What REALLY Happened to Traditional Marriage: An Economics Lesson

By: Stephen Marsh
July 13, 2012

Introduction: More than 70,000 years of tradition

Traditional marriage — by which I mean what marriage meant from before the Neanderthals went extinct to 1900 AD or so — was an economic institution.  Actually, for at least 70,000 years…

Neanderthals like Middle paleolithic Homo sapiens did not have a division of labor between the sexes.  Which is why they went extinct over a long period of time, rather a short one.

As for Romantic Love and its relationship to marriage, that is a Johnny-come-lately

Ok, what does that mean?

For most of history, men and women have had different roles.  The specifics did not matter — the difference did.  By having different roles, they got better at what specific things they did rather than being mediocre at everything.  So, in one society, men would farm and women would hunt.  In another, men hunted and women farmed.  In some (e.g. Cherokee, for example), you could opt out or opt into a group’s specialties on a basis other than your sex.

Marriage was an economic entity, which allowed partners to operate in a synergistic relationship together, which is why arranged marriages dominated much of human history and culture.

To quote Tina Turner’s most successful single: “What’s love got to do with it?

What happened?

It is easy enough to think that Romantic Love is where it all started to go down hill, but the real end to traditional marriage came about because of prosperity.

Mary Cassatt, Young Mother SewingBut to go further upon what has happened to traditional marriage, I will quote from an article from The Exponent that touches upon this issue, but focuses on the changes in roles of the housewife from one primarily of production to one primarily of consumption. To quote:

…in pre-industrial society, women were essential to the survival of the family because they spent the vast majority of their time engaged in production — gardening, sewing clothes, making butter etc. In these pre-industrial societies, if your kid needed socks, there was one way to get them — the mom knit them. Purchasing such items was not economically feasible for most families, which generally lived in a subsistence mode. They produced the vast majority of what they consumed.

Additionally, women were essential because the survival of these families depended on producing labor (children) who would grow to work the fields, help nurse the elderly. Men, on the other hand did the heavy work with the plows, etc., work that women generally didn’t do because it would endanger pregnancy.

The economics changed.  Both between men and women and between parents and children.

So, children went from being a resource for production to being a luxury good.  Marriage went from being an essential economic unit for survival to being about self-fulfillment and relationships.

Basically, marriage ceased to be about survival and became about happiness.

Where do we go from here?

First, I’m glad we marry for happiness.  Man is that he might have joy.

Second, we are in a continuing and profound re-evaluation of what marriage and children mean.  In over half the countries in the world child birth is at lower than replacement rates.  That has profound implications for social welfare and other policies and programs based on growing tax bases.

Third, well, what do you think it means and where do you think it takes us?  I’m crowdsourcing the conclusion to “what really happened to traditional marriage” to the readers here.

Let me know your thoughts.

45 Responses to What REALLY Happened to Traditional Marriage: An Economics Lesson

  1. Stephen Marsh on July 13, 2012 at 6:42 AM

    My thanks to Andrew for editing. The improvements are all his, the mistakes are all mine.

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  2. Hawkgrrrl on July 13, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    In Victorian England people who were gay were still expected to marry heterosexually out of duty and to carry on the family name and genetics. But in boarding schools, the love that dare not speak it’s name was not uncommon. Or so I have read.

    I think your artcle makes an excellent point. Even in my mother’s day (married right after WW2) the way marriage was viewed was very much an economic arrangement. I think this is also at the heart of the SAHM vs working mother debate. SAHMs provide a valuable service to their families, but not really to society at large. Maybe that was also true when mothers were making all the clothes and churning butter, alhough it seems even truer now that we live in a consumer model since the source of consumerism is whatever the family’s income is.

    Great article. Lots to think about.

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  3. MikeInWeHo on July 13, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    There’s a great old book by an Episcopal Bishop on this very topic that explores the history of marriage from a Christian perspective.


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  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    You can read BCE writings on marriage and it is mostly about economics and family. I do think we are in a better place, though economics are still important, just completely ignored, as are differences between European and American models (which had different labor divisions).

    There is really a lot that has been missed in the discussion of “traditional” marriage.

