The 1950s and 1960s were the “golden age of marriage” and the triumph of romantic love in many modern Western societies. The cultural ideologies of “love marriage” and “sexual revolution” prevailed. Marriage rates rose above 90%, and people married younger (see Karandashev, 2017, for a review).
That “golden age of marriage” promised to make men and women happy in loving marriages. Marriage achieved a fair balance between love and marital stability. However, surprisingly, the late 20th century’s dramatic evolution of marriage overturned romantic cultural ideals, rapidly changing people’s attitudes and behaviors toward sex, love, and marriage.
In the middle of the 1970s, marital relationships and families changed too fast, in some cases in a positive way and in others in a negative way. Fewer men and women wanted to get married. Many postponed their marriage. Some did not want to marry at all.
Marriages lasted less time; by the 2000s, they lasted an average of seven years. Divorce rates increased. Cohabitation and other alternatives to marriage have emerged. Living together without registering the marriage became very common. Between 1970 and 1999, the number of unmarried couples living together increased seven times. Only when a woman became pregnant did many couples decide to marry.
In the 1990s and by the early 2000s, women and men no longer viewed marriage as necessary to conceive a baby and get pregnant. For instance, in the United States, nearly 40% of cohabiting couples had children (Karandashev, 2017, p. 168).
Family and Parenthood in the Late 20th Century
The cultural evolution of marriage in the later 20th century headed toward a different model of parenthood. The birth rate among married couples continued to decline. Many women delayed becoming mothers. Women waited even later to get married. Childbearing rates among unmarried women increased. The number of children born outside of wedlock became more frequent (Coontz 2005, p. 261).
Many men became unwilling to marry. They preferred to get into relationships with women, yet they wanted to be less involved financially and emotionally. Some publications in the public media undermined men’s family responsibilities by encouraging them to enjoy the pleasures of romantic relationships. In this regard, women complained that contemporary men were reluctant to commit to relationships, which led to new tensions between women and men.
New Opportunities for Women’s Personal Growth
But on the flip side, aspirations and opportunities for women in the workplace increased both before and after marriage. Many of them postponed marriage in order to complete college. Their personal ambitions and self-confidence increased.
Others relished their single status for a few years before settling down with marriage and children. They remained single for longer and gained work and academic experience (Coontz, 2005).
The Contraceptive Revolution of the 1960s
In the 1960s, more effective contraceptives were developed. Since women had better access to effective contraception, they had more freedom to use birth control. Therefore, they were in a better position to decide on their own when and how many children to have. This gave them the possibility of changing their lives and marriages.
In some ways, the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s paved the way for the so-called sexual revolution. Reduced risk of unintended pregnancy allowed women to consider sexual activity and childbirth motivation separately, if desired. This gave her more freedom to enjoy sex and love.
Men and women became more involved in promiscuous sexual activity. Many premarital and extramarital couples were able to enjoy the sensual pleasures of sexual activity. Lovers and good friends enjoyed their sex, not necessarily being engaged as bride and groom and not planning to marry at all. The myth that sex can only be enjoyable within a marriage has been debunked. Men and women were more interested in sex than ever before, becoming more equal partners in sexual relations.
The Psychology of Sex in the Late 20th Century
Sex, on the other hand, entailed not only physical sexual activity but also psychological aspects of intimacy and a genuine interpersonal relationship. The latter attributes of sex were paramount. Sexual adequacy in a woman, in particular, was strongly related to the quality of her intimate relationships (Murstein 1974, pp. 441–442).
Cultural Evolution of Partners’ Psychological Roles in Relationships
The rate of childbirth decreased. The number of childless marriages and families with one to two children increased. All these factors weakened the links between marriage and parenthood. Couples reconsidered the roles that each partner should play in their marriages and families. There were fewer small children vying for their attention. Therefore, many couples appreciated the qualities of their own relationships in terms of intimacy and romantic love feelings.
By the 1970s and 1980s, all these changes had a profound impact on how people felt about intimate relationships. A significant shift toward prioritizing emotional gratification, intimacy, self-fulfillment, and fairness over conformity to social roles occurred.
The value of companionate love and partnership increased. When both the husband and the wife had jobs, they commonly discussed how to rearrange the division of housework and the equality of family chores.
The cultural evolution of social norms regarding relationships prompted many men and women to believe that autonomy and voluntary cooperation were more important than obedience to authority. Everywhere in North America and Western Europe, acceptance of singlehood, unmarried cohabitation, childlessness, divorce, and extramarital pregnancy increased (Inglehart 1990; Coontz 2005; see for review, Karandashev, 2017, p. 169).
So, while it took more than 150 years for love-based marriage to become the common model of family union in Western Europe and North America, it took less than 25 years to dismantle it (Coontz, 2005).