Chapter 1
The Dilemma of Modern Marriage

There is a dilemma about modern marriage that is getting harder to solve. How is it possible to "become one" without compromising our individual distinctiveness? It would seem that either the unity of the relationship would swallow up the individuals or the uniqueness of the individuals would unravel the unity. Solving this dilemma will help couples stay together happily rather than end in divorce. Learning how to balance individual fulfillment with relationship fulfillment is a relatively new dilemma that has developed during the last one hundred years or so. It is, however, a task that must be mastered if marriage is to continue to be a viable institution in modern society.

The Origin of the Dilemma

If we could transport ourselves back in time one hundred years, it would be enlightening to observe marriages in the days of our great-great-grandparents. Although their lives were difficult in many ways, less than 10% of marriages in any society ended in divorce. The major struggles centered on working long hours to provide the basics (shelter, food, clothing) and to overcome diseases that claimed the lives of every fifth child and the deaths of mothers during childbirth. If our great-great-grandparents could have transported themselves forward in time to observe married life today, they would no doubt be stunned by the modern advances that make life so easy. Most would be appalled that so many (approximately 50%) decide to divorce today. How do we explain the seeming contradiction between the high marital success rate during the harder times of the past and the low marital success rate in today's modern world?

While there are complex reasons why people divorce, rising divorce rates over the last one hundred years can best be explained by the changing demands people have placed on marriage by regarding it as a source of self-fulfillment. Back in the 1930s the sociologist Ernest Burgess documented the change he saw taking place in modern, urban, industrialized societies. In the past, he reasoned, people valued marriage as an institution in and of itself, whereas today people value marriage for companionship and fulfillment (Burgess & Locke, 1953). Based on responses to surveys taken between 1939 and 1996, Buss, Schackelford, Kirkpatrick and Larsen (2001) summarize the change in mate selection values as follows, "Both sexes increased the importance they attach to physical attractiveness in a mate. Both sexes, but especially men, increased the importance they attached to mates with good financial prospects. Domestic skills in a partner plummeted in importance for men. Mutual attraction and love climbed in importance for both sexes" (p. 491).

The primary function of marriage regarded as an institution had to do with social and economic arrangements. In a majority of societies around the world in the past, the families of the bride and groom arranged marriages. This practice started to change in modern societies with the emergence of a companionship-oriented focus. The primary reasons people marry in modern times now have to do with romantic attraction, self-fulfillment and ego need gratification (Coontz, 2004). The expectation bar has been raised to include a high level of personal satisfaction. In modern marriage, marital success is gauged by emotional and psychological factors. This change has had an enormous impact on marriage expectations.

It doesn't take a genius to grasp the idea that fewer expectations result in fewer divorces. Neither is it surprising that the focus on personal self-fulfillment increases the demands made on both spouses. In the old days, wives yielded their individual identity and rights. Until the mid-1800s, ownership of any property contributed by the bride's family was transferred to the husband. How astonishing this seems in today's world where individual rights are the focus.

In the twenty-first century, a great change in most societies around the world has to do with women's equal rights in personal, social and legal matters. We applaud this change. Basic security is awarded equally to both spouses. The new challenge in modern marriage is to build a relationship that is mutual, reciprocal and balanced by equal regard for each spouse and mutual sacrifice for the good of the relationship.

A Literature Review of the Modern Marriage Dilemma

The severity of the modern marital dilemma has gotten much attention in the social science literature. For example, an entire issue was devoted to the state of the modern marriage in the professional Journal of Marriage and the Family (2004, no. 4). In his article, Andrew Cherlin (2004, pp. 848-61) explains that America has experienced a "deinstitutionalization of marriage," which includes a weakening of social norms that define marriage. He refers to practices like cohabitation, same-sex marriage, individualism and the movement of married women into the paid workforce as examples. In a similar vein, Smock (2004, pp. 966-73) writes about the "retreat" from marriage. Declining fertility, delayed age at marriage, high levels of marital disruption, growing separation between marriage and childbearing, increase in proportion of children being born outside of wedlock, and nonmarital cohabitation are seen as reasons for this retreat. He concludes that a variety of interrelated factors contribute to the decline: economic, social and cultural influences; urbanization and industrialization; social and geographical mobility; redefinition of gender roles; modernity and postmodernity.

