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Unformatted text preview: ANDREW J. CHERLIN Johns Hopkins University The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage This article argues that marriage has under- gone a process of deinstitutionalizationa weakening of the social norms that define part- ners behaviorover the past few decades. Ex- amples are presented involving the increasing number and complexity of cohabiting unions and the emergence of same-sex marriage. Two transitions in the meaning of marriage that occurred in the United States during the 20th century have created the social context for deinstitutionalization. The first transition, noted by Ernest Burgess, was from the institutional marriage to the companionate marriage. The second transition was to the individualized mar- riage in which the emphasis on personal choice and self-development expanded. Although the practical importance of marriage has declined, its symbolic significance has remained high and may even have increased. It has become a marker of prestige and personal achievement. Examples of its symbolic significance are presented. The implications for the current state of marriage and its future direction are discussed. A quarter century ago, in an article entitled Remarriage as an Incomplete Institution (Cherlin, 1978), I argued that American society lacked norms about the way that members of stepfamilies should act toward each other. Par- ents and children in first marriages, in contrast, could rely on well-established norms, such as when it is appropriate to discipline a child. I predicted that, over time, as remarriage after divorce became common, norms would begin to emerge concerning proper behavior in step- familiesfor example, what kind of relationship a stepfather should have with his stepchildren. In other words, I expected that remarriage would become institutionalized, that it would become more like first marriage. But just the opposite has happened. Remarriage has not become more like first marriage; rather, first marriage has become more like remarriage. Instead of the institutionalization of remarriage, what has occurred over the past few decades is the deinstitutionalization of marriage. Yes, re- marriage is an incomplete institution, but now, so is first marriageand for that matter, cohabi- tation. By deinstitutionalization I mean the weaken- ing of the social norms that define peoples behavior in a social institution such as marriage. In times of social stability, the taken-for-granted nature of norms allows people to go about their lives without having to question their actions or the actions of others. But when social change produces situations outside the reach of estab- lished norms, individuals can no longer rely on shared understandings of how to act. Rather, they must negotiate new ways of acting, a pro- cess that is a potential source of conflict and opportunity. On the one hand, the development of new rules is likely to engender disagreement and tension among the relevant actors. On theand tension among the relevant actors....
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- Spring '08