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1.9: Marriage and Other Long-Term relationships

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    Chapter 9: Marriage and Other Long-Term Relationships

    As was mentioned in Chapter 6, a couple is simply a pair of people who identify themselves in terms of belonging together, trusting one another, and having a unique relationship, separate from all others. A “We” is close to the same thing, yet it focuses on the relationship as an entity in itself. A “We” as shown in Figure 1 is a married couple but can also include cohabiters, or other intimate non-married couple arrangements. This is a relationship that is not intimately connected to any other relationships at the same profound level as they are connected to one another.


    Here is a metaphor, a “We” is much like a vehicle (relationship) that two people purchased together. Both have to put in maintenance. Both have to care for it and treat it in such a way that it runs for a long time. Sometimes, spouses or partners attack the other in such a way that the other is harmed or damaged in their trust. A “We” is the social and emotional boundary a couple establishes when they decide to become a couple. This boundary includes only the husband and wife. It purposefully excludes the children, extended family, co-workers, and friends. Most couples who establish a strong marital bond have successfully distinguished themselves as a “We” and partially disengaged from the existing relationships of child, grandchild, best friends, etc. That is not to say that you cut your parents, relatives, and other friends off. You just have to establish a new exclusive intimacy that only includes you and your spouse (See Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee (1995) The Good Marriage ISBN 0-446-67248-3; Warner Pub.) This also means making certain things into spouse-only issues which are the decisions, advice, and discussion that are held exclusively between partners and intentionally NOT between other family and friends. This might include types of birth control, how to run a budget, sexual techniques and practices, who might be at fault in an argument, etc. If a couple marries in their late 20's then they have a life-long history of intimate help-seeking and advice-giving relationships with others. These may continue as long as the help-seeking behavior doesn't violate the intimate agreements of confidentiality for each spouse or partner. I must emphasize how crucial it is to form the “We” so that married couples avoid the damaging intrusions of family and friends into their new marriage.

    Marriage is a legal union between a man and a woman as recognized by most of the United States. Internationally and in certain US political regions, a man and another man or a woman and another woman can be legally recognized as a married couple. What are typical marriage structures? The US and world-wide culturally preferred marriage type today is monogamy. Monogamy is the marriage form permitting only one spouse at a time. Almost all in the US have married monogamously since the original colonies in the 1600s. Monogamy implies a 1:1 relationship and is typically desired both by married couples and by opposite and same-sex cohabiters.

    Cohabitation is the heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual moving in together of two partners without going through the formalities of legal marriage. Although similar in form and function, cohabitating couples live differently in many significant day-to-day aspects when compared to married couples. Also, many cohabiting couples eventually choose to marry, but their risk of divorce is higher than among couples that never cohabited. Cohabitation will be discussed more below, but it has been increasingly popular over the last 30 years.

    Multiple spouses at the same time has been preferred in the past by Muslims, Africans, and Mormons (they ceased polygamy in 1890. Any current Mormons who try to marry polygamously are excommunicated) and Mormon-splinter groups (many are still polygamous today). Polygamy is a marriage form permitting more than one spouse at the same time. Polygyny is marriage form permitting more than one wife at the same time and is the most common form of polygamy in the world's history. Polygyny is still common and legal in many African, Middle-Eastern, Muslim, and Indian nations. It was a deep part of China's history and prior to World War II it was common for a Chinese man to have multiple wives and many children.

    I have a former student who is 34 and was raised in a group that broke away from the Mormon congregation in the 1890's and formed its own polygamy-based religion. She came to guest lecture to my class and described her 45 siblings, 32 daughters and sons-in-law, 180 grandchildren, 32 great grandchildren, and typical meals at home of 40-53 family members per meal three times per day. Figure 2 shows her rough-sketched family genogram (she asked me to conceal identifiable aspects of her family so that they may be spared any ridiculing comments or embarrassment).

