Did love conquer marriage?

Stephanie Coontz's history of marriage gives a useful insight into the rise and fall of intimacy.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz, Viking Adult, May 2005.

Stephanie Coontz is best known for her work on the history of the family, most notably The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. She decided to write a book about marriage when reporters and people in her lectures began to ask her if she thought the institution of marriage was falling apart.

Coontz envisioned writing a book debunking the idea that there had been a ‘Golden Age of Marriage’ at some point in the past and that marriage today was undergoing a fundamental crisis. Like the family, the institution of marriage has always been in flux and has often been the focus of social anxieties. But she soon found she had to change her approach. The more she investigated, the more it seemed that marriage really is in the midst of a transformation, but not in the way it was commonly perceived.

The main discussion of marriage in the United States today currently focuses on the demand for the legalisation of gay marriage. Advocates on both sides are battling it out in individual state legislatures and President Bush has proposed an amendment to the constitution defining marriage as ‘the legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife’. But looking at the state of marriage in the USA and elsewhere today, it seems gay couples may be boarding a sinking ship.

Forty-three per cent of first-time marriages in the USA end in the first 15 years (1). The divorce rate doubled in France and the Netherlands in the 1990s and quadrupled in Britain (2). There has been a growth in the number of cohabitating couples. Many people have children out of wedlock, and the fertility rate is falling throughout the Western world.

Many people, it seems, do not have any long-term intimate relationship at all. There is a significant trend toward solitary living. In the USA, single people make up 42 per cent of the workforce and 40 per cent of homebuyers. More than a quarter of households are now made up of one person, and there are similar trends in Europe (3). Most importantly, the distinction between marriage and other forms of partnership is disappearing. Domestic partners are increasingly given similar recognition and privileges as spouses.

When the legal and customary pressure to marry disappears, when myriad alternative arrangements are tolerated, it calls the future of the institution into question. But as much as new alternatives to marriage seem to sound its death knell, according to Stephanie Coontz, the historic challenge to marriage goes all the way back to the Enlightenment and was not so much concerned with what marriage looked like but with the reasons why people married. It was the rise of the ‘love match’, she argues, that revolutionised the institution of marriage and set in motion changes that make it difficult for it to play the role it once did in society and in people’s lives today.

Marriage takes different forms across cultures, but throughout history it has played a fundamental part in shaping the basic roles and responsibilities of the individual in relation to the rest of society. It creates a framework for sexuality and gender roles. It forges relationships of right and obligation between different groups and creates a basis for the legitimacy of children, thus making it possible for property to transfer across generations. It has done all these things and more in one way or another for thousands of years.

Marriages past and present share these basic commonalities but, according to Coontz, it was the freedom to marry for love, which first emerged in the Enlightenment, that has dominated marriage in the modern era and transformed the institution forever.

Marriage, A History begins with a careful, well-researched account of how most anthropologists believe marriage was invented and evolved in early societies. She traces its evolution through the ancient world, Medieval Europe and up to and including the seventeenth century. Prior to the eighteenth century, marriages were formed to cement alliances for political or economic advantage, or on the basis of how prospective partners might contribute to production in the household. Choice of a partner was governed by kinship groups, the church and eventually the state – almost anyone but the individuals involved.

The rise of production for exchange, the market economy and the Enlightenment set in motion a process that would transform marriage into the institution we know today. Capitalism moved production outside the household and created a private sphere. For the first time in human history, people had private lives, separate from the obligations of work and community, a place where individuality and personal aspirations could grow.

Enlightenment thinkers took the concept of an exchange of equals that underpinned nascent capitalism and applied it to human relationships. They argued that marriage was a contract between individuals decided on the basis of love, friendship and mutual esteem, not something that should be subject to regulation by the church or state. Though these ideas didn’t take hold all at once, this linking of love and marriage marked the historical moment when struggle over its future began. By the end of the eighteenth century, marriage was less a public institution than a private arrangement with public consequences.

These public consequences of the new marriage dominated the conservative imagination for the next 200 years. If marriage were based solely on love and companionship, what was to stop people from making mistakes in choosing a partner? What should happen if love faded? If husbands and wives were partners, what was to stop women from demanding an equal share in decision-making? Would a man want to support a woman and children if he were no longer in control? If couples decided to end a marriage, how then could it fulfill the functions of making people ‘discharge the duties of civil society, to govern their families with prudence and to educate their children with discretion’? (4)

What developed in response to these concerns was a subtle mixture of regulation and ideology. By sanctioning certain arrangements and being punitive of others, the state was able to impose order over the private sphere without abolishing it all together. Prohibitions on illegitimacy, and laws codifying a husband’s control over his wife and children, shaped marriage so that the institution mediated personal choices with the needs of broader society.

The Enlightenment put the question of equality on the agenda, not just in marriage but in all aspects of life. Clearly, most relationships within society were not conducted on the basis of equality – but for the first time all these needed justification in some way. A belief in the natural inferiority of some groups as compared with others helped to justify these contradictions, and in the case of marriage, ideas about the nature of women could stabilise the institution for a time. But as social movements demanding equality developed in the early twentieth century it became more difficult for marriage to act as a stable basis for the organisation of the private sphere. In retrospect, the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era of the 1950s seems an aberration, since most of the reforms that helped to undermine marriage began 30 years earlier.

Coontz is very good at describing the internal contradictions of modern marriage and how the factors that made it central to society were undermined over time. She is also sensitive to the way that an infrastructure based on inequality within marriage puts pressure on couples today. But if the book is lacking something, it is a better explanation of why things changed so rapidly in the last decades of the twentieth century, why those sections of society that traditionally upheld marriage gave up defending it, or why marriage based solely on personal preference is increasingly just one lifestyle choice among many.

Her conclusion offers a clue. ‘Married couples may no longer have a clear set of rules about which partner should do what in their marriage, but they do have a clear set of rules about what each partner should not do. And society has a clear set of rules for how everyone else should and should not relate to each partner. These commonly held expectations and codes of conduct foster the predictability and security that make daily living easier.’ Yet as Coontz admits, of her own marriage, ‘As a modern woman I live with an undercurrent of anxiety…. I know that if my husband and I stop negotiating, if too much time passes without any joy or if a conflict drags on too long, neither of us have to stay with the other.’

Though people still marry, those who believe it can last forever are seen as hopelessly naive. It’s not uncommon to hear people express the sentiment that they may not be with their partner forever. Marriage is no longer seen as a union between people that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a fragile relationship under constant examination and reappraisal, often with the ‘expert’ help of counsellors or through couples’ therapy. Each person continually does a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether his or her needs are still being met. Is it any wonder that many people decide to opt out entirely?

Relentlessly assessing a relationship in this way robs it of its complexity and destroys the intimacy necessary for love to thrive. It is probably this intense focus on this most private area of people’s lives that does more to undermine marriage than the existence of alternatives to it. Love does not so much seem to have conquered marriage, as the book’s title suggests; rather, it is in danger of becoming a casualty of its demise.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and sex

(1) Thomas Bradbury, ‘Understanding and Altering the Longitudinal Course of Marriage’, Journal of Marriage and the Family 66, November 2004

(2) Kuijsten, ‘Changing Family Patterns in Europe’; Katja Boh et al., Changing Patterns in European Family Life: A Comparative Analysis of 14 European Countries, New York, Routledge, 1989

(3) Michelle Conlin, ‘Unmarried America’, Business Week, October 2003

(4) From England’s Lady magazine, 1774, quoted
in Asa Briggs, A Social History of England, Viking, 1984

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Topics Politics


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