Enduring Union

Washington Post , Sunday June 26, 2005
By Judith Warner

Stephanie Coontz's new book, which traces the evolution of marriage from the Stone Age to the Internet Age, extends into the realm of matrimony the franchise that Coontz developed in her now-classic work of American social and economic history, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap . In that 1992 study, Coontz took apart many of the received notions and clichés through which Americans have tended to construct their ideas of what constitutes "normal" family life, focusing particularly on the occluded aspects of the "Ozzie and Harriet" 1950s. Now, in Marriage, a History , she takes a longer and broader view, examining matrimony over the millennia and across various cultures. In so doing, she neatly, entertainingly and convincingly deconstructs a number of our most cherished and least examined beliefs about the bonds that tie men and women together, for better and for worse.

Coontz debates the idea that there is a "biological" basis for marriage -- that it is, as many have argued, the human version of the instinctive pair-bonding seen among many animal groups. Primates, our closest animal kin, she notes, don't come together to create such bonds. And, she deadpans, "One scientist who believes there is such a biological base in humans claims that it is limited to about four years." Coontz rejects the theories that marriage came into existence among our Stone Age ancestors so that men could, alternately, protect or subjugate women. The "protective or provider theory of marriage," according to which human society evolved via women's trading sex for food and protection, she writes, is "the most widespread myth about the origins of marriage."

She rejects, too, the "oppressive theory" according to which marriage came into being to allow men the free exchange and exploitation of women. Too many women benefited from it, she says, for the institution to be summed up simplistically as an exercise in pure oppression. In some ancient cultures, it was men, not women, who were exchanged. And sometimes individual women, like Cleopatra, took the bull by the horns (as it were) and played the marriage game to their advantage, though the frequency of such experiences probably shouldn't be exaggerated.

Coontz argues that, rather than existing to oppress or protect women within the bounds of an exclusive and isolated male-female relationship, the marriage bond evolved because it served the needs of much larger kinship groups -- creating cooperative ties for the purpose of sharing resources and keeping the peace that stretched far beyond individual families or tribes.

She also rejects the notion that the breadwinner/homemaker model that we associate with normal or "traditional" marriage is either normal or traditional. In the past, she argues, the economic needs of families required both spouses -- and their children, for that matter -- to work, usually side by side. The idea that a man's place was out in the world of lucre and a woman's was one of non-remunerative homemaking became a cultural ideal only in the 19th century. And not until the mid-20th century could most families in Western Europe and North America actually survive on the earnings of a single breadwinner. This economic development, though, was -- and has continued to be -- understood as a sentimental and moral achievement.

"Never before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households," Coontz writes of the post-World War II period. "Never had married couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. And never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was 'normal.' " Today, it's the normality of 1950s-era "family values" rather than the uniqueness of that social and economic postwar situation that looms large in the American collective imagination.

The biggest myth that Coontz takes apart, however, is the idea that marriage today is in a unique and unprecedented state of crisis. Marriage certainly is in flux, she admits -- people are marrying and having children later than ever, more people than ever are cohabitating or remaining single, and many more children are being born out of wedlock, at all levels of society -- but there's nothing new about all this change or instability. It's been part of the institution since the 18th century, when the traditional model of marriage as a political and economic bond contracted by families fell away and was replaced by a new and revolutionary type of relationship: the love bond. Critics have been crying "crisis" ever since. And, Coontz writes, they've been right, because "personal satisfaction" is an inherently unstable foundation. "From the moment of its inception," she writes, "this revolutionary new marriage system already showed signs of the instability that was to plague it at the end of the twentieth century. . . . 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."

Coontz is perhaps at her very best when she calls into question the pearls of wisdom proffered by today's traditionalists, pro-marriage pundits and advice-mongers. Books such as The Rules and its sequel, The Rules for Marriage (published just as one of its two authors filed for divorce), are fatally flawed, she argues, because they tend to rest upon clichés, not on the latest sociological or psychological data. As a result, they can give some pretty outdated advice, such as encouraging women to play dumb to catch a man or to down-pedal their education and careers in favor of early marriage and child-rearing. This may have been sound advice once upon a time, when male breadwinner/female homemaker marriages, with all their attendant benefits and limitations, were the norm, but it no longer makes sense economically or any other way. Surveys now show that young women don't want to marry older, more powerful men and that young men don't want to be with less-educated and lower-earning women. Although it used to be true that highly educated or extremely successful professional women had a harder time getting married, now female college graduates and women with higher earnings are more likely to marry than are women with less education and lower wages.

The people having the greatest problems getting and staying married today, Coontz notes, are the poor. And what's hurting their chances is not a lack of family values (the very people who have the weakest family ties are often those who hold the most traditionalist views, she points out), but a lack of education and employment. Many women must leave the workforce when their children are born, and this more "traditional" division of labor "often destabilizes their relationships and increases their stress rather than relieving it," she writes. "The big problem doesn't lie in differences between what men and women want out of life and love. The big problem is how hard it is to achieve equal relationships in a society whose work policies, school schedules, and social programs were constructed on the assumptions that male breadwinner families would always be the norm. Tensions between men and women today stem less from different aspirations than from the difficulties they face translating their ideals into practice." Relationships between men and women, she implies, are basically healthy -- probably better than they've ever been in the past. It's our society that's sick. ·

Judith Warner is the author, most recently, of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety."

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