    Her father biologically fathered about 46 children. He married his 16 year-old first wife in 1948 and had 16 children with her. Eleven years later he married his 21 year-old second wife and had 13 children with her. Eight years later he married an 18 year-old third wife and fathered 10 children with her. He then was asked to marry a 36 year-old divorcee who had 6 children from another marriage and they had one child together. He then married a 26 year-old and her 45 year-old sister who were widowed from the same husband. They together brought in 3 children from other marriages. He had 6 more children with his sixth wife. About 9 children are unrelated but consider him to be a fatherly figure. Interestingly, only 3 of all these children chose to marry polygamously.

    When I asked my student why, she simply replied, “It's just too much work these days and it's not worth it to them.”


    Polyandry is a marriage form permitting more than one husband at the same time. This is historically and currently rare and if or when it was practiced, it often included the marriage of one wife to a set of brothers with all having sexual access to the wife.

    Polyandry was found among some Pacific Island cultures and among the pre-Taliban Afghanis.

    What if a person marries, divorces, marries, divorces, etc.? Serial Monogamy or Serial Polygamy is the process of establishing intimate marriage or cohabiting relationships that eventually dissolve and are followed by another intimate marriage or cohabiting relationship, that eventually dissolve, etc. in a series. So, polygamists have simultaneous multiple spouses while serial monogamists or serial polygamists have multiple spouses in a sequence of relationships. Millions of US adults will experience serial marriages and divorces. It often amazes me how much we love marriage in the United States. Many marry then divorce, yet still want to be married again. Many others who suffered through their parents' unhealthy marriages and divorces also want to marry, knowing firsthand how risky that might be.

    Traditional roles of men and women influence how the power and marriage work out in society. Typically and throughout history families have been Patriarchal families where males have more power and authority than females and where rights and inheritances typically pass from fathers to sons. It should be mentioned that many family power structures still lean heavily toward male power.

    Matriarchal families are where females have more power and authority than males and rights and inheritances pass from mothers to daughter and sons. In Matriarchal families, the mother is not only the social and emotional force of the family, but is also the economic force. More and more in the US families are leaning toward Egalitarian families which are families with power and authority more fairly distributed between husband and wife.

    States have power when it comes to allowing marriage. The power held by states to legalize the economic, social, spiritual, emotional, or physical union or disunion of a man and a woman is not only traditional, but also enduring in US history. Centuries and millennia ago, fathers, clan or kinship leaders, religious leaders, and community members had the rights to marry which are now claimed by the state or nation. True, states don't get involved in the spiritual or physical union, they just license it or legalize it the same way they license drivers or certify the legal sale of property. Almost every year, there are about 2 legally sanctioned state marriages in the US for every 1 legally sanctioned state divorce decree.

    In Figure 3 below you can see just how many legal marriages were granted per divorce for the years 1960-2005. These numbers are presented as a ratio (number of marriages/number of divorces per year). Between 1960 and 1970, there were almost 4 marriages per divorce, indicating nearly 4 marriages per 1 divorce nationwide (fewer divorces). As the rate of divorce increased in the 1970s-1980s we see that there were about 2 marriages per 1 divorce. Notice that since the late 1990s the ratio is increasing again because divorce continues to trickle downward.

    For decades, newscasters and educators have warned that 1 in 2 marriages “end in divorce.” Sounds frightening, doesn't it? Is it true? Not really, since divorce never reached the actual 50 percent mark. Based on surveys of exactly how many people have ever been divorced in their lifetimes, most will tell you it is closer to 43 percent in the US's worst divorce rates ever (1980s). (see US Census for tables at


    *Taken from Statistical Abstracts of the United States on 27 March 2009 from; Table 77, Section 2.

    The US Census Bureau conducts annual surveys of the US population and publishes them as the Current Population Surveys. Table 1 represents the US family Types as of October 1, 2008. You will notice that marrieds comprise the largest proportion of family types in 2008. Single never marrieds are the second largest type and include another 6.8 million cohabiters of opposite sex and an unknown number of same sex cohabiters. Next is divorced, widowed, then separated.

