Four Types of Marriage: Which One is Yours?
People marry for love. They stay together for many reasons.
Americans say they marry for love, but the supports for marriage are much more complicated than this.
Each type of marriage has its own opportunities and dangers.
Work-based marriages stress shared productivity; ritualistic marriages stress identity, order, and duty.
Playful marriages emphasis adventure and change; communal marriages stress shared experience and bonding.
Leo Tolstoy begins his classic Anna Karenina—some critics consider it the world’s greatest novel—in the following way: “All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That quizzical introduction suggests different interpretations. The most common of these is that every society offers a well-established, relatively standard pattern that produces the most beneficial results for people, both as individuals and as members of families and communities. Adhering to those general principles—essentially ways of trusting, respecting, and supporting one another—offers the best prospects for being happy. People who veer from those frameworks, perhaps by seeking romantic excitement or personal aggrandizement, do so at their own risk.
Doomed heroines, like Anna, are a staple of the nineteenth-century novel. Most of us modern readers admire their attempts to find happiness, seemingly against all odds. We are glad that the curtailments they faced—restrictions on property ownership, employment, education, political expression, independence of movement, and so forth—have softened. Who wishes to return to the 1870s, in czarist Russia or anywhere else?
Still, we wonder about Tolstoy’s challenge. Is there really some ideal form of relationship to which we should all aspire? In our pluralistic, fast-changing society, aren’t there many equally legitimate forms of relationships? Can’t we find happiness in various ways, even in those singular offshoots he warns us against?
Love, American Style
Unlike people in traditional societies, we Americans marry for love. Any other rationale is suspicious. We expect to be “in love” for a decent portion of that time. If we fall “out of love” with our spouse, we ask ourselves: Why should I stay with this person?
This roving impulse is made easier by declining sanctions against marriage dissolution. Churches care less about separation. The general stigma of being “divorced” has largely vanished. It is easier to get a job and live on one’s own, especially for women. The legal system permits it, commonly on “no-fault” terms. There are opportunities to find a new spouse or partner, chances heightened by the Internet. Children know other kids who are dealing with these issues.
In that context, around 40 percent of American marriages end in divorce. That figure rises above 60 percent for second marriages. So chastened, people are slower to get married. In 2021, 25 percent of 40-year-olds had never married (compared to just 20 percent in 2010). On the other hand, nearly 80 percent of divorced people marry again at some point. In other words, most of us seem to have remained committed to the practice of marriage. Our difficulty, it seems, is the specific person we are married to.
Perhaps because we wait longer to marry, and because we change partners, about 60 percent of us report that we are “happy” in our marriages. And that happiness level corresponds to the percentage of married people who say they are happy with their lives in general.
Of course, and as I’ve detailed in other posts, there are different ways of being “happy”—and different lifestyles that promote this assessment. In that spirit, I present below four kinds of modern marriages.
Who says the practical foundation of marriage has crumbled? For many, marriage is a strenuous commitment, a challenge that intensifies with the arrival of children.
Commonly, both partners work outside the home, sometimes just to “keep the lights on” and “put food on the table.” Countless hours are spent preparing meals, doing laundry, and running errands. Kids are shuttled back and forth. Even managing these day-to-day affairs is not enough. Ideally, surpluses are created—for the kids’ education, retirement, and sudden calamities.
A marriage of this sort is an enterprise or career. And couples, perhaps sitting on the front porch with drink in hand, rightly take pride in their accomplishments.
Danger arises when the enterprise falters or shifts course. Kids grow up and move away. Economic difficulties threaten everything that has been built. People age and move into smaller quarters. One partner gets tired or simply loses commitment. What happens then?
Be clear that for most of us, marriage is a key element of our identity. We understand ourselves to be spouses, constituents of a “couple.” When we get married in a public ceremony, we declare this to the community. Married friends and family members commonly have a vested interest in our maintaining that bond. A “respectable” spouse or partner is a social asset.
As above, becoming a parent complicates matters. Spouses may neglect one another, but they must not abandon their children. If performed well, the roles of father and mother (and especially the latter) become honored statuses. Many will expand those identities as grandparents.
In the ritualistic marriage, much is made of these identities and of family members’ obligations to one another. Pointedly, these are not general responsibilities but commitments to a “particular” family. Each kin group is a microcosm of its own sort.
Uncountable are the arrangements and rules of these little worlds. Bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, dining rooms, “man-caves,” and “she-sheds”: all are circumscribed by codes detailing who can do what kinds of things there at what times of day.
There is comfort in having a room of one’s own or simply a customary spot at the dinner table. Routines—and ritualistic marriages stress these—assure us about the orderliness of the world. They help us know who we are.
The danger is that these routines can stifle, even deaden. After all, contemporary societies are change-oriented; and this is especially true for younger generations. It is one thing to have a private bedroom or favorite chair. It is another to feel compelled to be there night after night. At some point, the impulse for stimulation wins out. The inmate escapes.
What if we were a couple who went places and did things, as when we were dating? Surely, or so proponents of this viewpoint insist, life is about trying new things, taking risks, and otherwise having fun. Marriage should not be the endpoint of youthful adventure. It should be its springboard.
We get a heavy dose of this from television, movies, and the commercialized internet. What we like to watch is young people—ideally, smart and good-looking—making their way into and out of predicaments. What advertising sells is novelty, excitement, and the satisfaction that comes when other people affirm those choices.
“Fun couples” are those who are race about, perhaps off to Iceland or somewhere in their RV. Returned from their travels, they cavort with friends. Noisy bars and restaurants, concerts, and sports events are essential. Let there be a boat or vehicle with four-wheel drive. At least, give us poker, darts, and cornhole. Alcohol, or something else to elevate spirits, is often in the mix.
As a scholar of human play, I support some portion of this. However, the danger of playful marriage is that the constant search for novelty and pleasure is frequently shallow and self-defeating. New excitements have difficulty surpassing old ones. How many times can we go to Greece, replace the kitchen countertops, and buy a kayak?
One option is to change our companion for these adventures. But pity the attempts of that novitiate to keep it “fresh” or “real” for us.
Our culture celebrates the idea that marriage is a quasi-sacred contract between two people, which foregrounds shared intimacy and enduring mutual support. For individuals, that means abandoning previous self-centered routines and taking the concerns of the other into account. Critically, it is the “relationship,” and what each derives from this, that matters.
In communal marriages, people prize their shared moments, even if this means just sitting side-by-side watching television or lying together in the dark. Unlike the playful marriage, which emphasizes stimulating activities, communal partners celebrate bonding. Ideally, expanding the family—by children or older loved ones—does not change this receptive spirit.
A good friend of mine once confided that he considered any time spent away from his spouse to be “time wasted.” Divorced now for many years, the couple simply grew apart. That is, of course, the danger of idealized love. People are irregular and inconstant; they have appetites that do not take their beloved into account. The intimacies they’ve shared for many years become stale. Being with someone else makes them feel alive, uncompromised, and “authentic.”
I should signify here that most marriages are combinations of these types. Indeed, the strongest ones may emphasize all four themes. Recognize also that marriages commonly move through stages, with one type and then another becoming predominant. Marriages fall apart because the spouses cannot agree on the kind of life they want to share and because they blame each other for failing to support that vision. Like Tolstoy’s Anna, people believe they have a right to something better than the current arrangement. The future, inevitably idealized, beckons.
Thomas Henricks, Ph.D., is Danieley Professor of Sociology and Distinguished University Professor at Elon University.