Marriage's future, then and now

Eighty years ago next week, on July 24, 1926, a dinner party in England took an unusual turn. Helen Hope Mirrlees, a feminist poet and author, posed an intriguing question: What will marriage be like in 100 years?

The dozen or so assembled guests, described as "famous men and women of the cultured upper classes," rose to the challenge, offering a range of domestic scenarios for 2026.

Ms. Mirrlees herself speculated that in the next century, men and women might reverse roles. As recounted in The Times of London, she asked, "Will it become an accepted thing that men, when it suits their temperament, take up the job of housekeeper and allow their more pushful better halves to go out and earn the family livelihood?"

Edward Phillips Oppenheim, a prolific novelist, saw cohabitation beginning to take hold as an alternative to marriage. In its first stage, he said, this "perfectly respectable custom" would allow a man and a woman to live together, "but without anything in the nature of a conjugal relationship." That would enable the couple to see each other in a "bad temper" on occasions when "the water company turned off the bath tap" or when "the toast is like a board." After six months they could consummate the relationship or start over with "no prestige lost."

Several participants saw the bonds of marriage loosening. "Divorce will be easier and cheaper and less humiliating," said the novelist Arnold Bennett. That would lead to the practice of "experimental marriage."

Echoing Bennett's view was Arthur Hamilton Gibbs, a novelist and poet. He said, "There will be no law or public opinion to force a woman to go on living with a husband when detestation is mutual. Divorce will be as readily acceptable as a postage stamp." And by 2026, no woman would be a "child machine."

Not all the crystal-ball gazers were optimistic. Striking a cautionary note was Leonard Darwin, a scientist and the son of Charles Darwin. As marriage ties became more lax, he warned, more children would be "brought up without the care of both parents." He envisioned temporary unions before marriage that would be followed by "childless marriage with the same or some other partner."

These remarkably prescient commentators are hardly the only ones to anticipate new forms of marriage, of course. In the 1970s anthropologist Margaret Mead predicted the growing popularity of "serial monogamy," involving a string of monogamous marriages.

A more radical idea came from authors Nena and George O'Neill, who wrote "Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples." They suggested that partners could have extramarital affairs as one way of finding self-fulfillment. Translated into 14 languages, the book sold 35 million copies, according to Amazon. Yet even that kind of freedom apparently wasn't enough for the O'Neills, who later divorced.

Situations like that might not have surprised Leonard Darwin in 1926. He warned that "the harm done by the abandonment of family life will ... become more and more generally apparent." When that happens, he continued, society will begin "a slow swing back to more old-fashioned views as to the sanctity of the marriage contract, together with a greater readiness to submit to sacrifices and to impose hardships in order to keep family circles united."

Although divorce rates have leveled off in recent years, the fraying of marital bonds and the increase in cohabitation have taken their toll on families. And even though it is too early to say that a shift in attitudes could be in its early stages, a new study released by Cornell University cautions that cohabiting couples are unlikely to wed.

One-half of all cohabiting unions end within a year and 90 percent within five years, mostly because couples break up, researchers find. Living together, they say, is emerging as "an intense form of dating" – one that is unlikely to serve as a steppingstone to the altar, particularly for poor and minority women. Instead, they find that "serial cohabitation may be an emerging norm as cohabiting unions form and break up."

From Margaret Mead's serial monogamy 30 years ago to today's serial cohabitation, the domestic experimentation goes on. Today the 21st-century parlor-game question could be: What will marriage be like a century from now, in 2106?

It's impossible to say. But whatever the domestic ebb and flow of attitudes and practices, one thing doesn't change: the yearning for love, companionship, children, and security.

That yearning might be the best hope that the idealism Mr. Gibbs expressed 80 years ago will gradually become a reality.

In the future, he said, "Man and woman, in their marriage relationship, will look at each other as partners and equals, morally, physically, and economically."

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