    Table 1: US Family Types, 2008
    Types Numbers Percentages
    Married 123,671,000 52%
    Widowed 14,314,000 6%
    Divorced 23,346,000 10%
    Separated 5,183,000 2%
    Never Married - Single 71,479,000 30%
    Total Families 15 and over 237,993,000 100%

    Taken from the Internet on 30 March 2009 from Table A1. Marital Status of People 15 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Personal Earnings, Race, and Hispanic Origin/1, 2008 and see Table UC1. Opposite Sex Unmarried Couples by Labor Force Status of Both Partners: 2008 retrieved 30 March 2009 from

    Look at Figure 4 below to see the US graphical trend of actual numbers in millions of family types. It shows that the single largest type of family in the US has always been marrieds then never marrieds. The divorced category overtook the widowed category in the 1970s and has been higher ever since. Why are the trends upward? Simple, these are numbers and not rates nor percentages. The population has grown and therefore the population size has been steadily increasing.


    Robert and Jeanette Lauer are a husband-wife team who have not only studied the family but have written a college textbook called Marriage and Family: The Quest for Intimacy (2009, Cengage). They studied commitment and endurance of married couples. They identified 29 factors among couples who had been together for 15 years or more. They found that both husbands and wives reported as their number 1 and 2 factors that “My spouse is my best friend and I like my spouse as a person” (see 'Til Death Do Us Part: How Couples Stay Together 1986 by Robert Lauer and also Google Lauer and Lauer and Kerr various years). The Lauers also studied the levels of commitment couples had to their marriage. The couples reported that they were in fact committed to and supportive of not only their own marriage, but marriage as an institution.

    Irreconcilable differences are common to marriage and the basic strategy to deal with them is to negotiate as much as is possible, accept the irresolvable differences, and finally live happily with them. Keeping a positive outlook on your marriage is essential. As was mentioned above, as long as a couple is married they are technically at risk of divorce.

    Try to remember who you thought was attractive your senior year in high school. Would you still find them attractive today? Some who marry in their teens actually outgrow one another, including their loss of attraction that stems from their changed tastes. Couples who married as teenagers must unite as they take into account their ongoing maturation and change in tastes. When marital data is collected by the US Census Bureau, it often shows that those marrying in their teen years have the highest rates of having ever been divorced.

    As is mentioned above, most unwed mothers end up marrying the biological father of their baby. These marriages often end in divorce more than marriages for non-pregnant newlyweds. The existence of children at the time of the wedding is often associated with higher divorce rates.

    Family Scientists have borrowed from the physics literature a concept called entropy which is roughly defined as the principle that matter tends to decay and reduce, toward its simplest parts. For example, a new car if parked in a field and ignored, would eventually decay and rot. A planted garden, if left unmaintained, would be overrun with weeds, pests, and yield low if any crop.

    Marital Entropy is the principle that if a marriage does not receive preventative maintenance and upgrades it will move towards decay and break down. Couples who take ownership of their marriage and who realize that marriage is not a state of constant bliss (nothing really is) and that it often requires much work, will experience more stability and strength when they nurture their marriage. They treat their marriage like a nice car and become committed to preventing breakdowns rather than waiting to repair them.

    These couples read and study experts like Gottman, Cherlin, Popenoe, and others who have focused their research on how to care for the marriage, acknowledging the propensity relationships have to decay if unattended.

    Many individuals struggle to completely surrender their single status. They mentally remain on the marriage market in case “someone better than their current spouse comes along.” Norval Glenn in 1991 argued that many individuals see marriage as a temporary state while they keep an eye open for someone better. “More honest vows would often be “as long as we both shall love” or “as long as no one better comes along (page 268).”

    Glenn gets at the core of the cultural values associated with risks of divorcing. (See “The Recent Trend in Marital Success in the United States” by Norval D. Glenn Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 261-270). In Figure 5 you can see the median duration of marriage for people 15 and older by sex and age. This data is exclusively for those who ended up divorcing. Even those who do divorce can expect a median (exact middle value in a list) of about 8 years for both men and women. The average couple could expect to stay married quite a long time.


