For better, or worse?

Why the future of sexual relationships doesn’t look like a 1950s sitcom

One crucial question we Americans have to ask ourselves is what kinds of long-term intimate relationships will function best in tomorrow’s world. Is there a “traditional” American marriage and family? How have our views of marriage changed? And why? What’s its future?

Out of 100 million American households, 30 million consist of single men and women. Twenty-nine percent of Americans ages 25 to 44 live alone; 39 percent over age 65 live alone. Some singles are unmarried young professionals, some are middle-aged men and women, and there are a lot of older women and much fewer men over 60. Some singles have never married, some are divorced, some several times divorced. Some singles have intimate partners, but choose not to cohabit or marry. Others are celibate. Increasingly, single professional women choose to become single mothers in their 30s or 40s.

The most popular American household, at 34 percent, is the two-career marriage, with or without kids. The “traditional” married couple with a male breadwinner makes up 22 percent. Female-headed households with dependents make up 13 percent, and male-headed households with dependents and no spouse make up around three percent.

Beneath these surface statistics, there is an incredible, often unacknowledged diversity. Start with half of all American marriages that end in divorce, and the 80 percent of the divorced who remarry and combine their families into a new household with children from one or both first marriages.

David L. Weis, co-editor of Sexuality in America, reports that serious estimates of how many married women and men have had extramarital sex range from 20 to 75 percent. Kinsey’s updated data suggest about 50 percent of both husbands and wives today have had at least one extramarital partner in their lifetime.

As for persons in committed, sexually nonexclusive relationships, Robert McGinley, founder/president of the Lifestyles Organization, estimates about three million Americans are members of over 300 swing clubs. Dr. Norman Scherzer, an expert on the lifestyles scene, tells us the swinger subculture also includes 10 to 12 million “non-club-member swingers.”

Thousands of unorthodox Mormons openly practice polygyny in the southwest, while “man-sharing” provides a functional solution to the major shortage of marriageable males in urban African-American ghettos, and variations of un hombre completo and la casa chica quietly exist within some Latino cultures.

Gay and lesbian couples, with or without children or other dependents, probably account for five percent of American households. Lesbian and gay couples can choose from a variety of paths to parenthood: raising children from a previous heterosexual marriage, adopting children, or a variety of variations in artificial or natural insemination and surrogate mothers.

So what happened?

“Until death do us part” meant one thing in 1900, when our average life expectancy was 47 years. Women then had very few doors to economic independence, so divorce—even if available—was rarely practical. “Until death do us part” and the possibility of divorce is a different reality when women are educated, have their own careers, and are independent and socially accepted as singles in a world where our average life expectancy is pushing 80—and is expected to go much higher in the future.

In the past century, women expanded their self-identity, civil rights, political power and economic independence. For the first time in human history, women now control their own reproductive capacity with the Pill and legal abortion. Our great-great-grandmothers spent most of their adult lives raising six to eight or more children. Today’s woman may spend a few years nesting with 1.6 children. Maternal and infant mortality has gone from one in five to very rare. And that certainly has changed marriage and family.

A hundred years ago, our laws, moralistic politicians, preachers and social-purity folk kept tight reins on what Americans could and could not do sexually. From mid-century on, a dozen key Supreme Court rulings relaxed the reins on pornography, the right to privacy, abortion and the sale of contraceptives. Despite some local successes by conservative religious leaders and increasingly dogmatic pronouncements from the Vatican and Southern Baptists about the immorality of contraceptives, homosexuality and premarital sex, changes in our sexual values and marriages are inescapable in a world with earlier puberty and later marriage, heated public debates over gay civil rights, domestic partnerships, gay unions and ordination of women and gays, cybersex and the Internet, increasing sexual content on TV, and X-rated video cassette rentals. In our rapidly changing world, dogmatic religious authorities provide a secure nest for some but are ignored by others, because they have lost touch with the changing realities of the post-sex-revolution world.

Add into this mix the first truly scientific research into human sexual behavior with Robert Latou Dickinson (1930s), Alfred Kinsey (1940s and ’50s), and Masters and Johnson (1960s and ’70s). The impact of HIV/AIDS; the “blue dress” impeachment on public discussion of oral and anal sex; and the anonymity and mobility of urban life.

Welcome to the future?

There has never been a single “traditional American marriage/family,” except in the minds of dreamy-eyed naïve conservatives. There has always been a variety in sexual lifestyles, marriage and family patterns within our European and North American cultures, more or less open and socially tolerated or accepted in Europe but until recently hidden in puritanical U.S. closets.

According to government statistics, the most obvious force in our changing marital environment is a near-doubling of our life expectancies, from 47 years in 1900 to an estimated 70 years in 2000. But a July article in Nature by Shripad Tuljapurkar warns us that recent government estimates of life expectancies in 2000, 2020 or 2050 should be significantly higher than reported. Our government and politicians regularly underestimate our rising average life expectancy because they don’t want to plan for the complicated social and economic consequences of an average life expectancy in the 90s, 100s or beyond—which demographers and geriatric specialists anticipate for us.

We don’t like to think about what “until death do us part” and “forsaking all others” means today and in the future, when half of all Americans will live into their 90s, 100s—or beyond.

We’ve successfully avoided thinking about how our rising life spans affect our sexual relations and marriage. Without comment, we’ve blindly adapted with a 50-percent-plus divorce rate and a pretty high extramarital sex rate.

But we can’t escape our near-future, when we will live beyond 100. We can’t escape more divorces, more serial polygamy, more blended families, more dual-career families, more mates and multi-mates, and fewer children. More swingers, more premarital and extramarital sex, more polyamory, and more sexually open marriages. More choosing not to marry, instead electing to cohabit or have a couple of intimate friends, or be a single parent.

Immigrants will bring their own subtle variations in male-female relations and marriage. And they won’t hide these, as they have done in the past. Some may find, in these rich traditions, variations that work for them.

All in all, get ready for more open diversity, and much more variety in your own life as you approach your second hundred years.

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