Throughout civilized history, men and women have entered into monogamous relationships at an early age and begun raising families. This happens much less frequently today. Marriage is becoming more rare and singles who do get married, marry later. Families are also becoming smaller and less common as men and women now have fewer children later in life. The age of marriage has risen by about five years since 1950, the marriage rate has dropped about forty percent, and the fertility rate has also dropped about forty percent according to theNational Marriage Project. In order to understand the root causes of these changes, one must understand what the dating environment was like prior to the widespread use of birth control in the 1960' s.
Before the pill, marriage was necessary for practical reasons. Men and women were much more dependent on each other and there was a defined division of labor. This division of labor was necessary because of a basic biological difference between the sexes. Women can bear children, men cannot. Before contraception, a woman could not readily control when pregnancy might take her out of the workforce. Women unable to control reproduction also had more children and spent more of their lives pregnant or with young children. These factors made it difficult for women pursue careers in the long-term. The difficulty in pursuing work made it necessary for women to find a husband who would provide financial resources for her and her children.
Restrictions on premarital sex also encouraged marriage. Before the advent of birth control, premarital sex was risky and had potentially drastic consequences. A woman who had premarital sex could become pregnant with an illegitimate child, which would severely restrict her marriage options. This was a serious handicap in a system where marriage was essential in society. A woman who had an unintended pregnancy might also be forced into an inescapable shotgun marriage with a man she didn' t really want, and who was a poor choice as a lifelong partner and provider. In either case, premarital sex could doom a woman to a lifetime of difficulty, and women had to exercise restraint.
Before the invention of the pill, the sexual behavior of men was also necessarily less promiscuous. Under the monogamous system, sex without commitment was rarely available, so a man had to court a woman for an extended time and then get married before a woman would consent to sex. Because women were not economically independent, society strongly sanctioned men who impregnated women and then left them without the means to support themselves. When an unmarried woman did become pregnant, marriage was often forced upon the man. Premarital sex could result in a lifetime commitment for men as well, so men too had to be more discerning in their choice of sex partners.
Why Marry Young?
For the reasons listed above, women in the pre-pill era did not generally pursue careers. In order to take the burden of support from their parents, women needed to attract a husband while young, and were also incented by the need to attract a mate while at the peak of their fertility and physical attractiveness. (A woman' s fertile lifetime is shorter than a man' s because of differences in their reproductive systems. A woman' s reproductive system must support a developing baby for nine months. This requires a vastly more complex system that is more biologically difficult to maintain and more susceptible to aging. The male reproductive system produces only sperm, which is much simpler.) The biological and social pressures that encouraged early marriage were reinforced by social customs and pressures that promoted marriage, such as older sisters having to marry before younger sisters were allowed to.
Men were incented to get married early by a combination of sexual desire and the fact that single women became scarcer with age. Because most women were married and raising children by their early 20s, a man who remained unmarried much past that age faced a dramatically shrinking number of eligible women within his social group. This resulted in the vast majority of men seeking marriage in their youth as well. In today' s society, many singles postpone marriage to pursue careers or delay in the hope of finding more attractive mates. In the past, the lack of premarital sex and eligible partners made it much more difficult to wait.
Why Stay Together?
While the features of the pre-pill dating environment encouraged marriage at a young age, it also provided incentives for couples to stay together once married. When physical attraction inevitably waned, there were many practical reasons to stay married.
The fact that there were relatively few singles available in the dating market discouraged infidelity and divorce. Men and women married early and spent their 20' s raising children. The social scene for singles was much smaller than it is today. Women' s time was filled with child-rearing duties in the home and they had few interactions with single men. With few single women in their social circles, married men also had fewer temptations for infidelity and fewer options for remarriage if they were to get divorced.
Larger families were another reason couples stayed together. Women could not easily avoid pregnancy and had more children. Managing a large family required a great deal of time and effort, particularly without modern conveniences. A single parent would be unable to both manage a family and earn a living. Thus, women without a means to support themselves couldn' t leave their husbands. Husbands who left would be abandoning their children to lives of poverty. Harsh community sanction from one' s friends and social group resulted in either case. Religious rules and social norms further enforced the practical reasons to avoid adultery, avoid divorce and stay married.
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In the past, the social practices defining dating and marriage were based on underlying biological and economic rules. Those rules made marriage a practical necessity. The advent of birth control decoupled sex from reproduction and the changes have rippled through the system. Premarital sex no longer carries the threat of pregnancy. Families have gotten smaller and more manageable. Women can work and are capable of supporting themselves and their children. Instead of being practical necessities, today' s singles often believe that the point of marriage and sex are to provide emotional and romantic bliss for the individuals involved.
While birth control' s conquest over biology may seem to have provided many benefits, it has also had many unintended consequences. There are fewer reasons to get married, so men and women are staying single longer. Now that premarital sex is possible, dating has transformed from a search for marriage into a pursuit of sex. Sex is now prerequisite for beginning a relationship. Rather than being forced to marry early, singles find it increasingly difficult to find partners willing to marry at all. Men and women seeking sexual relationships value members of the opposite sex based on instinctual emotion and physical attraction rather than valuing the virtues and personality traits that make a good long-term partner. The interdependence between men and women has been severely weakened, resulting in rising illegitimacy, single parenthood and divorce. Birth control was the catalyst that swung the pendulum from monogamy to pervasive promiscuity. The consequences for singles and for society have been considerable and widespread.