    A positive outlook for your marriage as a rewarding and enjoyable relationship is a realistic outlook. Some couples worry about being labeled naïve if they express the joys and rewards their marriage brings to their lives. Be hopeful and positive on the quality and duration of your marriage, because the odds are still in your favor. You've probably seen commercials where online matchmaking Websites strut their success in matching people to one another. There have been a few criticisms of online marital enhancement services, but millions have used them. Along, with DVD's, talk CDs, self-help books, and seminars there are many outlets for marital enhancement available to couples who seek them. Very few know that there is now a Website that offers support to marrieds who want to be proactive and preventative in their relationship

    There also continues to be a trend of delaying first marriage until later in life. In 2005, the US median age at marriage was about 27 years for men (Washington DC was 29.9 ds_name=ACS_2005_EST_G00_&-_lang=en&- redoLog=false&-mt_name=ACS_2005_EST_G00_R1204_US30&-format=US-30 ).

    Marriage is very popular among US adults, in part because it does offer many rewards that unmarried people don't enjoy. A sociologist named Linda Waite co-wrote a book with Maggie Gallagher called The Case For Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (2001, Doubleday). As its title implies, this book summarizes basic trends that have been found among married people for decades.

    Marriage has become socially controversial in part because of the intense political efforts to legalize marriage for same-sex couples. Regardless of your moral position on the issue of same-sex marriage, you can see the political quest for it as an indicator of just how rewarding it is to be legally a “married couple.”

    There are numerous studies and books on the benefits of marriage to married individuals.

    Table 2 lists 10 categories of these known benefits for you to consider.

    Table 2: Ten Benefits of Being Married in Contrast to Being Single
    1. Better physical and emotional health
    2. More wealth and income
    3. Positive social status
    4. More and safer sex
    5. Life-long continuity of intimate relationships
    6. Safer circumstances for children
    7. Longer life expectancy
    8. Lower odds of being crime victims
    9. Enhanced legal and insurance rights and benefits (tax, medical, and inheritance)
    10. Higher self-reported happiness

    Keep in mind as you think about this, that a toxic marriage has never been universally shown to be better than being unmarried or never married. It would be unwise to marry carelessly. It would also be unwise to think that once you marry you are at the end of your problems. A newlywed once told her mother that “now that I'm married, I'm at the end of all my problems.” Her mother wisely replied, “which end, Dear?” Marriage requires preventative, proactive, consistent, and timely maintenance to be rewarding and satisfying. The bottom line is that the burden of your marital quality falls to you and your spouse.

    Cohabitation has been studied extensively for the last 3 decades, especially in contrast between cohabiting and married couples. Clear findings consistently show that cohabiting and marriage are two different creatures. Those who cohabit have less clarity on the intention and direction of the relationship than do marrieds. Also, people who cohabit then later marry are more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited. In 2010 the US Center for Disease Control reported that cohabitation is very common in our day: This report also stated that some of the cohabitation relationships dissolved while others transitioned to marriage. Less educated cohabiters cohabited longer while college-graduated cohabiters transitioned to marriage more.

    There are a number of different ways of measuring cohabitation. The US Census Bureau reported about 6,209,000 US Unmarried-Partner households in 2007. Since a household in this case contains at least 2 persons we can derive 6,209,000 x 2= 12,418,000 unmarried adults sharing households. These data were extrapolated from the American Community Survey, and the types of Unmarried-Partner Households are identified in Figure 6 below.


    Generally speaking cohabiting relationships are much more unstable than married ones (Popenoe (2009) and (Williams, K. et al 2008, For Better or For Worse? The Consequences of Marriage and Cohabitation for Single Mothers, Social Forces, Vol. 86, No 4, June page1481-1511). Popenoe (2009) is very clear about his argument that cohabiting is not as healthy in terms of the well-being of children as marriage has proven to be. He also identifies the trend of unmarried pregnancies that come with cohabitation trends.

    Not all cohabitation experiences are the same. There are people who cohabit more than once. Serial cohabiters are persons who have a series of cohabiting relationships over the course of time. These persons tend to be poorer and less educated in the US. When or if these persons ever marry, their divorce risks are over 2 times higher than those who never cohabited in a series (see Lichter, D.T. and Qian, Z. 2008, Nov. Vol 70 4, pages 861-878; J. of Marriage and Family).

    This again confirms the belief among younger people in the US that cohabitation is normal or expected.



