Marriage, a History – Stephanie Coontz



Many… assume that there had been some Golden Age of Marriage in the past… The ancient Greeks complained bitterly about the declining morals of wives. The Romans bemoaned their high divorce rates, which they contrasted with an earlier era of family stability. The European settlers in America began lamenting the decline of the family and the disobedience of women and children almost as soon as they stepped off the boats.

many of the things people think are unprecedented in family life today are not actually new. Almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before. There have been societies and times when nonmarital sex and out-of-wedlock births were more common and widely accepted than they are today. Stepfamilies were much more numerous in the past, the result of high death rates and frequent remarriages. Even divorce rates have been higher in some regions and periods than they are in Europe and North America today. And same-sex marriage, though rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures under certain conditions.

…some things that people believe to be traditional were actually relatively recent innovations. That is the case for the “tradition” that marriage has to be licensed by the state or sanctified by the church. In ancient Rome the difference between cohabitation and legal marriage depended solely upon the partners’ intent. Even the Catholic Church long held that if a man and woman said they had privately agreed to marry, whether they said those words in the kitchen or out by the haystack, they were in fact married. For more than a thousand years the church just took their word for it. Once you had given your word, the church decreed, you couldn’t take it back, even if you’d never had sex or lived together. But in practice there were many more ways to get out of a marriage in the early Middle Ages than in the early modern era.

Almost everywhere people worry that marriage is in crisis. But I was intrigued to discover that people’s sense of what “the marriage crisis” involves differs drastically from place to place. In the United States, policy makers worry about the large numbers of children born out of wedlock. In Germany and Japan, by contrast, many planners are more interested in increasing the total number of births, regardless of the form of the family in which the children will be raised. Japanese population experts believe that unless the birthrate picks up, Japan’s population will plunge by almost one-third by 2050… in Singapore the government launched a big campaign to convince people to marry at a younger age. In Spain, more than 50 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine are single, and economic planners worry that this bodes ill for the country’s birthrate and future growth. In the Czech Republic, however, researchers welcome the rise in single living, hoping that will reduce the 50 percent divorce rate.4

Everywhere marriage is becoming more optional and more fragile. Everywhere the once-predictable link between marriage and child rearing is fraying. And everywhere relations between men and women are undergoing rapid and at times traumatic transformation. In fact, I realized, the relations between men and women have changed more in the past thirty years than they did in the previous three thousand, and I began to suspect that a similar transformation was occurring in the role of marriage.

In the eighteenth century, people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love… Until the late eighteenth century, most societies around the world saw marriage as far too vital an economic and political institution to be left entirely to the free choice of the two individuals involved, especially if they were going to base their decision on something as unreasoning and transitory as love.

As soon as the idea that love should be the central reason for marriage, and companionship its basic goal, was first raised, observers of the day warned that the same values that increased people’s satisfaction with marriage as a relationship had an inherent tendency to undermine the stability of marriage as an institution. The very features that promised to make marriage such a unique and treasured personal relationship opened the way for it to become an optional and fragile one. The skeptics were right to worry about the dangers of the love match. Its arrival in the late eighteenth century coincided with an explosion of challenges to all the traditional ways of organizing social and personal life. For the next 150 years, societies struggled to strike the right balance between the goal of finding happiness in marriage and the preservation of limits that would keep people from leaving a marriage that didn’t fulfill their expectations for love.

The Real Traditional Marriage

…for most of history, marriage was not primarily about the individual needs and desires of a man and woman and the children they produced.

Marriage became a way through which elites could hoard or accumulate resources, shutting out unrelated individuals or even “illegitimate” family members. Propertied families consolidated wealth, merged resources, forged political alliances, and concluded peace treaties by strategically marrying off their sons and daughters. When upper-class men and women married, there was an exchange of dowry, bridewealth, or tribute, making the match a major economic investment by the couple’s parents and other kin. In Europe, from the early Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, the dowry a wife brought with her at marriage was often the biggest infusion of cash, goods, or land a man would ever acquire. Finding a husband was usually the most important investment a woman could make in her economic future.7 Even in the lower classes, marriage was an economic and political transaction, although on a much smaller scale. The concerns of commoners were more immediate: “Can I marry someone whose fields are next to mine?”; “Will my prospective mate meet the approval of the neighbors and relatives on whom I depend?”; “Would these particular in-laws be a help to our family or a hindrance?”

