Is Marriage Obsolete?

Marriage certainly has its problems, but as they say about democracy, it sure beats the alternatives, according to author Lisa Levey.

Originally appeared at Role/Reboot

Matt Richtel’s Sept. 28th New York Times article “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part” explores the question of whether marriage in its current form has become obsolete. Given the reality that nearly half of all marriages break up, and many more are unhappy unions, Richtel questions whether a better alternative might be some type of renewable marriage contract.

The question is no doubt provocative but I don’t see a renewable contract as the answer. Instead we would do better to focus our attention on what helps to create—and support—stronger marriages through time. A key first step, as suggested by Richtel, is to tone down all the hype. We flood the airwaves with crazy reality shows suggesting you can find your life partner with some kind of Darwinian hunt that lasts a television season. The pages of magazines are filled with an ongoing diet of fantasy celebrity weddings and their subsequent bitter divorces. Even for the average person planning a wedding, it becomes all about the trappings—the dress, the food, the venue—with barely a thought to the quality of the relationship or what will help it to endure.

For many, marriage is followed within a few short years by children with the couple barely having a chance to coalesce as a family unit of two and to develop their couple identity. Similar to weddings being all about the logistics, being pregnant is all about childbirth and preparing to care for the baby in the first few years. Often, there is little talk about what having a child will mean for your lives together. Through my consulting on women’s leadership and work-life issues, having spoken to women and men for years about how they integrate their work and personal lives, I know that many feel caught off guard by the seismic changes once they become parents. There are changes in their relationship, changes in their careers, changes in their finances, changes in the way they spend their time, money, and energy.

The complexity of marriage ratchets up exponentially when children are involved. Children are the game changer because by definition they represent a lifelong commitment. If the marriage breaks up, the couple will forever be linked as parents whereas breakups without children can be a whole lot cleaner and easier.

The predominant modern-day parenting style is a very child-centric one in which we focus intensely on meeting the needs of our children while giving short shrift to our marriages. We want our kids to have every opportunity and we work very hard to make that a reality but too often we neglect the care and feeding of our marital relationships. Our focus is on the well-being of the children rather than the well-being of the whole family, including the adults who keep the family engine running smoothly.

Among the best gifts we can give to our children is a strong and enduring marriage with their other parent. Children derive incredible security and comfort from feeling like their parents are a solid unit, one they can count on and push back on as they face the inevitable challenges of growing up. I am not suggesting people should stay together just for the kids—or that divorce is not sometimes the best alternative—but as a child of divorce since the age of 3, I can say with great certainty that divorce is hard on everyone, children and parents alike.

The sad part of the high divorce rate is that it’s during the later years of marriage in which couples tend to report the highest satisfaction levels. As Robert Emery, author of The Truth about Children and Divorce says in Ritchel’s article, “The big benefit of marriage is precisely the commitment over the long term.” In research for my book on a highly shared approach to career and family management, I found it was the deep partnership around managing both kids and careers—and the sense of building something profound and enduring as a team—that became the defining characteristic for these couples.

Most of what we hear and see has little resemblance to real marriages in all their complexity with both challenging and wonderful aspects. The fantasy of endless marital bliss without a lot of hard work and compromise is not on target but neither is the notion that marriage is primarily an economic arrangement without romantic love. It is many things: romantic bliss, hard work, and compromise, and an economic unit well suited for raising children.

While renewable contracts don’t seem like the solution, there is much that can help improve the current institution of marriage. It means to stop believing in the packaged fantasy of marriage and to learn more about the skills that support strong marriages, to carefully consider with our spouses what children will mean to our lives, to strive to take better care of our marriages—and our spouses—after we become parents, and to keep connected and talking about both the hard stuff and the good stuff. Marriage certainly has its problems but as they say about Democracy, it sure beats the alternatives.


Lisa Levey is a consultant, author and speaker on diversity and work-life management. She is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home focused on a partnership approach to career and family management. The book has been described as “a wise and helpful book for today’s couples. Levey provides great guidance for parents and dual-career families who are looking for creative solutions to leading balanced and fulfilling lives.” Find out more at

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Tommy and Georgie
About Role/Reboot

Role/Reboot is a nonprofit created to navigate a world built on outdated assumptions about men and women's roles and to advocate ways to understand and embrace the changing reality of our day-to-day lives. Follow them @RoleReboot.


