Marriage is no longer commonly thought of as the functional sale of a woman from one male keeper to another. Outside of arranged marriage, women are frequently expected to find their own husbands and marry for love. But with 50% of marriages in the United States ending in divorce, it is clear that marriage is no longer the fairytale some have come to expect. Traditional marriage – the one that starts young, lasts forever, and produces huge families – may be on the decline in favor of more equitable and enjoyable arrangements. Women, in particular, have a lot to gain from the decline of traditional marriage.
The trend is particularly pronounced in Asia. The Economist recently coined the growing shift in Asian marriage statistics as the “flight from marriage,” in which the average age of marriage has increased significantly in the past 30 years and the estimates for the numbers of women who are expected to marry continues to shrink. An interesting side note is that all of these statistics are measured by marriage rates for women and not for men, a tribute to the commonly held belief that “women’s happiness lies in marriage.”
As it turns out, marriage is not equally beneficial for men and women. Married men make more money, get more promotions, live longer, drink less, and experience less stress than single men. Their wives, however, have less free time and less fulfilling sex lives than their husbands, in addition to making less money. As women make leaps and bounds in education, they may be finding that an institution that in some cultures restricts even their ability to take their children to the hospital without getting their husband’s permission is much less desirable.
Women in the Western world are encouraged to maintain families and careers simultaneously. However, women in Asia are more likely to be expected to give up work to care for children and elderly family members. Thus, Asian women may put off marriage to avoid having to give up their careers for these responsibilities. Women who do remain in their jobs maintain the burdens of managing a home. Japanese women with 40 hour-a-week jobs also typically do 30 hours of housework a week. In the U.S., where gender roles are conventionally presumed to be more broken, wives typically do 17 hours a week of housework (They average 10 hours before marriage). Their husbands, however, do housework seven hours a week – one less than while single. Women are not expected to give up their careers in the U.S., but we are also expected to manage our husbands’ lifestyles – which may be one reason they get more promotions and experience less stress.
Marriage certainly has benefits. Many welfare programs in the U.S. are based on population growth or at least stability. A decrease in births can make social security and Medicare unsustainable. In Asia, where the elderly traditionally rely on their families, not having children can mean a difficult retirement. The Economist also speculates that the decline in marriage in Asia will increase forced prostitution and other practices that imprison women.
But, it is important to note that marriage is not an ideal institution. Men may benefit greatly, but it is difficult for women to negotiate. We may want careers, but we are expected to either balance these with the full force of maintaining a family and home or completely give up the career element of our lives. While this may vary across relationships, it is hard for an individual woman to change the cultural perspective that her husband may have grown up with. A decline in marriage is not necessarily the end of childbirth or the beginning of a horrible old age, it is the opportunity for women to make their own decisions about what kinds of lives they want to lead.
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