What Happened with Marriage in the Late 20th Century?

The middle of the 20th century, from the 1950s to the 1960s, was the “golden age of marriage” and the triumph of romantic love. Many modern societies have experienced the rise of the cultural ideologies of “love marriage” and “sexual revolution.” The number of marriages increased above 90%. By the 1960s, the popularity of love marriage had become nearly universal. Becoming married appeared to be the happy destiny of romantic love. Men and women tended to marry at a young age (see Karandashev, 2017, for a review).

After more than 150 years of striving for romantic love ideals, love had a triumph and conquered marriage (Coontz 2005). The cultural ideals established the new norms of the love-based marriage in North America and Western Europe, as well as in many other modern countries.

However, the “golden age of marriage” of the 1950s and 1960s, which promised to make people happy in love marriages, surprising reversal of romantic cultural ideals.

Love conquered marriage after more than 150 years of striving for romantic love ideals (Coontz, 2005). The cultural ideals established the new norms of love-based marriage in North America, Western Europe, and many other modern countries. The “golden age of marriage” of the 1950s and 1960s promised to make people happy in love marriages.

 However, the popularity of romantic cultural ideals and marriage began to decline.

What happened in the late 20th century with the cultural evolution of marriage?

A Turning Point at the End of Marriage’s Golden Age

In the 1960s, marriage seemed to have achieved the right balance between love and social stability. Love-based marriage encouraged the right to choose a marital partner. That cultural ideology valued romantic love and personal choice over inherited social ties and family obligations. Young and educated people, especially women, found this cultural perspective on marriage to be very appealing (see Karandashev, 2017).

However, something unexpected happened with the ideals of love marriage. Significant cultural changes started to take place in the opposite direction in the late 1970s. Cultural evolution turned out to be too fast and too drastic. Instead of evolutionary progress, it became a cultural revolution.

What Changed in Love and Marriage in the Late 20th Century?

Mid-1970s love, sex, and marriage attitudes and behaviors changed too quickly. The radical cultural ideas reversed “traditional” marriage. Many of these changes occurred because of the unfulfilled marital expectations of men and women. Their dissatisfaction grew when they did not meet their marriage ideals of love, intimacy, and partnership. Many failed to find happiness in marriage.

The Age and Length of Marriage in the Second Half of the 20th Century

Love marriage had become a common cultural norm in many societies by the 1960s. Marriage appeared to be the happy destiny of the romantic love dreams of youngsters (see Karandashev, 2017, for a review).

In general, men and women married at a young age, and their marriages lasted longer than at any time in European and American history. For example, in 1900, the average marriage in America and Europe lasted 11 years. During the “golden age of marriage” of the 1950s, marriages lasted on average 31 years. However, between 1966 and 1979, the age when men and women married increased. However, the length of marriage shortened, and divorce rates accelerated and doubled by the 2000s. The marriages in the 2000s lasted, on average, seven years.

There was good news and bad news about the evolution of marriage by the early 2000s. The positive trend was that the number of divorces had been going down steadily over the last few decades of the 20th century. The negative trend was that fewer men and women were getting married at all.

The Declining Number of Marriages in the Late 20th Century

Another alarming trend of the late 20th century was the decline of marriages overall. In particular, by the late 1970s, there were high divorce rates as well as a decline in the number of people remarrying after divorce.

New alternatives to marriage, like cohabitation, emerged. Living together without registering the marriage became quite widespread. In the United States of America, for instance, the number of unmarried couples cohabiting increased seven times between the years 1970 and 1999.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many couples usually decided to get married when a woman became pregnant. However, in the 1990s, women and men no longer considered marriage as important to become pregnant or give birth. By the early 2000s, nearly 40% of cohabiting couples in the United States had children under the age of 18 living with them (Seltzer 2004; Smock & Gupta 2002, see for review Karandashev, 2017, p. 168).