It used to be that people married young. They married for economic reasons. They married who they were told to marry. They had children right away, and lots of children. They stayed in their marriages even if they were unhappy, abused or felt unfulfilled.
Marriage, as we think of it, was originally when a guy went out and captured a woman, usually from another tribe. Many primitive cultures had no formal ceremony.
This gave way to the act of purchasing a bride in money or some form of property. This contractual agreement was often followed with a ceremony or feast.
People had been marrying without official recognition for a very long time. If a couple said they were married, then they were married. However, marriage slowly changed from being a custom to being a law. This happened because the secular, private marriage between two people was messy when folks wanted to dissolve the relationships. The courts at the time didn't have much to go on except people's word.
The Catholic Church got involved around 1215 and defined marriage as a sacrament. Even then, though, the rules of the church were fuzzy because folks used the "private consent" option, which created problems in the ecclesiastical courts. So Protestants required that marriage would no longer be a private institution. It became one that was done publicly with a ceremony, priest, witnesses, and parental consent.
They also started registering births, deaths and marriages. In the 1500's, different governments and nation-states started controlling the legality of marriage.
- 1525 - Zurich required that a marriage have two "pious, honorable, and incontestable witnesses."
- 1537 - Augsburg and Nuremberg fined or jailed those who had pre-nuptial sex.
- 1563 - Catholic Council of Trent declared that any marriage not performed by a parish priest was invalid.
- 1753 - English Parliament passed a law about marriage regulations that involved licensing with signed and dated registries and when and where public and daylight ceremonies could occur.
Marriage had become a legal contract between a man and a wife.
Common law marriage was the norm in most of the U.S. in its early history. In the 1870's this created a lot of concern and a marriage reform movement began. They called for publicity, formal ceremonies, licensing, and registration. As the 20th century began, marriage in the U.S. was regulated by the states. The system of fees, licenses, requirements, and witnesses that we deal with today came into being.
Today, more and more couples are waiting until they are in their 30's to marry. They often don't marry due to economic reasons. They marry someone they love. They postpone having children, and they limit the number of children they do have. If the marriage doesn't work out, they have no guilt in getting a divorce.
There is a strong belief that in the future, we will see less divorce because there will be fewer people getting married.
There will be less social stigma with couples who want to live in non-traditional arrangements. Same-sex marriage will be accepted in more countries. Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey The Emerging 21st-Century American Family says that "We're talking about profound changes."
Pew Research Center: "About four-in-ten Americans think that marriage is on the rocks. No, not their marriage. The institution of marriage ... No matter what one thinks about the institution’s future, there’s no getting around its stark contraction during the past half century. Some 72% of all adults in the United States were married in 1960. By 2008, just 52% were ... most Americans now embrace the ideal of gender equality between spouses. The mid-20th century “Ozzie and Harriet” marriage between a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife is now seen as the preferred model by just 30% of the public; some 62% say that marriages are better when husbands and wives both have jobs and both share responsibility for the household and kids."
Source: Pew Research Center. The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families. Pewsocialtrends.org. 11/18/2010.