Marriage today is about writing your own story, says author

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5/27/2005. By Diane Urbani de la Paz - Special to the Post Intelligencer.

Realize this each morning as you awaken alongside your spouse: You two have a story to write. It's about your marriage, and everybody in it plays a non-traditional part.

Nowadays, "We don't just write our own vows, we write our own lives," says Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History" (Viking, 448 pages, $25.95), a survey of how marriage morphed from an institution -- a stone cathedral packed with family members -- into a snug home custom-built by each couple.

Marriage changed more between 1970 and 2000 than it had in the previous two millenniums, says Coontz, an Evergreen State College professor and director of research and public education for the national Council on Contemporary Families. Since old scripts for husbands and wives don't work anymore, we're all winging it, Coontz says. Help isn't coming from other couples or from what she calls "mass-produced advice" manuals. That's because each couple brings home a different set of baggage. Making it all fit is complicated, to say the least.

So why marry? For love, of course -- but that's a relatively new development, Coontz explains.

"I'd read all the debates about why marriage was invented: to protect women, to exploit women, to ensure procreation," she says. "But I realized, and it amazed me, how much marriage was about getting in-laws."

Family-arranged, -pressured and -supported marriages promoted peace between tribes, and eased the pooling of resources. Everybody in the community had a vested interest in the harmony of these pairings, since everybody needed to get along -- and share -- to survive.

"No Stone Age lovers would have imagined in their wildest dreams that they could or should be 'everything' to each other. That way lay death," Coontz writes.

But at the dawn of the modern era, couples were turning inward. Fast-forward to the late 20th century, and you see how technology has largely taken the place of neighbors. Men and women could seek their own fortunes and careers, after the Pill and modern conveniences -- washers, dryers, microwaves -- freed them from the old male-breadwinner, female-housekeeper roles.

Now, Coontz writes, we live in "a climate of choice."

So millions choose not to marry, or they depart unhappy unions, and they hear far less outcry from society. At the same time, couples receive less support from in-laws; we look to our spouses, whom we expect to be our soul mates, counselors, co-parents and more.

But Coontz warns against loading down your spouse's basket with all those eggs, lest he or she stagger under the burden.

"People do best, in society after society, when they have more than one deep connection" to others, she says.

People will keep tying the knot, the author believes, since when couplehood is good, it's really good. "We've made tremendous gains," Coontz says, from the eras when men and women were trapped in rigid roles.

Throughout the 1990s, Coontz asked her students at Evergreen to bring her their mothers' and grandmothers' diaries. In them, she read pleas like "Give me strength" and "Help me not to provoke him," written by wives who couldn't support themselves outside miserable, even abusive marriages.

The norm now, Coontz happily reports, is for dissatisfied wives to speak up for what they want. "If a man responds positively to his wife's request for change, that is one of the best indicators that they will stay together and have a happy marriage," she writes, citing research by the University of Washington's John Gottman. "It helps a lot ... if the wife asks nicely. But it does not help if she keeps quiet for fear of provoking conflict. Constructive, nonviolent anger does not usually lead to divorce, but stonewalling a partner's request for change poses a big risk to a marriage."

Finally, Coontz offers another reason humans stay married.

"A three-year study of married couples in which one partner had mild hypertension found that in happy marriages, the blood pressure of the at-risk partner dropped when couples spent even a couple of extra minutes together," she writes. Similarly, "having an argumentative or highly critical spouse can seriously damage a person's health," lowering immune functions and worsening illnesses such as arthritis.

Think about that: The way you interact can keep your spouse alive and well. Or not.

Appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on May 27, 2005.

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