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

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Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz

Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz

Debates about the legalization of gay marriage have forced society to take a closer look at the institution of marriage itself. Opponents of gay marriage insist that it must be preserved in its traditional form, but their arguments are completely ahistorical. Marriage has changed dramatically over the centuries, with some of the most significant changes occurring in the past one or two hundred years.

Summary

Title: Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage
Author: Stephanie Coontz
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 067003407X

Pro:
•  Comprehensive history of marriage with more information here than you'll find elsewhere
•  Explains how marriage has changed and why
•  Demonstrates that when marriage is based upon love & free choice, it's both happier and more likely to end

Con:
•  None

Description:
•  History of marriage, from the earliest information we have down through today
•  Examines what marriage is, how it has been used, what purpose it serves, and how it has changed
•  Argues that marriage has changed dramatically in recent years and we need to come to terms with that

 

Book Review

Stephanie Coontz is perhaps America’s foremost researcher on the history of marriage and family. Her earlier books helped dispel many of the myths about families which people even today insist on clinging to; for such people, it’s unlikely that historical facts will change their minds because the myths provide structure to their understanding of the world.

Her book on marriage, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, will likely surprise everyone. Conservatives try to defend a conception of “traditional” marriage as if it has always existed; liberals tend to act as though there is no serious crisis in the institution of marriage today. Coontz argues that they are both wrong.

Her argument is pretty straightforward and simple. For most of human history, marriage was about economics, social relationships, property, and producing children. Through marriage, families united and social relationships between tribes or powerful interests were solidified. Through marriage, individuals found it easier to survive by dividing work and combining resources. Through marriage, the control of property and authority was institutionalized.

Notice that there is nothing in any of this about love. It’s not as though people never fell in love — they did, and sometimes even with their spouses if they were lucky. Marriage was not about love, though, and it was very rare for anyone to marry for the sake of love. It was far more normal to marry for more prosaic reasons and maintain a love on the side.

Things began to change in the wake of the Enlightenment, though, when ideas about personal autonomy began to take hold. If people had the liberty to make choices about who would govern them, why not also about whom they would marry and spend their lives with?

Of course, the intrusion of love into marriage took a long time, even longer than the intrusion of popular sovereignty into politics, but we can observe the growth of the power of love through changes in how people regulated marriage, divorce, and the various ways men and women interacted. Stephanie Coontz traces these developments from ancient cultures through the 20th century, culminating in the “traditional marriage” of the 1950s which conservatives today look back so fondly upon.

Ideals about marriage in the 1950s didn’t pop out of nowhere and they didn’t exist solely in the 1950s, so what conservatives are focusing upon isn’t just a product of that decade as many liberals may assume. On the other hand, all of those ideals didn’t come together at the same time until that decade — so “marriage” as conservatives seem to understand it didn’t fully exist until then. The idea of marriage now was to love, be loved, grow as a person, and live happily ever after.

Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz

Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz

There’s just one problem: when the creation of a marriage is dependent upon personal choice and feelings, it’s no longer possible to insist that marriage continue when choice and feelings change. Thus, this “traditional” marriage was doomed to fly apart sooner or later. Not all marriages are happy. Not all people are suited for marriage, or at least for marriage with the person they wed, and so not all marriages can survive. The growth of divorce was inevitable.

There is a crisis in marriage — the problems we see today are unprecedented after millennia of social stability, but they are unavoidable because of how we conceive of the nature of marriage today. This crisis can’t be solved in the way conservatives want without changing our conception of marriage, but who’s willing to say that people should stop marrying for love and stop evaluating their marriages on the basis of how much they love their mate and how fulfilled they are in their relationship? Successful marriages are better now than successful marriages in the past; part of the cost is allowing unhappy marriages to dissolve.

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