In answer to the question she poses in her article "Does Marriage Have a Future?" Ellen Lewin (2004) concludes that it most likely does not have a future if marriage is limited to its present form. In agreement with Lewin, Kathleen Kiernan (2004) writes, "The rise of cohabitation and the recognition of same sex partnerships have in effect, redrawn the boundaries of marriagelike relationships" (p. 985). John Gillis (2004) believes that societal recognition of marriage as the only legitimate conjugal arrangement is "something of an aberration that existed" roughly from 1870 to 1970. According to him, "tolerating a wide range of formal and informal marriage practices" is normative and to be welcomed (p. 990). He concludes, "Seen in the larger historical and global perspective, there is nothing particularly alarming in the tendency. In fact, there is much to recommend it" (p. 991).

Ted Huston and Heidi Melz (2004, p. 943) view contemporary marriages as undergoing two types of change, normative and relational. Normative structural change includes nonmarital cohabitation, the increase in the proportion of births that occur outside of marriage, the tendency to many later in life and the high rate of divorce. Relational change has to do with a heightened emphasis on individualism at the expense of a relational or communal commitment. In his article "Tensions between Institutional and Individual Views of Marriage," Paul Amato (2004) is highly concerned about the intensifying tension these modern trends place on marriage today.

Though many family social scientists are concerned about these modern trends, some hold to a postmodern optimism that embraces alternative forms of marriage. According to them, the outdated, traditional lifelong monogamous marriage needs to be revised. They advocate for alternative forms to better accommodate the diverse needs of a postmodern society, such as same-sex marriage, cohabitation, remaining childless, serial marriage (one marriage after another) and so forth. Some go so far as to suggest that marriage should be thought of as a natural learning process like going to school. Thus, the first marriage is an initiation similar to grade school; the second marriage (high school) gives an opportunity to practice relationship skills; the third marriage (college) offers an advanced level of intimacy. This functional perspective is derived from naturalistic assumptions that society should accept whatever is currently happening as normative and not make value judgments about what marriage should be. Marriage is a relationship of convenience, formed by what the two people decide to make of it.

In contrast to these views, our book is based on the teleological assumption that God has created humankind and designed marriage with an ultimate purpose and meaning in mind. We agree that a hyperindividualistic focus on personal fulfillment has overridden the essential meaning of covenant commitment and relationship values. We need a culture that supports marriage and provides a moral value system that promotes mutual responsibility. We believe the biblical revelation of right relationship offers the answers to the marriage dilemma. In the following chapters, we will show how the biblically grounded trinitarian model of relationship provides a foundation for grasping the biblical principles of marital love that profoundly coordinate the deepest needs of individuals in the context of strong and enduring marriages. Before we do that, however, we give an overview that compares two present competing views of marriage: the traditional and postmodern.

Traditional and Postmodern Marital Ethics

There are two competing sides when it comes to finding answers to the dilemmas proposed earlier in the chapter. Table 1.1 represents a comparative summary of the polar opposite traditional and postmodern views.

Traditional Biblical Modern
(to the institution)
(between partners)
Coercive Cohesive Disengaged
Dutiful Sex
(male pleasure)
Affectionate Sex
(mutual pleasure)
Self-Centered Sex
(personal pleasure)
Law Grace Anarchy
(segregated roles)
(interchangeable roles)
(undifferentiated roles)
Rigid/Stilted Adaptable/Flexible Chaotic
Ascribed Power Empowering Possessive Power
Mutual Submissiveness
Absence of Authority
Male-Centered Relationship-Centered Self-Centered
Inexpressiveness Intimacy Pseudo-intimacy
Nonassertive/Aggressive Assertive Aggressive

Table 1.1.

The column on the left represents the traditional view, the column on the right represents the postmodern view, while the center column represents the biblical response to marriage that, although not discussed in this chapter, will form the basis for chapters three to six. We present four important components of the marital relationship—commitment, adaptability, authority and communication—as a means of contrasting the traditional and postmodern beliefs.


It seems obvious that marriage is a commitment! However, it is not so simple to define what it means to be committed—and to what or whom. The traditional view focuses on commitment to marriage as an institution. A couple is to stay married for life out of obligation to family and cultural views that marriage is a sacred institution. A traditional view clearly incorporates a collectivistic emphasis on family and community loyalty over and above individual needs or desires. With the emergence of postmodern thought, the larger collective emphasis has given way to the philosophy that there are many flavors of truth or alternative ways of defining commitment that can be determined by the individual or couple. Since there are many alternative forms of commitment, commitment is relative, based on the persons involved.

