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What will marriage look like in the future?

A bride and groom partake in a church wedding ceremony, circa 1960s.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile
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Getty Images
A bride and groom partake in a church wedding ceremony, circa 1960s.

Romantic norms appear more fluid now than ever before.

Over the past few decades, cohabitation rates have nearly doubled, more children are being born outside of marriage and in recent months — there’s been buzz around polyamory and open relationships. With younger generations less set on following tradition, marriage could look very different in the future.

This summer, NPR’s Morning Edition is looking into marriage as part of our “Summer of Love” series.

We asked NPR listeners for their thoughts on marriage and they told us how they structure their relationships and other ways they’ve found love.

Jennifer Koca, 37, polyamorous woman with a primary partner of 7 years in Richmond, Va.: “I definitely dreamt about getting married a lot when I was a kid, but as I got older, I realized marriage is basically just a piece of paper.”

Doyle Tate, 31, single dad in Jacksonville, Fla.: “I would love to be married one day. I decided that I wasn't going to wait for a man who may never come. So I started the process of surrogacy when I was around 30. Aphrodite Rose is now four-and-a-half months, so it's been wonderful.”

Aravind Boddupalli, 28, married man in Baltimore, Md.: “My love life with my partner Mae looks like a true partnership. We are an interracial marriage, but I don't think it's ever posed an issue for us in our respective communities.”

So what do changing romantic norms mean for the future of marriage?

Michel Martin spoke to futurist Jake Dunagan about what marriage might look like in the future. Dunagan studies governance at the Institute for the Future, a think tank committed to research and education. As part of that work, he thinks about topics like the future of marriage.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Jake Dunagan: [Marriage] has been a norm in human society in a diverse way. We've invented and reinvented marriage. We ask marriage to do a lot in our society, from sexual reproduction to romantic love to personal fulfillment, political alliances. Do we want to keep those bundled in marriage or do we want to split those up? You know, do we want a function for socially sanctioned romantic love? Do we want something about economic mobility and robustness? Do we want something about parenting and bringing up children together? So if you think about the futures of marriage, you know, do we have those official formal sanctions and ceremonies for each one of those? Maybe or maybe not. But we have things that might stretch the meaning of what marriage is.

Michel Martin: We are hearing, though, more in the media about polyamorous relationships. That's not necessarily polygamy. And often we're hearing from women who are interested in these kinds of relationships. There is no society currently in which polygamy is recognized, where women have equal social standing. So is there a form of this that could take place in which women might be the initiators of these kinds of relationships in which they would have equal social and legal standing?

Dunagan: Polygamy has basically been a patriarchal institution. The younger generations are definitely more diverse, they're more tolerant of gender continuum, [they’re] ideologically value-based, they're more open to that.

Marriage asks a lot of us: It asks us to be monogamous for a long time, it asks us to be good roommates and good partners, it asks us to be good co-parents together. And I think certainly, given some of the indicators, the younger generations may be more open to exploration of what that institution looks and feels like.

Martin: What do you think are the commonalities of what people are looking for in marriage that will endure into the future?

Dunagan: I mean, I think romantic love. We want to feel connected to someone, feeling a sense of belonging and togetherness. And I think whether we idealize romantic love or sexual attraction, I mean, those are core parts of marriage. We will in some sense always have that. There's a sense that I'm a better person or I'm a more complete person with someone else, or maybe more than one if we want to go that direction. But that sense of fulfillment is very strong. And so marriage is often a pathway for that. And so I think that will continue.

You know, do we need to do reproduction through the institution of marriage? I'm less inclined to say that has to be there. But I think the sense of being connected to someone for a long time, finding someone or something that really makes you feel better about yourself and more whole. I think there's something there that we all want and that will endure. And I think marriage can be a part of that story.

This story was edited for broadcast by Jan Johnson and edited for digital by Obed Manuel.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.