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Marriage A History
From Obedience to Intimacy, or how love conquered marriage
Anthropologist working in Sri Lanka startled to be told that a 19 yo girl had been married 7 times. If a woman was seen cooking for a man that was evidence she was married to him. And the corollary was that when she stopped cooking for him, the marriage was over.
IN THE 1990S, Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at Evergreen State College in Washington, noticed an uptick in questions from reporters and audiences asking if the institution of marriage was falling apart. She didn't think it was, and was struck by how everyone believed in some mythical Golden Age of Marriage and saw mounting divorce rates as evidence of the dissolution of this halcyon past. She decided to write a book discrediting the notion and proving that the ways in which we think about and construct the legal union between a man and a woman have always been in flux.
What Coontz found was even more interesting than she'd originally expected. In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, she surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She'd long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and '60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn't understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.
For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate's skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives' steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.
Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women's contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience - the marketplace versus the home - one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.
All of this was intriguing, for sure - but even more surprising to Coontz was the realization that those alarmed reporters and audiences might be onto something. Coontz still didn't think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. 'Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution,' she wrote.
Last summer I called Coontz to talk to her about this revolution. 'We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change,' she told me. 'The transformation is momentous - immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.'
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