01. October 2005 · Comments Off on Shattering Cultural Myths · Categories: General

This from the California Literary Review, on the new book by Professor Stephanie Coontz: Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage:

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—is, 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.

Comments closed.