Marriage changing, for better or worse

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:28 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Last month, a friend’s parents celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. It was a lovely occasion. The couple earned a living as farmers and had lived on the same farm throughout their married life. When their children, friends and neighbors gathered for the celebration, there was a lifetime of warm memories to share. This husband and wife still had a gleam in their eyes when they looked at one another. It was a joy to behold.

I was amused at the number of people who used this occasion to reminisce and compare the marriages of yesteryear with marriages of today, some of which barely last as long as the wedding cake. During these sessions, most people are quick to assume all marriages that last for decades are happy ones. In fact, some of the most miserable people I knew in childhood were women who were unhappily married and felt trapped by circumstances beyond their control. Most of these women were poorly educated and had produced large families within the span of a few years. Some of these women were second wives, who had mothered the first wife’s children and produced more children of their own.

Romance did not seem to be much of a factor in many of the marriages I observed growing up; they seemed to be based on convenience. In my community, men who held steady jobs and were not considered heavy drinkers, were chosen for husbands. Men known as “free swingers” — those who traveled a lot, held jobs only temporarily and were known to be heartbreakers — while hugely popular, seldom walked down the aisle. Women who were known as bookish types, with what folks called “big ideas,” were seldom selected as brides. The primary rule of matrimony, I thought in those days, was to make a good home. It wasn’t until I began to go to the movies that I understood that marriage had to do with “love.”

Later on, I remembered being stunned when my mother said she thought that there was a lot to be said for arranged marriages. By that time, I had come to believe in the concept that “romantic love” was the only reason to ever marry. It was not until I was a lot older and had observed more marriages that I came to understand what my mother meant.

I found, in my experience, that people who share similar backgrounds and value systems tend to have more successful marriages. It could be that these people also have a better opportunity to fall in love.

Divorce is almost always painful, and when children are involved it is extremely grievous. Still, when I think of those women of my childhood, drudging on year after year in loveless marriages with men who were often abusive, cruel and unkind, I am glad that modern women are in a better position to make choices.

I run into trouble expressing my opinions with people who equate holy matrimony with civil unions. First of all, I am always shocked when people who are not practicing Christians are married in church by Christian ministers. I am also deeply troubled when many of these people are not counseled prior to marriage. But, most of us realize these unfortunate beliefs are deeply rooted in American tradition and are unlikely to be uprooted in our lifetime.

Even with our staggering rate of divorce, there are still people around who have been married many, many years. I consider these people enormously lucky to have found life mates. My former minister’s pet theory as to the reason so many of today’s marriages fail is because people no longer engage in extended courtships. In the old days, he said, there was always a period between the time the couple announced their intentions and the time they actually went to the altar. He said that waiting until after the vows were exchanged to discover impending problems in the relationship is bad idea. After more than 30 years, he still referred to his wife as his bride and at last report was still buying her flowers every month.

Some couples choose to live together outside of marriage. Other people find this objectionable. The rules for relationships have changed over the years, as the roles of women have changed. This seems to be a period of great experimentation in which men and women are seeking to redefine the parts they play in the mating game.

If history runs true to form, the ties that bind the sexes together will in all probability wind up right back where they started. It doesn’t take long to figure out the bottom line here is that two can live cheaper than one.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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