To this day, marriage is still intertwined with the country's mores and laws. Everything from tax law to health insurance is affected by one's marital status. Unlike in many European countries, where unmarried couples live and raise children together, marriage in the United States is considered a more serious, valued, and adult relationship than other sorts of partnerships. Unlike in most developed countries, too, the U.S. government has spent more than $100 million on promoting marriage.
At the same time, however, we want to be happy, which can lead to conflicts.
"We have a schizophrenic culture about marriage in this country," says Johns Hopkins professor Andrew Cherlin, who wrote the book, "The Marriage-Go-Round," which explores the American habit of marriage "churning" -- people divorcing and remarrying quickly. "We value marriage, but we also value thinking about ourselves -- what makes us happy, what makes us most fulfilled. We think if we are not happy we have the right to end our relationships. And when we see the clash, we're surprised by it."
This tension is exacerbated by the increased pressure many scholars see Americans putting on marriage. In few other places does someone expect to form a lifetime bond with a soul mate who is safe, friendly, nurturing, financially stable, loving, and exciting all at the same time.
"We have very high expectations for the love match," Coontz says, noting that Americans' expectations of their spouses has grown as other social networks -- with friends, extended families, neighborhood groups -- have broken down.
With the "you complete me" model of relationships, any errant display of emotion can be devastating. Many Americans, as a result, have a very low threshold for what constitutes a transgression. This is reflected in chat groups and therapy sessions, where people debate the definition of infidelity. Is it just sex with someone other than one's spouse? A close emotional relationship with someone of the opposite gender? Flirty text messages?
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Four years after Darrell Harbin decided not to sleep with a female friend, he and his wife, Melanie, are still dealing with the aftermath of what they both term an "emotional affair."
It was a difficult time in their marriage when Darrell met a girlfriend of his sister's at a family Christmas party.
Melanie was depressed. Darrell's family did not seem to like her, and the relatives constantly criticized the way she reared their children.
Meanwhile, Darrell had escaped into work. He put in 24-hour rotations at the Tuscaloosa, Ala., Fire Department and then 16-hour shifts at the local Mercedes-Benz plant on his days off. Sex had become a distant memory for the couple.
"I'd see Mel crying, and I knew something was wrong, but she wouldn't talk about it," Darrell says.
At the Christmas party, Mel remembers being shaken when she saw the woman walk in with her sister-in-law.
"I turned to him and said, 'She brought that girl here because of you.' "
A week later, the woman called Darrell at work. They began a phone relationship in which Darrell would talk about his emotions, his dreams, his problems at home. And one day, he says, he decided to make this connection physical.
"I made this plan to go to [the woman's] house, but then I hung up the phone," he says, grappling with the memory. "You go through this whole thing of, 'I can't do this -- it's wrong. But I bet it would be fun.' "