Marriage was the most important marker of adulthood and respectability as well as the main source of social security, medical care, and unemployment insurance.

Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love… Because marriage was too important a contract to be left up to the two individuals involved, kin, neighbors, and other outsiders, such as judges, priests, or government officials, were usually involved in negotiating a match. Even when individuals orchestrated their own transitions in and out of marriage, they frequently did so for economic and political advantage rather than for love.

The system of marrying for political and economic advancement was practically universal across the globe for many millennia.

But only in the seventeenth century did a series of political, economic, and cultural changes in Europe begin to erode the older functions of marriage, encouraging individuals to choose their mates on the basis of personal affection and allowing couples to challenge the right of outsiders to intrude upon their lives. And not until the late eighteenth century, and then only in Western Europe and North America, did the notion of free choice and marriage for love triumph as a cultural ideal. In the nineteenth century, most Europeans and Americans came to accept a new view of husbands as providers and of wives as nurturing home-bodies. Only in the mid-twentieth century, however, could a majority of families in Western Europe and North America actually survive on the earnings of a single breadwinner.

it was the culmination of a package of ideals about personal life and male-female relations that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and gradually became the norm across Western Europe and North America. These ideals gave people unprecedented opportunities to get more personal satisfaction from their marriages, but they also raised questions that posed a fundamental challenge to traditional ways of ordering society. If marriage was about love and lifelong intimacy, why would people marry at all if they couldn’t find true love? What would hold a marriage together if love and intimacy disappeared? How could household order be maintained if marriages were based on affection rather than on male authority? No sooner had the ideal of the love match and lifelong intimacy taken hold than people began to demand the right to divorce. No sooner did people agree that families should serve children’s needs than they began to find the legal penalties for illegitimacy inhumane. Some people demanded equal rights for women so they could survive economically without having to enter loveless marriages. Others even argued for the decriminalization of homosexual love, on the ground that people should be free to follow their hearts.

For centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today. It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property. Most societies had very specific rules about how people should arrange their marriages to accomplish these tasks.

For thousands of years, husbands had the right to beat their wives. Few men probably meted out anything more severe than a slap. But the law upheld the authority of husbands to punish their wives physically and to exercise forcibly their “marital right” to sex, and that structured the relations between men and women in all marriages, even loving ones.

Today most people expect to live their lives in a loving relationship, not a rigid institution. Although most people want socially sanctioned relationships, backed by institutional protections, few would sacrifice their goal of a loving, fair, and flexible relationship for those protections.

Life is not a court of law, where precedent is key. No historical “logic” requires us to respond to change in a particular way. In fact, precedent is a poor guide for the choices we face today in personal life and public policy. Throughout most of history a key function of marriage was to produce children and organize inheritance rights. Marriages were often nullified if a couple did not produce a child. But in our modern world no one suggests that couples who don’t have children should not have access to the legal benefits of marriage. Precedent doesn’t help much on the controversial question of same-sex marriage either. Some people argue that because at various times in history same-sex marriages have been accepted in some societies, such marriages should therefore be legal now. But should precedent also apply to other alternatives to the heterosexual nuclear family? On the basis of historical precedent, dissident polygamous Mormons in the United States have an open-and-shut case. Polygyny, whereby a man can have multiple wives, is the marriage form found in more places and at more times than any other.9 If precedent is our guide, shouldn’t we legalize polygyny, bring back arranged marriages and child brides, and decriminalize wife beating?

Between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-twentieth century, the social functions and internal dynamics of traditional marriage were transformed. The older system of arranged, patriarchal marriage was replaced by the love-based male breadwinner marriage, with its ideal of lifelong monogamy and intimacy. New expectations came to structure marriage. Then, in just the last thirty years, all the precedents established by the love-based male breadwinner family were in turn thrown into question. Today we are entering uncharted territory, and there is still no definitive guide to the new marital landscape.


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