Modern Marriage

Modern Marriage

This essay, from the October 31, 1953, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on marriage, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


This essay was published in the October 31, 1953 issue of The Nation. [This article is based on an introduction written by Margaret Mead, noted anthropologist, for “Women: The Variety and Meaning of’ Their Sexual Experience,” edited by A. M. Krich, and just published as a soft-cover original by Dell Books.]

THROUGH the ages, women’s lives have centered about their sex role. Little girls have been told as soon as they could toddle that some day they will be brides, and a little later, mothers, and, finally, if they live, grandmothers. Every other activity–learning to spin and weave, cook and bake, dance, sing, and skate, whatever the current accomplishments of young girls are–has been directed at achieving a lifelong career as wife and mother. Where for men actual sex activity, however insistently it may intrude upon attention, is a matter of a few minutes, for women each of these few minutes is laden with commitment before and commitment afterward.

But men and women are also human beings, and although their sexual equipment and roles are so different, in many other respects they are extraordinarily similar–differences may go across sex lines, as artistic gifts, executive ability, body skills are found in each sex. In both sexes we find high intelligence and dull mentality, great emotional responsiveness and apathetic indifference to other people. As long as human beings have been elaborating their lives–building houses that were more than shelters, conducting courtships that were more than a prelude to an immediate sex satisfaction, composing music, inventing new ways of producing and preparing food, developing ways of worshiping God and political systems that bound them to one another–the question of how much and how little men and women are to share equally in these discoveries and inventions has been an important one. How much of the economic load of fishing and hoeing, carrying and marketing, how much of the personal load of sexual pursuit and courtship, how much of the religious load of prayer and sacrifice, was to be put on women, how much on men?

With the change in woman’s economic position that came with her frontier role in the United States, and in the Western world with freedom to work outside the home, there has come within our own history a change in the expectation of what a woman ought to appear to be like. In coeducational schools girls and boys are educated alike and taught to be individualistic, assertive, active, eager to make something of themselves. Boys learn to dislike girls who are “silly” and unlike themselves, and the term “sissy” is applied to girls as well as to boys. We have developed as our ideal of human sex relationships one between a girl and a boy of almost the same age, with the same education and the same interests: if he skis, she should ski; if he likes sailing, she sails.

With this demand that the perfect girl should also be a perfect companion, have come early dating, a preference among boys for the company of girls far earlier than is usual in most other countries of the Western world, a picture of marriage as a relationship in which one does what one wants to do together with the other. The boy wants the girl to be independent, to have something to say for herself, to be able to make her own living whenever it is necessary before marriage, before the children come, when there is a pinch, or after the children are grown, to keep her from wearing him out because she herself is bored. As he expects to stand on his own feet, to get along by his own efforts, after his parents have given him an education, so he wants a wife who can do the same thing.

THE SHIFT in styles of marriage away from the European pattern of the much younger wife, chosen in consultation with relatives for her suitability for a homebound role in which the experienced husband initiates his wife into sex, has been going on for a long time in America. Where the tendency in Europe is to emphasize man’s ungovernable impulses, in the United States it is feared that men will not be assertive enough. Where the emphasis in Europe is upon man’s skill as a lover in playing on woman, who is pictured as a delicate responsive instrument, in the United States positive sex response has come to be regarded as something women ought to have, like the ability to read.

To respond positively includes the ability to say no, to postpone, delay, repulse without offending, during the long years of dating. The whole pattern places heavy demands upon both men and women, not the least of which lies in the contrast between the role of play without completion, appropriate for dating, and the shift to complete sex satisfaction in marriage. As experiencing a positive sex climax is probably no more congenial to the whole female sex than was the passive, unemotional role demanded of their great-grandmothers, these demands force some women to learn to simulate, as they have always had to simulate through the ages, in order to conform to the current style in sex behavior.

But meanwhile, as the shades of Victorian taboo and restriction on speech and knowledge have cleared away, a new approach to sex has become possible. As young people learn how very differently sexed human beings are, how different their timing, their intensity, each couple may begin to explore and test their own innate rhythms. This leads to more experimentation, more frank recognition that sexual compatibility is at least in part something that cannot be produced at will, that may not be present even with every other sort of congeniality and suitability between young people. It leads to willingness to study each other’s moods, to pay positive attention to sex in a type of marriage within which sex is regarded as an important but not as the only essential component.