In the traditional marriage, our great-grandparents were clear about staying together for life as a commitment to marriage as an institution. Indeed, divorce was rare under the traditional system because it was thought to be morally wrong to break the sacred social institution. To put self-interest above marriage, the family or the good of society was not tolerated by the majority society norms.

The modern/postmodern marriage is about individual rights over relationship rights. To consider lifelong commitment stretches the imagination farther than spouses are willing to go in a culture that honors keeping a variety of options open throughout a lifetime. The intense drive for personal happiness makes spouses skeptical of finding one person who will be able to sustain them over the long haul. Traditional values are sneered at as unrealistic in today's world where multiple divorces are more in vogue. Self-fulfillment is the ultimate gauge for staying married. Of course, the longing for personal fulfillment at all costs places an enormous pressure on marriage and on both spouses in that marriage.

In the 1960s, the counterculture movement led to a rebellion against traditional values. Free love shook the foundation of marriage as an institution. There was no reason for legal marriage; two people stayed together as long as they were both satisfied with the arrangement. Promiscuous sexual behaviors added fuel to the fire, even as social norms shifted to self-fulfillment. The annual divorce rate doubled between the early 1960s and 1970s. Sensitivity and self-help groups were the rage as they promoted the attitude of finding oneself. It wasn't until the early 1980s that the high divorce rate leveled out. It seems when people were unhappy they found divorce as the convenient scapegoat. Their individual right to personal happiness took precedence over staying in the marriage for the sake of the institution.

The postmodern marriage offers a multitude of choices for a person to make. Recognizing there are alternatives, one chooses what is good for oneself at that particular time. As the circumstances change and a person's needs change, the possibilities are many. A major criterion to determine choice is self-fulfillment. A marriage or relationship is considered successful when both partners consider themselves to be happy. We fear that the inordinate amount of free choice leaves one without a sound moral base for taking others into account.

Something vital is missing in both extremes, either commitment to the institution of marriage or commitment to self-interest. There seems to be very little understanding of commitment between persons in which they must consider the best interest of the other as well as themselves and the relationship itself. We believe this is a tragedy because commitment expressed as a covenant promise to the flourishing and welfare of the relationship has lost its deepest spiritual meaning. The problem in the past was too narrow a definition of marriage, limiting it to the survival of an institution, whereas the problem with the contemporary view is too wide a definition of relationship, limiting it to being a means to the individual end of self-fulfillment.

For example, in the area of marital sex, according to the traditional view, sex became viewed as a right to pleasure for the male and a duty to be endured by the female. It is a matter of going through the motions to have children or give pleasure. The wife especially found less satisfaction in this arrangement. In postmodern marriage, people have a vast number of choices in and outside of the marriage bed, with emphasis on the individual's right to personal pleasure. Sex manuals now overflow with a vast variety of techniques promising to give the greatest amount of sexual pleasure. Following this lead, one ends up striving for more and yet being left floundering because sexual relations become more about technique than relationship and communion. Thus, in the process, the real meaning of sexuality is lost.

Role Adaptability

In traditional marriage, roles are segregated. The norm is for husbands to assume the role of working outside of the home while wives take on the role of homemaking and child rearing. This is actually a fairly recent phenomenon, since as late as one hundred years ago two-thirds of all families in the United States lived on farms. Marital roles were integrated in home and at work as both husbands and wives worked cooperatively alongside each other in business or farm work.

A postmodern trend calls for undifferentiated marital roles. This is to say, various tasks in the home are assigned according to a social exchange formula. This formula is based on the assumption that all relationships involve cost and reward. What one gives to a relationship is experienced as a cost, and what one receives is regarded as a reward. Researchers have found that marriages thrive when the rewards outweigh the costs for each partner. As long as spouses experience getting as much as they give they are satisfied. The formula is this: rewards minus costs bring equal profit.

Let's imagine a couple in a postmodern marriage deciding who will cook the evening meal. Since they both have had a hard day at work, they will need to haggle until the formula works out satisfactorily. If one cooks the other will clean up and take out the garbage. The point is that when roles are undifferentiated it takes bargaining and negotiating skills to work out the equation. Since there are many circumstances to consider and many alternatives to choose from, it takes energy to battle out the final plan for the day to make sure in the cost-benefit analysis that each profits equally.

