California Literary Review

Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage

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April 22nd, 2007 at 9:28 am

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Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage
by Stephanie Coontz
Viking, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

For Better or Worse

Like the disappearance of the well-mannered and respectful adolescent, the imminent (or, for some commentators, already accomplished) collapse of the institution of marriage has been a popular lament, at least since the mid 1960s.

As so often is the case with social institutions, however, a closer and more longitudinal look suggests that what we took to be the norm was not only regarded as under fire for decades—even centuries—before we came along to worry about it, but may have been a peculiar, uncommon, elastic, and highly contextual norm even then . . . and possibly not even a norm at all.

The central thesis of Marriage, a History might have been taken straight from Stephanie Coontz’s startling and delightful 1992 book, The Way We Never Were: America’s Families and the Nostalgia Trap, wherein the professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Washington state observed: “Some commentators conclude that marriage is becoming less permanent but more satisfying.”

According to the arc of her new book, the primary bases for marriage until only a few centuries ago were property and politics (specifically, that a promising workmate and good in-laws were what one hoped to find in a spouse, more than someone who rang one’s chimes personally); that love and personal satisfaction only began to be a central factor in choosing one’s partner in the 18th century; and that the “perfect” 1950s nuclear family was little more than the last gasp of an ideal right at the moment it began to be fully realized and just before it collapsed, rather than the longtime model for traditional marriage and family patterns in reality.

That many readers will probably need little convincing at this point is less notable than the fact that the myths cling so fiercely among so many of our fellow Americans. Coontz already took us a long way down this road with her earlier books, yet in the public arena one continues to hear the same tired and largely pointless wailing over extramarital pregnancies, divorce rates, abortion, and single parenthood, and opposition to innovations such as gay marriage.

The devil is in the details, as the saying has it, and to a traditionally-minded American, it might seem that way, but most readers of Marriage will more likely delight in the details. Readers may retain some skepticism over Coontz’s reading of the larger patterns, but the sheer volume and variety of past marital practices—how they changed across time and geography—make for memorable and instructive reading in themselves.

Even if the facts are new to the reader, familiar patterns emerge:

The hypocrisy of leaders. Caesar Augustus presented himself as a “family values” emperor who sought to raise the birthrate by penalizing Romans who were not married by a certain age, and by giving preference to office seekers who were married and had children. But he was divorced, had affairs, and arranged for the murder of several political rivals. Through the Middle Ages, incest taboos promulgated by the Church were spottily enforced if royal power matches were involved. (For example, in 1152 Louis VII divorced Eleanor of Acquitaine, a cousin four or five times removed, on grounds of “incest” to marry Constance of Castile, an even closer relative).

The mercurial nature of “traditions.” For more than a thousand years, the Church did not officiate at marriages, but simply took couples’ word for it. It also did not object to no-fault divorce until the 8th century. Long after St. Paul’s famously grudging endorsement of marriage (“it is better to marry than to burn”), various Christian authorities, from Pope Gregory in the 6th century to Puritan pamphleteers in the 18th, warned of the threats of love, carnal pleasure, and other potential pitfalls of marriage which they felt bordered on idolatry and detracted from the love of God.

Throughout most of U.S. history, women worked outside the home (in the fields) or alongside their husbands (as mercantile partners), as did children—many of whom were farmed out to other homes as servants and apprentices, and later recruited into factories; thus, astonishingly, the very first time a majority of American families featured a primary breadwinner father, a nonworking mother, and children who were in school rather than the workforce was the 1920s!

The influence of economics on social practices. The supposed “late” marriages of the past 30 years have nothing on Western European couples of the 16th and 17th centuries, who delayed wedlock (though not necessarily sex) into their 30s and 40s because they were saving to buy a business or start a farm.

The backfiring of well-intentioned social tinkering. Because the punishment for adultery in ancient Greece was so much worse than for prostitution, upper-class married women registered as prostitutes to avoid stiff penalties for their affairs.

Progress is not always forward or permanent. New Jersey gave women the vote two days after the Declaration of Independence was signed . . . and quickly took it back after no other states followed suit. Abortions were common among respectable married women in the mid 19th century United States and still easier to obtain in the 1930s than the 1950s, and same-sex affection, physical demonstrations, and even sleeping together (without sex) were practiced in the U.S. and England without the taint of homosexuality. (Coontz doesn’t mention a famous example from 19th century American history: that Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with Springfield, Illinois merchant and lifelong confidant Joshua Speed for two years when they were in their 20s.) Job segregation and pay discrimination against American women increased in the first 40 years of the twentieth century.

