Past, present, future of marriage

The Examiner, November 25, 2005. By Stephanie Coontz.

November 25, 2005

Many people believe that the instability of modern marriage exists because husbands and wives don't take their relationships as seriously as people did in the past.

But for thousands of years, the personal relationship between husband and wife did not count for much in marriage. Instead, the economic and political interests of the couple's parents or community were paramount. The idea that individuals should freely choose their own mates on such a self-indulgent basis as love was considered irresponsible. And couples were not expected to construct a relationship that fostered mutual fulfillment, but to conform to one rigid marital model based on male dominance and wifely subordination.

In the upper classes, people married to acquire influential in-laws, forge business deals or even conclude peace treaties. In the middle classes, men looked for wives who would bring a handsome dowry at marriage. Women married for social respectability and future financial security. Farmers and artisans could not survive without a "yoke-mate," so a strong arm and good work ethic outweighed more sentimental considerations in courting decisions. People worked together in their marriage, or supervised the work of others, but the idea that anyone would work at their marriage would have struck them as absurd.

It was only 200 years ago that Western Europeans and Americans began to believe that marriage should be based on love and mutual satisfaction. Over the next 150 years, marriage gradually became a gentler relationship than ever before in history. Adultery, once accepted as normal for husbands, became less common. Wife-beating, which men had a legal right to do until the late 19th century, began to be condemned.

But well into the 20th century, couples still did not have to work hard at negotiating their relationships because law and social custom required wives to give in. In the 1950s, advice books told women to play dumb, act helpless and let their husband be "the boss." As late as the 1970s, many states had "head and master" laws that gave husbands the final say in family life and courts held that there was no such thing as marital rape, because a wife had no right to refuse sex to her husband. Not until the late 1970s and 1980s did women gain the legal right and the economic clout to challenge their subordinate role in marriage.

The result is that a good marriage today is fairer and more respectful than any couple of the past would have dared to dream. But the same things that have made marriage more fulfilling have made it more optional and more brittle. Many couples work harder than ever beforehand to live up to their high expectations of married life. But people are less likely to stay in a marriage where those expectations are not met or where one partner fails to make the effort. When couples have to negotiate their married life as equals, it's possible to build mutually satisfying and beneficial relationships unparalleled in the past. But it's also possible that negotiations will break down. And the same changes in gender roles that have made marriages more equal allow a woman to refuse a shotgun marriage or to leave a marriage she perceives as unfair.

Like all historical change, the revolution in marriage has brought trade-offs, but the changes we like and the changes we don't like are largely inseparable. Relationships that work, work better than the past. Relationships that don't work are more likely to break up, before or after marriage.

In today's climate of choice, there is no way to return to a world where lifelong marriage is the rule for all. We can help people get their marriages off to a better start and provide support systems to help couples improve and preserve their relationships. But single parents, divorced parents and individuals who choose to live together outside of marriage are now a permanent part of the picture, and they, too, need support systems to help them meet their responsibilities in healthy ways. It is naive and irresponsible to design social policy, distribute social rewards or even dispense personal advice on the assumption that everyone will marry and that all children will be raised for their entire lives by two married parents living in the same household. That bus has left the station.

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