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Why Do People Get Married? (And Why Do They Get Divorced?)

by Diane Cohen
November 2010 Diane Cohen
Pairing up for life is the ideal in our society. We take it so much for granted that we don’t question why people do it and are saddened when the marriage ends. Yet, in order to understand why marriages end it may be important to first look at why people get married in the first place. Do they marry because it is the norm? Or do they have good, valid, well thought out reasons to do so?

People sometimes marry to have children

This is certainly one reason people marry, and one that few of us would question as a valid reason. Yet, is marriage necessary or desirable when people want children? Why does having children entail getting married? Aside from the historical stigma of having children outside of marriage (no longer necessarily true), is there a good reason to marry to have children? Marriage can lead to dependency when one person becomes the breadwinner and the other focuses on raising the children. When this occurs and there is a divorce, there may be vastly different expectations about what the ongoing obligations of the breadwinner should be. When there is an equal contribution to finances and child-rearing, that may cause fewer differences of opinion in the case of divorce, but does that also diminish some of the reason for having a formal marriage in the first place? Would staying single and maintaining a clear agreement on financial contributions, support, child-rearing, and the like be advantageous for both parties both while they live together and if they separate?

People marry for companionship, security, love

These are some of the other reasons people marry. Yet, although these are good reasons to pair up with another person, is it clear that marriage offers the best probability of companionship, security or ongoing love? If the answer is that people are more likely to stay together if married than if not married, does that provide the kind of love and companionship people are seeking? And if there is increased “security” because people stay together despite some level of dissatisfaction, is that the kind of security both parties want? What do people actually mean when they are looking for security and is it attainable?

If we were inventing a system now, would it be marriage?

It seems to me that traditional marriage with the assumptions put upon it by law, by religion and by society, is a very limited concept. Surely, it works for some couples, especially those who remain happy, satisfied and married. For those who become unhappy and stay together for financial or other reasons, or who decide to divorce, however, traditional marriage may or may not have been the best idea. Since the law makes certain assumptions about what marriage is and what each party gets in a divorce, the result of a divorce will be fairest to parties who agree with the law’s, religion’s and society’s assumptions about marriage and divorce. For those who disagree about the assumptions the law makes about financial matters in divorce, marriage may end up having been a bad choice.

Our system of marriage is not the only possible one

Even if couples choose to marry, must they necessarily marry with the assumptions set forth in the law today? The rise in popularity of pre-nuptual agreements says otherwise. But pre-nuptual agreements are not necessarily foolproof and may not cover all bases. Moreover, young people just starting out in life may not even be able to imagine a future involving divorce after a long term marriage or what would be a fair division under such circumstances. Perhaps if the law provided various set options to choose from when a couple married, it would make divorcing a much simpler and more predictable matter, sort of like a living will for marriage.

Do people divorce for good reasons?

Despite questioning why people marry, I also question why people divorce. Often, it is assumed that a couple should divorce if they are no longer feeling romantic or having sexual relations. Yet sex is only one part of marriage. A long term marriage with children is a family. The destruction of the household of a family is endlessly painful for all involved. I question whether the destruction of a family for sexual reasons is logical. Can sex not be addressed in some other way in a long term marriage? Is it time for a new level of maturity on this issue?

I raise these issues as a starting point for discussion and welcome comments.

Biography


Diane Cohen is a mediator in private practice and writes regularly on the process of mediation. Diane is an impasse mediator, and therefore mediates in all realms, but primarily in the family, divorce and workplace areas. Diane is a former co-president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York. She has a J.D. from Columbia Law School, was certified as a community mediator by the Unified Court System in New York, and is a NYSDRA-certified mediator. She conducts workshops for mediators who want to work on their mediation skills.



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