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  5. Howard on July 13, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    Great article, excellent points. So what makes us think that the meaning of marriage is now static enough to be defined for eturnity? Have we arrived at the ultimate arangement with nothing more to progress to?

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  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 9:25 AM

    Howard, I expect to see a lot of flexing. Pair bonding, we are headed towards a two tiered world where one class marries and the other just moves in together. The Middle Ages had that.

    So have many cultures. Formal and informal pair bonding. Beyond that, who knows what will happen with longer life spans and changed economics.

    Marriages are not any shorter btw, they just end for reasons other than death.

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  7. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    Maybe I need an essay about what happened to divorce.

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  8. IDIAT on July 13, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Interesting post. Indeed, what does “love” have to do with anything? I’m not award of any state law that says two people must love one another in order to get married. Yet, prophets have said all marriages are meant to be eternal. We’re trying, through temple work, to seal all those marriages together. Did the parties marry and then grow to love one another (Fidder on the Roof “Do You Love Me?”), or were they just partners working together with no real emotional bond?

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  9. IDIAT on July 13, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    Sorry, “aware” not “award.”

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  10. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 11:00 AM

    IDIAT — from what we know, most people who were married came to love each other. We are wired for that. I have seen interviews with arranged marriage partners who claim that it is a better path to true love.

    Interesting question though.

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  11. Will on July 13, 2012 at 11:54 AM

    “real end to traditional marriage came about because of prosperity”

    I would re-phrase that to:

    “real end to prosperity came about because society abandoned traditional marriage AND women entered the work force”

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  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 12:02 PM

    Will, that is an excellent point that women changed which work force they were in, with prosperity implications.

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  13. Howard on July 13, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    …the real end to traditional marriage came about because of prosperity.  So, children went from being a resource for production to being a luxury good.  Marriage went from being an essential economic unit for survival to being about self-fulfillment and relationships.. The global trend is toward more prosperity as knowledge continues to replace material in goods and automation substitutes for labor and labor is attained from developing countries.  The trend is your friend so I think this will continue toward something like Maslow’s idea of self actualization.  Marriage consisting of one man married to one woman and no one else for time and eternity is an inflexible model and is challenged by individual personal growth because partners grow at different rates and at different times and growth often threatens the security of the non-growing partner.  After transitioning the start up difficulties of bi-gender plural marriage in which both men and women are challenged to learn compersion by transcending their immature emotions of selfishness, jealously and possessiveness (becoming more Christlike in the process), this model offers much greater flexibility and staying power for the long run where one’s affinity for various partners may wax and wayne and theirs as well without threatening anyone or the marriage or becoming bored with each other.  Ultimately as this concept grows you become married to a network of people.

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  14. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 1:32 PM

    The trend is also towards not having children at all, which is sad

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  15. John Mansfield on July 13, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Well, Shakespeare did have Juliet elope with Romeo, or as the nurse told her, “Then hie you hence to Friar Laurence’ cell; There stays a husband to make you a wife. Now comes the wanton blood up in your cheeks: They’ll be in scarlet straight at any news.”

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  16. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Yes, that is an intrusion of romantic love and we can see how that ended. 13 year old kids dead by suicide.

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  17. IDIAT on July 13, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    I understand the model proposed by Howard but it isn’t what’s been described by prophets. If we’re trying to become God-like, and this life is a training ground, it seems like the admonition to be faithful to one spouse means we’re not to let differing growth rates separate us, nor are we to get “bored” with one another. I’m still working on the plural sealing doctrine, and have my own thoughts. But if we’re ultimately married to a network of people, that seems to be akin to saying we’ll all just be one big family in Christ, and there won’t be familial ties. And, once you start into the realm of plurality, there’s no reason not to have an billion spouses (all members of the opposite sex who make it to the Celestial Kingdom). The sealing ordinance sort of loses it’s impact if we’ll be married to a network of spouses. If that’s the case, the sealing ordinance could be much different and more like the endowment, which is individual by nature.

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  18. John Mansfield on July 13, 2012 at 2:37 PM

    Yeah, very uneconomical. Since leaving the comment above, I keep thinking about Beatrice and Benedict, wishing I could watch a good production of Much Ado About Nothing tonight. Some cravings are impossible to satisfy.

