It is a feature of the human psyche that we fetishize what we cannot easily obtain. When sex — or at least its respectable variety — was scarce, men went to extraordinary lengths to declare their love and display their suitability for marriage to a restricted audience of eligible females, who, for their part — because of an even greater scarcity of sexual expression — also constructed elaborate romantic fantasies to justify their choices.
Nowadays, however, when sex is free both sexes, men have a much lower incentive to commit their resources, both emotional and economic, merely to satisfy their baser urges. No wonder, then, that the developed world is increasingly full of aging women ever more desperate to find a father for their children. The more enlightened ones are either giving up on procreation or else turning to the alternative of sperm banks and solitary child-rearing.
Rather than whine and gnash our teeth at this state of affairs, it would perhaps be more constructive to understand that came about as a natural consequence of the increasing equality of economic opportunity for men and women in our increasingly high-trust society. Marriage, at its core, is an economic and political institution, once that served the needs of ensuring security and continuation of clans, so necessary in low-trust societies that operate on ties of kinship. Since this function of the marriage institution has been rendered unnecessary by the evolution of our society, the institution itself has become obsolescent. Because we, as a species, seem to be rather conservative, we attempt to hang on to marriage by assigning it romantic, religious, or self-fulfillment rationales, but nevertheless, it continues to wither.
Continue to so whither it shall, because for one half of the population, marriage has increasingly been a liability without offering compensatory benefit. Men face the financial burden of child-rearing — for children borne with or without their express consent — without having corresponding rights to direct the lives of their children, because it is the women who overwhelmingly drive the decision to procreate and who generally direct their children’s lives and education, and because in divorce — which has become a near certainty — it is the women who overwhelmingly gain custody.
Whether or not this is a positive development for our society remains to be seen. Early indications have been coming in from the American black community, where marriage rates have plummeted some years past and single-parent families have been the norm for quite awhile. While these developments are often decried by the religious and are designated, darkly, as the cause of the black community’s economic lagging, it is by no means clear that they have caused such deleterious effects, given both steady birth rates and real incomes.