Union Evolution

Tampa Tribune, August 24, 2005
By Wendy Malloy
Tribune correspondent

TAMPA The state of the marriage union is solid, says Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, A History," but maintaining a vibrant, fulfilling partnership requires communication, commitment and compromise.

No big surprise.

But as Coontz's book details in a sweeping look at matrimonial mores over the centuries, those concepts haven't always been at the heart of marriage -- unless the compromise dealt with dowry negotiations.

Marrying for love, in fact, is a relatively fresh concept.

It wasn't until the late 1700s, when various economic and political factors converged to inspire a shift from marriage as a business deal, that couples began following their hearts.

Coontz says the social transformation that has taken place during the past three decades is even more striking.

"When I was first writing the book, I thought I'd show that marriage has been changing since the Stone Age and that people have survived in all kinds of marriages and family norms," she says.

"But I was startled to find out just how revolutionary the changes of the last 30 years have been. It may be that no particular thing is new, but the whole package is truly revolutionary. It's no wonder people are distressed about it."

Learning From The Past

The distress -- sparked by high divorce rates, debates over family values, controversy over gay marriage and more -- has likely never been as pronounced as it is today.

Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, has delved into the American psyche before, with 1992's "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" and 1997's "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families."

Coontz's latest book provides historical perspective on marriage, from the ins and outs of Mesopotamian and ancient Egypt to Medieval Europe, where neighbors had a serious stake in the suitability of mates in an interdependent village economy.

Divorce wasn't at all uncommon in some societies, but it wasn't for irreconcilable differences so much as for political gain.

"Switching marital partners sometimes took place with as little emotional turmoil as we might feel in switching phone companies," Coontz writes.

"Marcus Porcius Cato 234-149 B.C. divorced his wife, Marcia, and arranged for her to marry his friend Hortensius in order to strengthen the friendship and family connections between the two men."

When Coontz reaches contemporary times, the exploration of marriage becomes particularly fascinating.

In a sense, her catalog picks up where Betty Friedan left off in 1963 with "The Feminine Mystique," which laid bare the myth of the happy homemaker mom. In reality, Friedan wrote, many women of the supposedly ideal era felt miserable, lonely and useless.

In her studies into that time, Coontz found a blip in history, a moment of national prosperity and growth that allowed marriage to flourish, but only within the context of gender stereotypes and with a measure of what she calls "fond contempt."

Mid-20th century American marriage was not the affable romp through suburbia we see in TV Land reruns and hold up as our ideal.

"When I read diaries from the 1950s, even couples who loved each other had this disrespect: She's basically incompetent; he's a good provider and not much more," Coontz says.

At the end of '50s, a poll showed that 90 percent of women, even those who considered themselves happily married, wanted their daughters to delay marriage and get a job first.

Then came the revolution. Just like the mid-1700s' European shift toward marrying for love, the mid-1970s in the United States featured changes that completely altered the marital landscape. And the transformation continues, Coontz says.

"It's an interpersonal revolution every bit as big and unstoppable and disruptive as the Industrial Revolution was on the economic level. Yes, it has wreaked havoc in many lives, but it's here to stay. We will never shoe horn people back into mandatory lifelong marriage, whether we think we should or not."

But "Marriage, A History," subtitled "From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage," doesn't spell doom for the institution. Coontz offers a somewhat optimistic look at today's marriages and what makes them tick.

Today's Good News

Coontz's research indicates that successful partnerships presently work better and are more effective than marriages of the past.

"They're more fair, more loving, more intimate and more protective of children," Coontz says. "So that's one piece of good news."

That good news, though, applies only to about half of married couples; the U.S. divorce rate hovers at about 45 percent. That's down from the 1970s and '80s, but some of that decline can be attributed to fewer trips to the altar. Somewhat surprisingly, a majority of divorces are initiated by women; in couples older than 50, that majority climbs to two-thirds.

But to make a marriage endure, couples must strongly embrace a commitment to respect, flexibility and a deep friendship, Coontz says.

"Another side of that is we also handle divorce and single parenthood better than we have in the past," she says.

"Marriage is not always the better option, but we can save more healthy marriages than we do. It's a huge challenge, but we can rise to it."


Think you know about marriage history? See if you can answer these questions spawned from the book "Marriage: A History."

1. On average, the length of time marriages last has been increasing.

2. Americans have been getting more and more tolerant of all sexual activity.

3. Divorce rates in the 1950s were lower than at any other time in the 20th century.

4. Educated, married women are increasingly opting out of their demanding jobs to stay home with their children.

5. The growth in the number of couples living together and even having children without a formal marriage ceremony or license reflects a sharp break with our previous legal and religious traditions.


1. True. Because death rates have fallen even more steeply than divorce rates have risen, more couples celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary today than at any time in the past.

2. False. Americans are more tolerant of consenting sexual relations between unmarried adults than in the past, but disapproval worldwide of adultery, sexual coercion, rape and sex with minors has increased during the past 30 years and is at an all-time high.

3. False. Aside from a huge spike in divorce immediately after World War II, divorce rates in the 1950s were higher than in any previous decade. Divorce rates spiked in the 1970s and have fallen since 1981.

4. False. Among mothers with children younger than 6, about 65 percent of women with high school diplomas are in the labor force, as are 68 percent with college degrees and 75 percent with post-graduate degrees.

5. False. Informal marriage and cohabitation were so common in early 19th century America that some judges estimated a third of the children were born to couples who had not had a legal marriage.

Wendy Malloy

This story can be found at: http://tampatrib.com/baylifenews/MGBGAT452DE.html

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