they are, married people may explain their behavior in individualistic terms, Yodanis and Lauer note. “Individualistic motives—explaining behaviors as rooted in individual interests, goals, and benefits—have become dominant in the United States,” they write. “People are expected to use individualistic motives to explain and justify behaviors, including those in marriage.” One scholar studying love in marriage “concluded that the romantic notion of love ‘reproduces the institutional features of marriage, recasting them as matters of individual volition.’”
Thinking in individualistic terms could conceivably cause some couples to live more individualistically over time, or to leave a less-than-satisfying marriage that in a more institutionalized era, they would have remained in. A separate trend—the growing emphasis on meeting one another’s emotional needs and having one’s needs met, rather than simply fulfilling the traditional spousal roles of an earlier era—could either undermine or promote individualization. It could produce a strong, interdependent relationship characterized by mutual unselfishness and gratitude. But when the spouses’ expectations and efforts don’t match up, it also produces divorce.
And of course, a more individualistic frame of mind could hold back some people from marrying in the first place, as Yodanis and Lauer mention. Nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence suggests that for most couples who do tie the knot, marriage is not individualistic. It still means combining two lives into one interdependent partnership.