More couples than ever before have the right to get married. Yet the percentage of Americans tying the knot is lower today than it has been since 1880, during the first Gilded Age. As a country, we find ourselves promoting marriage as an unequivocal social good yet failing to provide to the conditions under which marriage can thrive.

How did this come about?

The first Gilded Age created a new class of managers and executives who controlled the rise of the industrial factory. Mass production slashed the wages of traditional artisans, and the marriage prospects of these young men diminished along with their income. 

What is different about their time and ours is that social norms governing marriage (in somewhat contradictory fashion) have become looser in our day. "Single men and women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries rarely lived together without marrying, and very few had children," writes Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin. "The social norms against cohabitation and childbearing outside of marriage were strong." Today, of course, it is commonplace for couples to cohabitate and raise children outside of marriage.

What language do we have to describe an earnest contemporary marriage, complete with its challenges and problems? Pop culture does not share a vision of what marriage should look like, so its attempts to critique and parody the institution become confused and ineffective. The film Gone Girl, for example, establishes a cliche marriage as a strawman to be knocked over with corny plot twists, argues Zoë Heller at the New York Review of Books.

The loosing of restrictions outside of marriage might help the institution as a whole, argues Christopher Ryan in his Big Think interview. When our culture responds negatively to natural urges, like seeking sexual satisfaction outside marriage, the results can do more harm to marriages than good:

As we've pointed out, those of us who are marrying are staying married longer, possibly because we're taking the time to get to know each other better before exchanging vows. That's often a result of cohabitation before marriage. But is our reluctance to get married a result of shifting cultural norms or a weakening of the financial security that helps marriage thrive?

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