  1. millinka says:

    real marriage is not yet obsolete. In our country, we still prefer to get real marriage because as a catholic marriage is sacred to us. how to save a relationship

  2. Great article, Lisa!!! I couldn’t agree more that one of the most important lessons we’ll ever teach our kids is role-modeling what it is like to be in a healthy long-term relationship.

  3. Theoptimistinhisprime says:

    After reading all of these comments I have come to believe their is one reason only why marriages fail…..We have all become sociopaths! According to tv, music and movies their really is no honor in being committed to one woman, not playing the field and being the quote on quote “bachelor!” God did not intend for us to be in this life by ourselves. Our true meaning on earth is to procreate and raise a stronger generation of people after us. We as a people have become obsessed with obtaining meaningless material things and partaking in irresponsible activities and calling it “Modern day behavior!” Have we all as a people become so weak minded that we honestly believe that life without marriage can be a good thing? I believe not! Marriage is not supposed to be easy, its a life long committment. Most of us can’t even committ to a job for more than a year without needing something new and different. I think its time we take a look at ourselves and ask is the institution of marriage a failure or are we failing as people in modern day society? Their are just a bunch of people who believe that marriage should be what they want it to be and not what it is truly meant to be. A committment between two adults (not polyamory or infidelity) to love and cherish each other thru the good and THE BAD! Not shacking up before marriage to test the waters or having babies out of wedlock. I think the institution of marriage is strong, but their are weak minded individuals trying to weaken the foundation by introducing modern day idealogies! When are we gonna learn to love again? Not for the sake of what someone has but for who they truly are as a person. If u ask the average person what they look for in a partner, the top 5 things have nothing to do with Love, honor, emotional fulfillment, trust or honesty. They want the best looking, most successful pompus individual that can cater to their lifestyle, thus leaving many to believe that you are only to get married when u reach a certain level of success. Money should not be a reason why people are divorced, cause hopefully that isn’t why you got married in the first place. And to those who feel like they aren’t being treated fairly or not being heard….that is your fault. If someone isn’t listening, then damn it try harder to get them to listen. What would they do if divorces were 1 million dollars to perform. I bet a lot more people would be tryna make it work!

    • wellokaythen says:

      If God did not want people to get divorced, then why are so many people able to get divorced? Surely if God does not want people to do something then people would not be able to do it. God clearly allows divorce to happen, so how can it be contrary to His will?

  4. @dee: I’m actually the total opposite. I want to be married to my boyfriend, I don’t want a wedding.

    But what I really mean by marriage is that I want to spend my life with him; I don’t feel I need a contract, but he wants the celebration (I used to be terrified of marriage and weddings, I’m coming around). But like some people in this thread have mentioned, marriage is not One Thing. Each couple has to communicate/express what marriage will mean to them. So when you say “50% divorce rate means marriage is a failed institution” I would say, what kind of marriage? Did these people even know what they wanted out of marriage? Were they willing for the definition to change over time? Or was it some pie-in-the-sky fantasy?

  5. salman rushdie said it best ; women want a wedding,not a marriage.

  6. america was founded on freedom, & marriage is all about compromise…it’s effin doomed from the start !

  7. hey …… i think on both way ….renewable marriage contract is best because in genrel way …mahilaye pis jati hai

  8. @ Jules: You find it, let me know!

  9. @Soda: The point you bring up about economics can”t be overlooked for it’s impact. It should also be noted that for many, economics has always been a key factor in marriage stability, choice .and sustainability. I also think that the recent economic downturn has brought into sharp focus for men just how much they were being defined and judged, even in this world of independent women, by old standards of engagement and there is a righteous backlash simmering. This backlash is long over due. Feminists said one thing about gender behavior and if something contrary to their thesis presents itself they just ignore those facts.

  10. Lisa – this is a very thoughful approach to a tough question. If the measure of obselescence is the failure rate of marriage, then it would seem that marriage is obsolete. But that is a poor measure of the value, and the continued efficacy of marriage. There is nothing else in the human experience that I am aware of that requires the same level of enduring commitment, the continuous need for redefinition, the serendipitous delight of discovery, and the subtle and profound benefit of having a life partner who is there with you, and for you, at the end of life.