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  19. John Mansfield on July 13, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    And by the way, where does the idea come from that Romeo and Juliet are 13? The play starts with Juliet’s nurse and mother telling her that lots of the girls her age are already married and that when Juliet’s mother was her age, Juliet was already born. Is it in the script somewhere?

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  20. John Mansfield on July 13, 2012 at 2:50 PM

    Never mind, it’s right there in Juliet’s first scene. “She’s not fourteen.” And “I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid.” So I guess Juliet’s mother is about 24.

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  21. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    John, I went to the grave in Paris. I think that acknowledging the importance of love is an important improvement.

    Howard, I like being loyal. Not flexing gives me satisfaction but I appreciate the way the other perspective grows in society.

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  22. Nate on July 13, 2012 at 5:04 PM

    Cinderella, not Romeo and Juliet, is the ultimate expression of true romantic love.

    Beauty triumphs over ugliness, kindness over meanness, and fortune is arbitrary. The mystery of grace. The prince chooses you! A dream you would never have believed could have come true comes to pass!

    If Juliet would have survived, she would have turned into a resentful nag, and Romeo would have turned to drink and beating his wife and children. Thank goodness they died when they did.

    But those blessed by grace can live happily ever after. The man who chooses his wife based solely on her beauty, and the woman who chooses her husband based solely on his money. That is true romance, and happily ever after.

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  23. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 13, 2012 at 5:46 PM

    Nate — ouch.

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  24. FireTag on July 13, 2012 at 7:46 PM

    Catching up on some New Scientist mags last week and came across an article somewhere on future evolution. Since you started out with a 70,000 year time scale in your OP, I thought I’d point out that on such timescales it might be argued (and was) that shear production of children by number, as long as they can survive to reproduce (regardless of happiness or quality of life in the process) outweighs anything else. Rich Europeans and Americans are destined to be overwhelmed by the poorer nations genetically unless technology or environment changes radically. Big family Mormons might be an exception.

    I love Howard’s concept about network marriages; I just don’t expect to have more than one spouse per parallel universe. I’m sure there are many copies of me floating around spacetime that never met my wife in this world, and many copies of her that never met me.

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  25. Henry on July 13, 2012 at 8:54 PM

    The website is back to funky looking.

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  26. Andrew S on July 13, 2012 at 9:22 PM

    re 24,


    Your email address still bounces back as being discontinued. Please post a comment with a current/good email address and I’ll try to reach out to you off-site for this.

    EDIT: OK, I can fairly reliably replicate the issue. I’ll see if I can fix this once and for all.

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  27. Henry on July 13, 2012 at 11:41 PM

    The email is right.
    Last time I reported this I noticed letters were off in the email. This time the email is right.

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  28. Andrew S on July 14, 2012 at 2:39 AM


    The email address that you have in your latest comment bounces back.

    But I think I have fixed the issue for good, so let’s cross our fingers.

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  29. Stephen Marsh on July 14, 2012 at 5:15 AM

    Fire Tag … destined to be overwhelmed by the poorer nations

    Iran is down to under 1.8 children per family.

    China and India are dropping even lower.

    It is seriously looking as if there may not be anyone to overwhelm …

    Current world population growth is driven by extending the shelf life of the current population. Longer life spans rather than birth rates at 2.1 or above.

    A huge issue in some ways. Though if they can beat the lifespan cap, rather than just increase how long you can be preserved while old and failing, that should be interesting too.

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  30. FireTag on July 14, 2012 at 1:56 PM


    China is down to 1.8 by forced abortion if necessary. A whole different kettle of moral issues there to be sure — not that the “voluntary” abortion in the West doesn’t have its own moral problem — than what we picture as the normal “demographic transition” to wealth.

    Here’s something that just popped up at a big Eurozone science conference this week, about how inexpensive genome sequencing will soon give the upper classes the ability to return to eugenics by eliminating “inferior” embryos in the womb.


    I don’t know whether that’s good or bad, but I’m biased. If the tech was available at the time, I might have been a good candidate to be vanished from history.

    Ever see GATTACA?

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  31. Lucy on July 14, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    What happened to the traditional family? Simply put, Satan is doing whatever he can to destroy traditional marriage and the family because along with the Atonement, the family is central to God’s plan. One trick is to get people to think that the family is simply an economic unit, rather than a divinely organized and an eternal unit.

