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The Way We Never Were: American Marriage8 min read

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Marriage Scholar and author Stephanie Coontz explores the myths of traditional marriage in an excellent podcast.  She is liberal and pro-gay, but her lecture,  The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, is thought provoking and very well done.  She has also written a book on this subject (which I have not read) entitled Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.  Here’s some snippets from the podcast.

1. A lot of what seems new is actually old, and vice versa

  • two earner families is not a new invention
  • the sole male breadwinner was a 19th century invention
  • one parent families were the norm throughout most of history due to death rates

2. On No Fault Divorce

"In most societies that did not allow divorce, all that really happened was that when desertion happened, women and children had no recourse to get child support…In the 30’s and 40’s, the courts held that both parties wanting the divorce had to come to the divorce with clean hands."

Which means that if a man was abusive, and the woman wanted a divorce, if she ever even once threw something at him in anger or threatened him, she would not be granted the divorce.

"In the five years after [no fault divorce’s] introduction, every state that adopted it experienced a 20% reduction in the suicide rate of wives, and an even bigger decline in the rate at which husbands were murdered by wives."

3. On Mistresses

"As late as the 18th century, when a wife made a fuss about this, it was considered so inappropriate that her own family would write letters of apology to the husband saying "I’m sorry she’s behaving this way."

She also mentions all of the illegitimate children of our great politicians, starting with Jefferson, through Roosevelt and Kennedy.

4.  Stability v. Freedom

She claims that marriages were more stable when we allowed mistresses and when the man had all of the power in the relationship.  Now, she is not advocating such, but rather, she is advocating more freedom and fairness.  We have to be allowed to follow our hearts (more freedom) – the prospect of losing one’s wife due to a husband’s adultery might cause him to think twice about it (so greater freedom should reduce adultery), and it leads to marriages of love and intimacy rather than of financial, social, and patriarchal convenience.

"The very things that have made marriage more fulfilling only in recent times (love and relationship, freedom to not marry or leave a marriage) have weakened marriage as an institution and vice versa.

What makes for a strong institution?  Rigid rules – you don’t have a choice…and you don’t make individual exceptions or change the rules over time as someone ages….And if I may say so, they make for a fairly crappy relationship.  What makes a strong relationship?  That it’s individualized, that it is negotiated, fair, that you can change the rules as you grow older, but all of these things make for a less stable institution…

A marriage, when it works, is fairer, more fulfilling, more loving, more passionate and more intimate than [we] would have ever dared to dream.  But it’s also more optional, more fragile, it’s less bearable when it doesn’t live up to that potential."

5. Marriage has not historically been about love

"For thousands of years, marriage was not about love.  It was a way of making political and financial [alliances] between [clans]"

She argues that marriage was a practical matter that children did for their own good, and for the good of the parents.

"About 200 years ago in the process of the Enlightenment, in Europe and America, [the idea]began to circulate that…the state and the older generation should not dictate [whom you should marry]….Combine that with…the Declaration of Independence, the ‘pursuit of happiness’…and you get this new idea that people should do what makes them happy, and choose a marriage partner out of love.

Traditionalists of the day…were horrified.  They thought that this was going to be a disaster….They said ‘Look, if you say that marriage is about love, how will you get the right people to marry each other?…How will we prevent the wrong people from demanding the right to marriage?’ … At the time, they didn’t want poor people to get married…’What will we do about people who get married and find out that they are not happy?  Won’t they demand the right to divorce?’  And even scarier for them…was what would happen to male dominance?  If you allow people to marry for love, won’t men start giving in to their wives?

It took another 150 years for [those ideas] to play out.

6.  How this played out

"A wave of women’s movements, demand for divorce, gay marriage, the de-stigmatizing of out of wedlock children…equality within marriage, the right to remain single….But these were pushed back in the 19th century by a…campaign to redefine love and marriage in a way that was manageable – this new idea about the ‘separation of spheres’.  Now men were not considered in charge of women, but … mean and women were considered only half of a person without each other.  Men then became the only breadwinner, while men were not capable of nurturing and needed women to organize the family…strict gender roles…women became seen as passionless… and that men and women could only reach [completion] through marriage."

7. Marriage Has Irrevocably Changed in the Last 30 Years

"We have reliable birth control, we have abolished the old penalties for illegitimacy, an important humanitarian reform, but one that has weakened the ability of marriage to dictate people’s lives….We’ve removed the legal authority of men in marriage…and allowed women into the workforce, thereby allowing them to support themselves and refuse marriage if they wish.

Marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the last 3500.  It is a worldwide, irreversible revolution that I’ve come to think of as similar to the Industrial revolution – it has really shaken things up… and created new tragedies as well…

There is no way that we can shoehorn people back into the lifelong, universal early marriage where we can be sure that all obligation as will be contracted in marriage, and all child rearing will be taken care of….We can not completely ignore the "accidents" outside of marriage. 

Along with this,

  • There is the rising age of marriage…no society in history has ever kept people celibate that long
  • Marriage is now not the only place people get initiated to sex
  • The separation of reproduction means that some people who’ve never been able to have children previously can now have children…including gays and lesbians
  • Consumer products make a full time housewife unnecessary…"

She provides a lot of grist for the mill here, but she is right about one thing.  Marriage has changed, for the better and worse.  Comments?