    My mom outlived my dad by 10 years, but he was there with her, in the end. He was still the one toward which she leaned, as she breathed her last breaths.

    Marriage, in my view, will never be obsolete. It adds a quality of life that fewer and fewer of us seem to enjoy. But that is more of a meaasure of us, than it is of the institution.

    • “Marriage, in my view, will never be obsolete. It adds a quality of life that fewer and fewer of us seem to enjoy. But that is more of a meaasure of us, than it is of the institution.”

      Eloquently put.

      My grandparents were married for nearly sixty years when my grandmother passed away in 2005. I’ve been helping my grandfather write his memoir as his time here is nearing its end and even though he helped build Skylab and debriefed several of the astronauts who worked on the Apollo missions, what he talks about most is his marriage. My grandmother was his best friend. Even though she was mentally ill throughout most of their marriage, he stuck by her side and they had an amazing marriage in spite of it.
      I definitely agree with you that the failure of marriage has more to do with our cultural beliefs than anything. According to my grandfather, his generation didn’t divorce as often because the relationships you had with your family were more important than money and achievement. You fell back on the people you love when times got tough. Not many do that anymore. It’s every man for himself and relationships are as easy to throw away as last year’s iPhone. My generation is weak. Sorry to say it, but it’s true. And if you want to know where we’re headed, read or reread “Brave New World”. Aldous Huxley was the greatest prophet of the 20th century.

      • People’s lives have become more unstable thanks to the dergeulation of economies around the world; it’s harder to build stable relationships without stability in other aspects of life, employment in particular. It’s not just a case of ‘weakness’.

  11. @Aya: There is a great scene in The Joy Luck Club where one of the husbands is behaving in a way he sees as egalitarian. The wife, gets upset and starts crying because she thinks his behavior, splitting everything down the middle, is taking the romance out of their marriage by turning it into a mercenary arrangement. I would never advise my sons to get married. I would also advise my sons against having long term committed relationships with women who are steeped in mainstream American culture.My sons are handsome, intelligent, kind, athletic and well educated WITHOUT marriage. At their ages (22,26) with these attributes, it makes little sense to compromise one’s life to enter a world where, in my opinion, one’s power is lost. Secondarily, in general, women are still transitioning from being one thing into being something else and most are years, maybe even decades, from arrival. As for me, you can keep love, which is tremendously overrated and is mired and suffocating in romantic cement :I’d be happy with a functional relationship.

    • @ogwriter

      “I’d be happy with a functional relationship.”

      Me too!! With passionate sex 3-4 times a week. Seems like the two are mutually exclusive. Hence, my friends with benefits.

  12. Given the current failure rate, it’s important to have a proper contract in place. Putting aside the emotional components, having a proper legal contract is Marriage 2.0

  13. Marriage 2.0 was founded on the principle of egalitarianism, the one thing most antithetical to passion. Small wonder it has foundered horribly.

    • How does being equal in a marriage (or any partnership) take away the passion?

      • Jane said, “I always thought it was in their souls that people were equal.”

        “You were mistaken,” he said gravely. “That is the last place where they are equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes -– that is very well. Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food. You might as well try warming yourself with a blue-book.”

        “But surely in marriage . . . ?”

        “Worse and worse,” said the Director. “Courtship knows nothing of it; nor does fruition.”…

        “I thought,” said Jane and stopped.

        “I see,” said the Director. “It is not your fault. They never warned you. No one has ever told you that obedience –- humility -– is an erotic necessity. You are putting equality just where it ought not to be.”

        From C.S Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”.

        I don’t claim this as a universal truth, but I think it is true for far more people than is commonly recognized.

        • It just seems like an excuse to me. A man can do whatever he wants with no consequences, but a woman has to be obedient and humble. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade.

          • Men and women are free to do as they please. At least they should be.

            However, BOTH sexes should be aware that there might be consequences.