Parenting is without question one of the most crucial tasks to be performed. In the traditional family the mother does the majority of the parenting while the father plays a secondary role. Roles tend to be rigidly defined with little flexibility as to how they are performed. In postmodern marriages, parenting roles may not be well defined and therefore expectations for children are loosely defined, resulting in confusion or chaos. Without the stability of set routines, the children flounder.


Authority is a hot topic among Christians these days. Until very recently, authority was exclusively the male domain. Christians and non-Christians alike have adhered to the traditional idea that the husband is head of the home and the wife is expected to submit to his wishes. Postmodern thought rejects male authority and embraces collaboration rather than hierarchy as the ideal. Each partner has authority over his or her personal life. The social exchange model of relating comes into play when it is time to make decisions about any number of necessarily shared issues like money, sex, children, work and so on. It's a quid pro quo system of fair exchange. Each spouse tries to maximize the returns on his or her investments in every area of the marriage. Social exchange theory is built on an assumption consistent with the thought that people are basically self-centered by nature and so each individual needs to look out for him or herself and cannot give another any authority over oneself. There is no such thing as shared authority in this model, but rather two independent authorities competing equally for their own benefit. The relationship becomes essentially competitive and defensive, and so at best opportunistic (I see that the other can benefit me) or antagonistic (I have to watch out that the other does not get from me more than I receive). Promoting self at the expense of the other or the relationship is not the biblical ideal.


In the traditional marriage, communication tends to take the form of pronouncements rather than dialogue. As head of the marriage, the husband can legislate without considering or consulting his wife. When conflicts arise he can sidestep the issue or act out in angry withdrawal or abuse without challenge from his wife. Communication in the postmodern marriage is characterized as a series of declarations and demands made by both spouses. When conflicts arise, confrontation is the way to get one's needs expressed and met. Although collaboration is the goal, a combative posture and assertion of personal needs can be the demise of the relationship. Spouses may encounter a stalemate instead of finding a satisfying solution.

A Concluding Assessment

Neither the traditional nor the postmodern approach will solve the modern marital dilemma. The debate between traditional and postmodern viewpoints is actually part of a wider societal debate in our world today. Rather than taking sides, we believe it is more fruitful to consider a balanced biblical framework.

A common mistake for Christians is to defend a cultural version of marriage by taking either the traditional or postmodern perspective. We believe it is an exegetical error to regard historical accounts of marriage during biblical times as normative rather than descriptive. For example, when Genesis 3:16 reads, "and the man shall rule over the women," traditionalists interpret this as normative and prescriptive for marriage. As Bilezikian (1985) and Van Leeuween (1990) point out, the verse describes what occurred as a result of their fallen condition rather than reflects God's ideal for marriage.

An equally blatant error is to take the naturalist position of accepting the relativistic ethic of postmodernity. In his book Marriage After Modernity, Adrian Thatcher (1999) surveyed postmodern writings on marriage in an effort to understand the common features of a post-Christian marital system. He identified marginalization of marriage as one of the mindsets underlying postmodern thought. Marriage as a lifelong covenant is no longer considered a core option. The "evacuation of the traditional meanings of marriage" (p. 62) is usurped by individualistic satisfaction derived from a relationship. A related feature is an increased focus upon individual self-fulfillment. The irony is that the focus on self-fulfillment sets up high expectations that marriage is unlikely to satisfy, making it less viable. Thatcher notes that an "idolatry of romantic love," makes the feelings of falling in love a "surrogate religion" (p. 63). Personal identity and "Who am I?" questions become a lifelong project in this postmodern, postreligious ethic. Thatcher asserts that this vacuous ethic is incapable of providing what is needed to solidify a long-lasting marriage. He concludes that the postmodern marital ethic fails to take into account marital commitment, the place of children in marriage or any other features that provide a mutual satisfaction gained from the relationship itself.


We've presented the modern marriage dilemma and the social science literature that attempts to address the problem with secular solutions. We then presented a contrast between the traditional and the postmodern view of marriage. Finding no satisfactory solutions, we offer in the following chapter a trinitarian model of marriage as the needed theological foundation for marriage today. We follow this with chapters presenting the four biblical principles built on that foundation that we believe give the answer to the dilemma, showing how we can learn to live out these God-designed principles, which bear the fruit of satisfaction in the marriage relationship.