Conservative advocates may have difficulty recognizing marriage as they know it in the practices of other cultures. The couple must live together? Males among the Ashanti of Ghana and the Minang-kabau of Indonesia continue to live with their mothers and sisters after marriage, and men of the Gururumba people in New Guinea sleep separately from their wives and work different plots of land. A couple raises their own “legitimate” children? Not among many African societies, where one parent’s extended family cares for the children, and a child may even “cease” to be biologically related to the other parent if they divorce. Babies in the Na culture, in the southwestern China province of Yunnan, are created through furtive night-time romantic encounters between couples who otherwise have little or no contact whatsoever: the women continue to keep a household with their brothers and uncles who assist in raising their children.

In some West African cultures, a woman may have a “female husband” who becomes the parent of her later children by marriage or male lover, if the female husband’s extended family takes economic responsibility for them. In China and Sudan, a young person may become a partner in a spirit or ghost marriage, in which their spouse is dead, in order to forge larger family connections. A girl could be married as young as 2 or 3, in the Toda culture of southern India, whereupon she was considered the wife of not only the boy to whom she was married, but all of his brothers as well, and had sex with them once she achieved puberty.

Quaint as the romp through centuries past and other cultures may be, and useful in illustrating the marvelous elasticity of marriages through time, it is the upheavals of the developed West in the twentieth century that inevitably interest us the most, and Coontz devotes the final third of the book to them.

First, she makes it clear that marriage was “in trouble” (at least according to most of the measures favored by social conservatives) before the advent of the Pill, no-fault divorce, women’s lib, and legalized abortion. Premarital sex had been steadily on the rise from the 1880s to the 1940s. U.S. divorce rates started to rise in 1957, a bit before the storm broke, and one in three couples married in the 1950s eventually divorced. The divorce rate in no-fault states was not terribly different from that in states that did not have no-fault divorce (and divorce rates have been on the decline since 1981, four years before the last states in the U.S. passed no-fault laws).

Coontz describes several American “sexual revolutions” that preceded the one we know from the 1960s. One that occurred in the 1920s meant that 1/3 to 1/2 of American women had had sex before marriage; in 1928 child psychologist John Watson wrote that in another fifty years there would be “no such thing as marriage.”

In a pivotal passage, Coontz writes: “This unprecedented marriage system was the climax of almost two hundred years of continuous tinkering with the male protector love-based marital model invented in the late eighteenth century. That process culminated in the 1950s as the short-lived pattern that people have since come to think of as traditional marriage. So in the 1970s, when the inherent instability of the love-based marriage reasserted itself, millions of people were taken completely by surprise. Having lost any collective memory of the convulsions that occurred when the love match was first introduced and the crisis that followed its modernization in the 1920s, they could not understand why this kind of marriage, which they thought had prevailed for thousands of years, was being abandoned by the younger generation.”

In centuries past, then, property and politics were greater considerations in marriage than personal satisfaction; as Coontz puts it, “love in marriage was seen as a bonus [and often one that turned up long after the nuptials rather than before], not as a necessity.” The expectations we place on marriage today—deeply loving, partner is top priority, couples should be best friends, openly affectionate, talk honestly about problems, sexual fidelity required—are, in her historical survey, “extremely rare.”

Perhaps the most surprising myths are the ones we cherish about ourselves even today. In her final chapter, “Uncharted Territory,” Coontz notes that:

  • Highly-educated Americans are more likely to think remaining single or having a child out of wedlock is acceptable, but are also more likely to marry and less likely to have children as singles
  • Conversely, Americans with lower incomes and less education are more likely to view marriage as the preferred state, but less likely to marry
  • Afro-Americans are less likely to approve of unmarried cohabitation than whites, but more likely to do it
  • Born-again Christians are just as likely to see their marriages end in divorce as non born-agains, and both enjoy a divorce rate only 2 percent lower than that of atheists and agnostics

Thus, in the Bible-Belt, low-income South, rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births are higher than anywhere else (and more likely to be regarded with disapproval). Women who hold more traditional views are less likely to divorce, but also less likely to marry (and traditionally-minded men are more likely to do both).

In reading the facts and the patterns they appear to weave, Coontz is no more sentimental about feminist myths than old-fashioned ones. “I do not believe,” she writes, “that marriage was invented to oppress women any more than it was invented to protect them.”

She is very clear that adjustments in marital practice have inevitably involved tradeoffs; something valuable is almost always lost every time something is gained. “Marriage has become more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history. At the same time it has become optional and more brittle. These two strands of change cannot be disentangled.”