    “Second, we are in a continuing and profound re-evaluation of what marriage and children mean.”

    Says who? Why should we believe it?

    C.S. Lewis was ahead of his time when he wrote that,

    “A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional…values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.”

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  32. Stephen Marsh on July 14, 2012 at 6:54 PM

    Did not see Gattaca, but while China is down to 1.8 India has exactly the same numbers without any force at all.

    Lucy, I did not say that the re-evaluation was appropriate, necessary or right, just that society is going through that.

    I’m not debunking anything, just commenting on what I’m observing. There is a huge difference between observing something and endorsing it.

    For example, childbearing rates between 1.1 and 1.8 seem to be the modern expected trend.

    That is an observation. To endorse that over the long run would be to endorse the extinction of humanity. Obviously by observing a current trend I’m not endorsing the extrapolated outcome …

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  33. Nate on July 14, 2012 at 7:23 PM

    Lucy, yes it’s true that Satan has been trying to destroy traditional marriage.

    I think this post is partially suggesting that by over-romanticizing marriage, Satan has succeeded in destroying it’s traditional pragmatic cultural function.

    Brad Pitt, after divorcing Jeniffer Aniston, had an interview with Dianne Sawyer, wherein he encapsulated the modern over-romanticization of marriage. Sawyer asked him why he divorced Jeniffer, and he said something like, “Marriage is the most important decision in life. It’s so important to get it right.”

    Wrong Brad. Marriage is a decision made hastily when you are young and stupid, by yourself, or arranged by your parents. Marriage is about living with that decision, whatever it is, and however it was made. The point of the covenant is to stick with it, no matter how bad it gets. That is traditional marriage. It’s about learning that love is a verb, not a feeling.

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  34. hawkgrrrl on July 14, 2012 at 7:49 PM

    On the Brad Pitt example, and I can’t believe I’m sorta justifying Brad Pitt, I thought the primary difference was that he wanted lots of kids like Angelina Jolie did whereas Jennifer Aniston did not want kids. So I guess he left an “unproductive marriage” for one that was productive. Stephen’s article and traditional marriage is based on family, raising children, contributing to society and the propogation of the species, not just couplehood.

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  35. Bob on July 14, 2012 at 8:29 PM

    #32: Nate,
    “A Marriage Covenant, Marriage Vows, a Marriage Agreement and a Covenant Marriage are all conditional”. There is no such thing as an “unconditional” marriage covenant.
    If one of the partners breaks the marriage vows, the marriage is over. No need to stay.

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  36. Nate on July 14, 2012 at 8:43 PM

    hawkgrrrl, that’s an interesting point. But I don’t think we should be asking whether or not our marriage is “productive” from a fertility point of view. Whether my wife is infertile, or whether she is selfish and doesn’t want children should not matter to me. She’s the gal I married, saint or sinner. (I suppose in traditional marriage, that question would never have come up, since there was no birth control.)

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  37. Hawkgrrrl on July 14, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    Nate, from a personal and moral perspective I agree with you. From a sociological and economical standpoint, though, Brad was theoretically justified. You can’t really justify marriage as we know it on any economical terms with no children in the equation.

    I remember watching the movie The Switch and nearly remarking how implausible it was that a woman as striking as Jennifer Aniston would be single at her and seeking random sperm donors. Then I remembered that the actress herself IS single at her age.

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  38. FireTag on July 15, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    New York Times has an interesting analysis on how the economics of marriage are driving a substantial movement toward inequality in our society: it’s headlined “Two Classes Separated by ‘I Do’”


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  39. Stephen Marsh on July 15, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    Hawk — exactly!

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  40. Nate on July 15, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    Well, from a sociological perspective, you are right Hawkgrrrl. Which is worse in marriage, higher divorce rates or lower childbirth rates? Perhaps the lower childbirth rates constitute a more significant threat sociologically than divorce.

    At least Tom and Katie had Suri. They were just halfway there to replacement levels before the marriage crashed and burned. Hopefully Suri will make not adopt her mother’s destructive beliefs in self-fulfillment long enough to bear a few children in a marriage of her own.