Other things have happened too, as the American girl has learned to stand on her own feet, to drive a car, to earn her living like the American boy. Twenty-five years ago it looked as if this tendency to make women independent might inaugurate a trend away from marriage, in which women, independent and unwilling to accept the drudgery of a home, would take lovers but refuse the continuous responsibility of husband and children. But quite the reverse has been the case. As women were given a chance to move about freely, to set up for themselves, they have more definitely and actively chosen marriage and children. Their freedom has made them more critical of their husbands, more intolerant of an unsatisfactory marriage, but not less desirous of marriage.

Girls have become more like boys; both “do things,” and their goals as human beings have steadily approached each other. The male who sought and the female who waited to be sought, the male who achieved and the female who waited to be courted, the male who was actively sexed and the female who was passive and uninterested–these old models have gone out of style. Instead, we have boys and girls both of whom want to get married, both of whom want children, both of whom regard caring for little children as interesting, both of whom regard marriage as something to be worked at, something worth keeping.

SINCE WORLD WAR II a new kind of marriage has developed in America, a marriage with greater frankness, greater articulateness, greater sharing than any we have known before in this country–an early marriage focused on having children in comradeship. Women, frightened by the possibility that a career might interfere with marriage and motherhood, have gone out in active pursuit of mates. Men, weighed down by the uncertainties of the cold war and the heavy income taxes, have relinquished the task of preparing for a secure old age for that of giving the five a.m. bottle and taking the children to the beach.

The principal threat to the success of such a marriage comes from the timing. Girls who marry at twenty-one, even if they have four children, may expect to have the children fairly well off their hands by forty, to be grandmothers at fifty. And then come the next twenty-five years, the years which hang like a cloud over the mother who sees her children taking advantage of the independence which she has so sedulously cultivated. Two people who built their whole relationship on a cheerful, frank partnership in rearing children, and enjoying mountain-climbing picnics, now face each other for the first time in all these years across a dining-room table, alone. Here the lack of complexity in their relationship, the lack of erotic sophistication in the male, who has substituted the demand that his wife show “normal sex feeling” for any demand on himself for elaboration of love-making manners, begin to show. The male technique which depends on zest and urgency rather than upon sophistication and attentiveness is likely to flag altogether, or to cause him to turn to younger women who show him, as in a mirror, the lost spring-like vigor of youth. Women who have learned to combine sex and motherhood with an ego-driven search for success are restless and discontented, feel unwanted and rudderless.

So it seems at present that the most serious challenge to our mid-twentieth-century style of marriage, with all its gaiety, its gallantry, its comradeship, lies in this last third of life. As a people we have always moved on to new things; we have had little practice in enjoying a circle that turns back upon itself.

One way of resolving this difficulty in the middle age of marriage, a difficulty the anticipation of which throws a shadow over the gayest young marriage, is the historical American answer: change–a new job for the husband, a new community for the wife, new friends in a new landscape. This is perhaps the easiest, and the husbandly kiss and the wifely response may be activated in the new home, where magnolias replace maples and dogwood. Another solution is the conscious cultivation of the more complicated pleasures–whether of cooking, gardening, collecting of middle age, introducing a little of the minuet into the athletic tempo of the mambo, the good-humored, unelaborated, brisk relationships normal in early adulthood.

Another solution, but a solution that to some degree solves a sex problem by dodging it, is for women to prepare for more definite work after their children are grown, so that for them, as for their husbands, home and sex become only a minor part of life, not the whole of it. This is perhaps the surest way of preventing women from becoming unbearably demanding as wives, asking for a kind of romantic satisfaction which men do not know how to give.

Perhaps most of all there is a need for both partners, but especially for the woman, to individualize their marriage, to think more about each other’s rhythms, each other’s capacities for change and fulfillment. The kind of sex literature which merely gives statistics on frequency of sex relationships and reported types of satisfaction, so that a man or woman can compare his or her record with some national norm, is the least fitted t0 inform. Rather women–and men–need to know how infinitely varied the sex capacities of human beings are, how complex the patterns which release emotion, how various and wonderful the ways that lead to ecstasy. As they come to realize the extent and depth of sex feeling–in the feelings of the young child and the parent, in the young lover who lives on in the middle-aged, and the vision of old age which makes the kisses given by the young already falter in uncertainty–the place of sex in the world, the importance of understanding sex, should take on a new dimension.

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