She is also certain that “contrary to what many marriage promotion activists believe, these dilemmas cannot be sidestepped by making divorce less accessible.” The “tragedy” of no-fault divorce has coincided with a 20 percent drop in married women’s suicides, a general decrease in marital violence, and—between 1981 and 1998—a 2/3 cut in the rate of women who kill their husbands. Would social conservatives accept the return of this bath water with the discarded baby of traditional marriage?

Changes in marital dynamics probably still depend much more upon economic trends and policies than any of us realize. Coontz addresses this to some extent—as she notes, marriage can simply be a bad economic choice for a lower- or working-class setting, where those who marry and divorce suffer higher rates of poverty than those who never marry—but we could use a stricter and more global analysis of this aspect from a theorist with the proper background. Coontz quotes sociologist Frank Furstenberg, who suggests marriage has become almost a “luxury consumer item,” though she modifies this to a “discretionary item that must be weighed against other options for self-protection or economic mobility.”

One might add that while more traditional forms of marriage might have been better for the stability of a society as a whole, the “love match” (whether it works or fails, and includes wedlock or not) is more fruitful for retail sales rates (from the bridal loot and housing rentals and mortgages to the post-breakup chocolate, alcohol, toys, and therapy—not to mention the boom in single-person households and all the accoutrements thereof), and therefore corporate America really couldn’t give a rip that older forms of marriage are endangered species. If business didn’t necessarily encourage the death of traditional marriage, it certainly has done little to prevent it.

Stressed-out couples and parents rush to blame their partner’s selfishness, women’s lib, “essential” gender differences, and other ready demons, but as Coontz observes, “If they had thought about the broader picture, these men and women would probably have agreed that the real problem was the lack of work policies amenable to family life. But in practice their daily tensions turned them on each other rather than on their employers.” Funny how those in power, whether unintentionally or not, so often enjoy the convenience of having their underlings go for one another’s throats instead of challenging the system as a whole. (Think of the squabbling and shifting alliances between the multiple wives of a mostly faceless master in Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern”: they could be non-union workers in a Western shop today just as easily as a passel of Chinese spouses at the turn of the last century.) And too many Americans hardly seem to care that recent administrations—Democratic as well as Republican—have paid much “mouth-breath” to the family, but favored business to the family’s detriment.

Coontz does not discuss the same-sex marriage issue at any great length, partly because legally-sanctioned examples from the past (as distinct from quietly tolerated exceptions) are probably rare, and partly due to the fact that its centrality as a policy issue is so recent. But Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Canada have forced the matter onto center stage internationally, and my dear home of Multnomah County, Oregon managed a sneak attack that temporarily legalized several thousand gay marriages in 2004. The author’s analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the older and newer models of heterosexual matches should prove invaluable to this ongoing debate.

If people can manage to calm themselves enough to pay attention.

  • Jocelyn Morin

    This lucid review with startling revelations, some from the time of the ancient Greeks, reached through the generations and grabbed me. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  • Jocelyn?

    who are YOU to judge???!

  • http://www.david-loftus.com David Loftus

    Errr . . . perhaps “Jocelyn?” could be a little more specific? Who are you asking? Judge what?

  • Bruce

    Seems to me the biggest oversight in Coontz’s appraisal of Western marriage is the importance (past/present/and future) of a spiritual understanding of marriage.
    Granted, she is a researcher, but she gives little to no credence to the fact that what she calls the 1950′s model of marriage is inextricably indebted to Christian ideals: Love as the greatest virtue; a covenant vs. a contract; the very notion that every individual life is significant….et. al.
    She says this has been deconstructed by people who want personal happiness.
    If anything is going to save marriage – perhaps even society – it’s going to be the acceptance – or return to – the belief that our pleasure in this world is not the sole measure of our life’s worth.
    Certainly, we should not return to the inequality and misogyny of the past, but a nihilistic and narcissistic march toward “personal happiness”- whatever that is – and wherever it leads, is a sure path to chaos.

  • http://www.david-loftus.com David Loftus

    I suppose it depends on how one defines “happiness,” Bruce. Your assertion that a nihilistic and narcissistic (note those critical modifiers, everyone) march toward personal happiness is a sure path to chaos suggests to me that your argument assumes personal happiness is based on collection and consumption of goodies. But what if one finds that one’s personal happiness lies in fufilling a life partner’s desires and goals? In voluntary service to others? In rejection of nonstop participation in consumer culture? I don’t see any of this as being inherently dependent upon Christian — or any other religious or spiritual — values.

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