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  41. Hedgehog on July 16, 2012 at 2:18 AM

    I’m not at all sure we can possibly know anything about the marriage practices of neanderthals. That said, and moving to more recent times, I enjoy the criticisms of ‘traditional’ marriage found in the novels of Wilkie Collins (The law and the lady, Woman in white and so forth).
    I can sympathise with Nate’s view on working women, and the breakdown of the idealised family structure (working father, sahm mum raising kids) – higher family incomes driving up house prices (making working mums more of a necessity) and all the rest of it. However, taking the industrialised world as a whole, I don’t believe that the idealised structure was ever enjoyed by more than a few, mainly upper middle class (who didn’t raise their own children anyway), white people. Industrial revolution victorian Britain had whole families working in the factories.
    Looking at my own family history – all my grandparents worked (male & female). My childhood was spent in that brief interlude of prosperity enjoyed by baby-boomers, in that my mother was able to be a sahm until my teens, when high interest rates on the mortgage (of a modest home) meant she had to take a part-time job. I benefit from being able to be a sahm – entirely due to the time I was born, meaning DH and I were able to buy our first home before prices sky-rocketed in the late 1990′s – we based our choice then on one average salary, so a modest home. For me it is a blessing. My younger siblings, marrying and starting a family now, aren’t able to do that. There is no way one average salary will fund any kind of mortgage here now.
    In conclusion the ‘idealised’ family structure so beloved of our church leaders, was never enjoyed by the majority, and in that it was more prevalent in the west while I was growing up, that would seem to have been a blip in history.

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  42. Alexander on July 16, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    I find this “blip in history” to be quite the insight. In your scriptures I understand it says something about all the holy prophets looked forward to our day. Could part of it be because most of us are able with a little work and a great deal of sacrifice, live in a family unit which was only hoped for previously? I for one am grateful for anyone who will hold up a standard and say, this is best. It provides hope that the imperfections of my child rearing abilities may not be imposed to the next generation.

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  43. Hedgehog on July 17, 2012 at 1:31 AM

    Alexander: “In your scriptures I understand it says something about all the holy prophets looked forward to our day. Could part of it be because most of us are able with a little work and a great deal of sacrifice, live in a family unit which was only hoped for previously?”

    After some consideration, I would conclude probably not. It’s a model that suits me because I am a) lousy at multi-tasking, and b) solitary by nature. I don’t imagine it suits everybody. Neither am I a fan of Patriarchy. My preference is to allow each family to do what works best for them.
    Ancient prophets would have been viewing our world through the lens of their own experience and knowledge. I would have thought that they would find the nuclear family (two parents and children) model, most often separated from extended family, unusual perhaps? Not to be celebrated, anyway. In so far as any of the looking forward had to do with families, I would suggest it would be more likely to be down to the prevalence of temples and availability of sealing ordinances, stretching back into the past. Taken to a logical conclusion this would eventually link all mankind as one family. I’m not convinced OT Israel would necessarily have been excited at the thought of Persia and Syria as brothers, BoM Nephites seem a little seem a little more open to this, but the temple was important to both groups. This is my own opinion, I don’t pretend to speak for the church.
    What excites me most about our day is the availability of education to the masses, on a far greater scale than ever before, that we can all have our own copies of scripture to read and to study… that kind of thing, but I’m getting from the topic of the OP so I’ll finish here.

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  44. Um on August 6, 2012 at 5:43 PM

    Im way late here, but Marius and Cosette were pretty good templates for true love . But maybe that’s been said.

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  45. JC on October 15, 2012 at 8:09 AM

    Humans and their family groups have been evolving for 250,000 years. Do we really think it stops with Ward and June Cleaver? The stay at home mom “ideal” had to end for a number of reasons:(1) economic necessity; (2) increased materialism; and (3) self-actualization for women. Not all women feel the only or even the most important purpose in life is to bear and raise children. Women have other often equally important goals and desires. If marriage is to succeed, it will succeed under a new set of rules in which the marital relationship is truly a “partnership”, with roles not defined by society (or your church) but by what works best for the individual couple. And that, in all likelihood, will include participation by both parents in household duties and caring for the children. IT’s ABOUT DAMN TIME.

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