Marriage no longer means giving up autonomy, but that may be its downfall

Spouses who seek both intimacy and individual autonomy are less likely to stay married.

Modern marriages are less about two people becoming a single unit, and rather increasingly seen as a vehicle for individual well-being. More and more couples want emotional intimacy, while also preserving their autonomy as individual people. Emerging research suggests that under these circumstances, the typically stabilizing effect of intimacy is reduced, making marriages more fragile. We speak with Nicole Hiekel, a sociologist specializing in marriage and cohabitation at the University of Cologne, to learn more.

For updates on Hiekel’s research on marriage and cohabitation, follow her projects on ResearchGate.

ResearchGate: Why study marriage and cohabitation?

Nicole Hiekel: Settling down with a partner, by just living together or getting married, is an important life transition for many adults and influences their futures in complex ways. We are far from fully grasping how early life circumstances, young adult intimate life, and later life outcomes are related, but we know that these interplays put some people at a serious disadvantage.

Marriage is no longer the only way to live as a couple or a family, and the increasing popularity of unmarried cohabitation fundamentally challenges the institution of marriage. Vast scientific efforts have been made to understand the emergence and spread of unmarried cohabitation. They show that the reasons people enter, maintain, and leave this type of relationship differ tremendously across individuals, social groups, and countries. Much less attention has been given to the changing meaning of marriage in societies undergoing individualization.

RG: How does the way people think about marriages today differ from the past?

Hiekel: Marriage used to represent the most important marker of adulthood and was strongly regulated by social norms, laws, and religion. It was the main source of social and economic security of individual family members and the larger community. Starting in the early 20th century, a new type of marriage emerged, for which the sociologist Ernest Burgess coined the term “companionship marriage.” Industrialization and urbanization had reduced the social control that the larger kin group exerted over young adults, increased the economic independence of wives from their husbands, and put a greater emphasis on mutual affection between spouses.

Now, individualization processes have continued and further transformed how people view their marriage. Another sociologist, Andrew Cherlin, described a new ideal of “individualized marriage” in which spouses view the foundation of their marital stability to be the enhancement of individual well-being and psychological growth, rather than the fulfillment of social obligations.


“Spouses view the foundation of their marital stability to be the enhancement of individual well-being.”


RG: What do spouses who adhere to the ideal of individualized marriage expect from their relationship?

Hiekel: Spouses in individualized marriages seek very strong emotional bonds with their partner. At the same time, they put a great emphasis on personal autonomy and the freedom to pursue own interests. Spouses in these types of marriage follow the communication principles of fairness and negotiation.

RG: How does this way of thinking affect the success of marriages?

Hiekel: During the second half of the 20th century, marriage in many Western societies became more optional and more fragile. Although there is evidence from the United States that marriages adhering to the cultural ideal of individualism are more prone to dissolve than traditional types of marriage, it is unclear whether this holds true everywhere. There is surprisingly little research on whether marital expectations and practices actually predict marital dissolution.

RG: What does your research examine?

Hiekel: In this study, we tested three possible mechanisms through which individualism and divorce may be related. The first was that, as they continuously strive for self-fulfillment, spouses in individualized marriages may exhibit a low resilience towards declines in emotional closeness.

The second was the idea that higher autonomy in spouses’ day-to-day lives may decrease their dependence on each other for individual well-being. These spouses have lower marriage-specific capital to benefit from, reducing symbolic and practical divorce barriers. They may also simply have more opportunities to meet an alternative partner.

Finally, we hypothesized that marital stability may be jeopardized by the conscious rejection of prescribed social roles, the constant need to negotiate opposing interests paired with an unwillingness to reach consensus with unfair means.

RG: Which data did you use to test this?

Hiekel: The German Family Panel (Pairfam) is a national sample of the population in Germany that’s been running since 2008. It has 12,402 respondents from three birth cohorts (1971-73, 1981-83, 1991-93). Pairfam contains rich measures of relationship expectations and practices, and its structure allowed us to study marital stability over a period of up to seven years.


“Higher levels of egalitarian communication practices reduced the divorce risk.”

RG: Did you find evidence that individualism and divorce are related?

Hiekel: Indeed. After controlling for marriage duration, joint biological children, owning property together, higher education, and religiosity—all of which reduce spouses’ proneness to divorce—we found that each of the three dimensions of individualized marriage we studied was associated with marital dissolution, supporting our hypotheses. The stabilizing effect of higher levels of intimacy was reduced when spouses simultaneously adhered to the ideal of keeping a great deal of personal autonomy. Higher levels of egalitarian communication practices reduced the divorce risk. Our findings suggest that it is the greater emphasis on personal autonomy that make individualized types of marriage more prone to dissolve than more traditional types of marriage.

RG: Would you expect to find the same results in couples who live together, but aren’t married?

Hiekel: The rising popularity of unmarried cohabitation has challenged the institution of marriage across Europe and beyond. There is great diversity across countries in its prevalence, social and legal acceptance, and the meanings that cohabiting couples attach to it. In general, cohabitation is characterized by higher levels of partners’ autonomy. For instance, cohabiters are less likely than married people to have children together or to pool their financial resources. Our finding that autonomous partners are more likely to split up suggests an important social mechanism explaining the lower stability of cohabiting partners compared to married unions.

RG: Do you expect your results for Germany to hold true elsewhere?

Hiekel: Like many other Western societies, Germany exhibits a long-term rise in divorce rates and a cultural climate supporting the ideas of individualization. So I would not expect these findings to be specific to the German context and would encourage a cross-national comparative study on the link between individualized marital practices and union stability.

Featured image courtesy of Redd Angelo.