    Those cohabiters who get pregnant often have two choices. marry or break up. Breaking up is often more common than marrying (Lichter & Qian, 2008 page 863). Another recent study reported on lower commitment levels among cohabiting couples, and that the less religious were more likely to cohabit than marry (Stanley, S. M. et al, 2004 J. of Family Issues, Vol. 25, No. 4 496-519, “Maybe I Do Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Nonmarital Cohabitation”). Lichter and Qian (2008) reported that cohabiting couple's intention to marry plays into their relationship outcome. In other words, if they move in together thinking they will marry someday it may lead to a longer relationship as long as both have the same intention and neither changes their mind. Finally, there are known benefits to being married in a long-term relationship rather than being single, divorced, cohabiting, or other. Table 3 shows a quote taken from the cohabitation and marriage study referenced above called Marriage and Cohabitation in the United States: A Statistical Portrait Based on Cycle 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth.” Better mental and physical health with better medical insurance coverage proves to be a crucial quality of life factor for marrieds. As far as children are concerned, having better care and better adult outcomes among married people's children is also a crucial factor for parents and children.

    Table 3: Health Benefits Known to be an Advantage Among Married Persons in the US
    1. Generally better mental and physical health outcomes compared with unmarried persons (9)
    2. Longer lives (10)
    3. Higher rates of health insurance coverage (11)
    4. Lower prevalence of cardiovascular disease (12) than unmarried persons
    5. Better health and well-being of children
    6. Children born to unmarried mothers are at greater risk for poverty, teen childbearing, poor school achievement, and marital disruption in adulthood than children born to married mothers (6,7,13-16)

    There are also known financial benefits when comparing married to not-marrieds. More wealth accumulation, higher assets, and higher monthly income are consistent among marrieds. Figure 9 shows the 2007 annual earnings of marrieds compared to Single Men and Single Women income levels. The first thing you notice is that marrieds have consistently higher annual incomes. In 2007 specifically, marrieds had $28,231 more income than Single Men and $42,293 more than Single Women. The difference is even more pronounced if dual income married annual incomes are compared (e.g., in 2007 dual income couples had $86,435 which is $42,077 higher than Single Men and $56,139 more than Single Women).

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    Table 4 summarizes the known benefits to marrieds over non-marrieds that have been established through numerous studies over the last 3 decades. Married people are safer and less prone to get into trouble than others. There is a buffering effect that accompanies having a life-long devoted spouse who helps deflect stress and hardships on a daily basis. Thus some of the health benefits of longer life, less suicide, more stable health coverage, and less illness and addiction. Also, marrieds have more social support, more continuity in long-term relationships, and especially more closeness for men in intimate family relationships. Husbands are less likely to abuse and be violent toward their wives than are boyfriends and partners. Married people have clear life-long goals and tend to buy homes, invest, and plan for retirement more than others. The government and military recognize spouses and reward them with tax breaks, benefits, and other sources of coverage and support more than others. In later life, many elderly report that their family relationships are very supportive and important to them. Studies show that the elderly enjoy their human investment in their children and grandchildren that yields emotional and social rewards throughout their golden years.

    Table 4: Known Benefits Enjoyed by Married Couples in Comparison to Non-Married Persons
    1. Less likely to become victims of crime
    2. Less likely to commit crimes
    3. Less addiction
    4. Fewer accidents (especially among men)
    5. Less suicide
    6. Better stress management because spouse is a buffer to life's stresses
    7. More social and emotional support (less loneliness)
    8. More intimate connections to family members
    9. Long-term continuity in family relationships of children, in-laws, grandchildren, etc.
    10. Lower risk of domestic violence for women
    11. Longer life expectancies
    12. More and better self-rated sex
    13. More emotional and financial security (for both spouses)
    14. Less uncertainty about direction of life and goals
    15. More cost effective to live married versus single circumstances
    16. Tax deductions
    17. More military benefits
    18. More accumulated belongings and investments
    19. More medical benefits
    20. More legal rights


    This page titled 1.9: Marriage and Other Long-Term relationships is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ron J. Hammond via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.