            For example, I have zero desire for a woman that has been with a bunch of sex partners (say greater than 5). However, in no way am I saying a woman should limit herself. I have limited myself and continue to exercise restraint. Hence, I do not feel it is inappropriate to seek a woman with a similar sexual history.

    • Do you mean it is contrary to most women’s desire for a dominant male partner?

      Otherwise, I do not see how this would impact passion.

      • Yes, exactly that. You can’t be that dominant male and not lead from the front.

        I mean, I don’t want to be gender-specific here. I know plenty of dominant women who keep their boyfriend’s dicks in chastity devices. Dan Savage did a nice piece on a femdom marriage a while back. The dynamic is what matters, not the gender.

  14. Too each his or her own.

    I think marriage as an institution is a failure. When you have a failure rate of 50% for a thing, I cannot see how you can call it a success. However, clearly there are many individual marriage success stories.

    Marriage is certainly not something I desire ever again. Just my personal experience. More importantly, I lack the confidence in women that they will remain committed to me. Just seems that it’s a losing battle trying to keep a woman happy and content over a long period of time.

  15. Marriage is obsolete for me, but that’s only because I don’t want children. For couples who do want to take on that responsibility, I can see how the increase in relationship stability caused by the prospect of lengthy court proceedings in the event of a break up could be an important and useful thing.

    Conversely, for couples who don’t want children I don’t really see the point of marriage. Seems like a terrible idea to get the courts involved in your break up if you can avoid it. I guess a lot of people are attached to the advantages of marriage in terms of the feeling of having achieved the next life stage though, as well as the big party aspect and the possible legal/tax benefits etc. Still not worth it for me though.

  16. wellokaythen says:

    Remaining married until one of you dies was much more common centuries ago in part because life expectancy was much lower. Three hundred years ago, your 5-year marriage might end just as often as it does today, except back then it ended with death instead of divorce. If you loathed your wife, you wouldn’t have to plan for spending your old age together. There’s a good chance childbirth would take care of that. If you loathed your husband, you could wait a few years until a pox carried him away.

    Increased divorce rates are not necessarily a bad sign. In part they’re a sign that we’re living longer. We’ve merely replaced the Grim Reaper with divorce lawyers. (A mixed blessing, that.)

  17. wellokaythen says:

    I can’t answer the question until I know what we’re actually talking about.

    There is actually no such thing as “Marriage with a capital M,” meaning there is no single, universal, agreeable, self-evident thing that is the same for everyone. There really is nothing very deep you can say about ALL marriages that can be covered by the expression, “that’s what marriage is.” There are lots of marriages of all kinds. Marriages exist, but “marriage” as a concept is something people define for themselves within a marriage. They may let other people define what marriage means, but that’s still a choice.

    This also means that there is no such thing as “a real marriage” as distinct from any other kind of marriage. Maybe one marriage is more sustainable than another, but that doesn’t make it more real. Every marriage that exists is a real marriage. The article is asking whether something is obsolete without bothering to say what the thing actually is.

    This is like asking, “Is technology becoming obsolete?” Well, some forms of it are obsolete, some are becoming obsolete, and some seem to be going strong. Marriage forms are a type of social technology. Different societies at different points in history set up different kinds of marriages, though they may not have used any word comparable to “marriage.” Some kinds of marriages seem to be disappearing, while others are becoming more common.

    It’s like asking, “Are contracts becoming obsolete?” Some are, some aren’t.

    If the question is, “Is the ‘til death do us part’ kind of marriage disappearing?” then I’d say yes. That’s just one definition of marriage, though. People who are married for 10 years and then get divorced had an actual marriage. That was a “real marriage,” like it or not. If one or both of them remarry, that will also be “real marriage.”

  18. Certainly marriage has become obsolete. The institution of marriage was a social contract in which the man provided economic and physical protection to wife in return she provided him domestic services and they together procreated. Nowadays, women do not need a husband for physical and economic protection because they can earn theselves and good law and order situation, whereas men do not need the domestic services of women because the burden of domestic work has been greatly reduced wide range of domestic appliances. What is the use of marriage in present times?

    • That crazy little thing called love…completely different world views Rapses. Some of us fall in love and actually want to be together, committed, forging a life together. It’s crazy!

