Title: Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage
Author: Stephanie Coontz
• 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
• 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
Stephanie Coontz is perhaps Americas 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, its 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. Its 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 didnt pop out of nowhere and they didnt exist solely in the 1950s, so what conservatives are focusing upon isnt just a product of that decade as many liberals may assume. On the other hand, all of those ideals didnt come together at the same time until that decade so marriage as conservatives seem to understand it didnt fully exist until then. The idea of marriage now was to love, be loved, grow as a person, and live happily ever after.
Theres just one problem: when the creation of a marriage is dependent upon personal choice and feelings, its 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 cant be solved in the way conservatives want without changing our conception of marriage, but whos 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.