      • Again sentimental mumbo jumbo. Falling in love and the desire to live together does not make marriage indispensible. Love is blind and marriage is the eye opener.

        • Well sentimental mumbo jumbo makes some of our lives just a little happier. Shouldn’t you strive for happiness? Isn’t that a life better lived?

          • Sentimental mumbo jumbo also creates lot of misery as well. Using one mumbo jumbo to get into a social situation (marriage), then becoming unmiserable and using another mumbo jumbo to get out of it (divorce) is not a life well lived but a life wasted.

            • Marriage or not, being in love and with a partnership with someone who truly loves you, finds you attractive, and respects you back is the best feeling in the world.

              • Well being in love and with a partnership with someone who truly loves you, finds you attractive, and respects you back might be the best feeling in the world, but the point is that the institution of marriage is rolling down the slope of obsolence.

                • There’s something to be said about the ceremony, though. I like a good party. And a celebration of love and passion and promise is a great reason to have one. I don’t care much for the rings and all that (a fancy ring does nothing for me)–but it’d be nice to have a fun party one day where you get to feel beautiful, wear a pretty dress, drink a bunch of booze, eat tasty foods, dance and act silly, while hanging out with friends and family and telling the world “I love this kid. He makes me happy. We’re doing this for real now!”

                  • It’s been widely reported that something around half of all marriages fail. Now, of the 50% or so that don’t, how many would classify as happy? While I don’t know how you could actually measure that. My own very unscientific survey suggests to me maybe 35-40%? Now, my question is, would you opt to have an elective surgical procedure with that kind of success rate?

      • I’m in agreement with Julie. When a man and woman have a solid love for one another and want to commit. Marriage represents that final rite of commitment. It also provides that degree of security where it takes more than packing your bags to leave, which should be a reminder try a little harder to work things out. When a couple does have children, those children may feel more secure with married parents for that same reason, that their parents won’t just up and split without a second thought.
        Marriage is not the problem. People go into marriage frivolously and with the wrong person.
        Marriage may seem to be becoming more obsolete because of the divorce rate and single living rate. But this is an indicator that women who do have educations and careers have the option of leaving men they shouldn’t be with. Just because our grandparents generation didn’t divorce doesn’t mean their relationships were peachy and their love was steadfast, on the contrary, the women had no other options.
        The influence of media and Hollywood’s bullshit representation of love and relationships has a profound destructive effect on relationships, as well

        • “It also provides that degree of security where it takes more than packing your bags to leave, which should be a reminder try a little harder to work things out. ”

          What security??? A spouse can get the marriage dissolved any time without any real solid ground under no fault divorce. May be they have to fill some forms as well besides packing their bags and leaving. Under those circumstances, the spouse who contributes more to the family than his/her partner is the net loser in marriage. It is a parasitic arrangement.

    • What Ii find heavily ironical is that here we are, saying that marriage is obsolete but at the same time our society is putting pressure on us to support marriage rights for same sex relationships. If marriage is obsolete then why same sex couples need the right to marry? Major double standard.

  19. The answer is DON”T HAVE CHILDREN!! Seriously though. if I were a young single man today. the last thing I would want to do is get married. In today’s world, the women want the full time carriers, they want the corner office. So I say , good luck! Go for it! When you want sexual satisfaction (the real deal, not a vibrating peice of plastic) we’ll be ready (wearing a ‘rain coat’)and when the deed is done, we’ll go on our merry way! I just don’t honestly see any reason a man would or should consider getting married today.

    • Marriage or not, what’s wrong with a committed relationship where both partners have careers? You can have intimacy, a partnership, and regular sex with someone without having children and while also pursuing a career/your passions (both of you). What’s so darn evil about that?

  20. “The question is no doubt provocative ”

    I think it’s a question that’s less provocative to a lot of married men. I certainly won’t be recommending it to my own sons. I’m not looking forward to the response it provokes in my wife.

    • Well said. Marriage is obsolete for the vast majority of men today. It’s all down side, with no positives that can’t be obtained elsewhere. When the question “What’s in it for me?” is met with silence for fully 50% of the prospects, you can bet that a lot of folks won’t be jumping at the opportunity. MGTOW for the win!


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