Marital history What's love got to do with it?

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/22/2005. By Polly Drew.

Pop quiz: When you think of a "traditional marriage," what comes to mind?

A. Mom stays home and raises the children while dad goes outside the home to work. Mom does most of the household chores while dad makes the money to provide food, shelter, education and all that comes with a happy family life. Because mom and dad love each other very much, this arrangement is happy and joyous.

B. Two people marry, usually in an arranged union. This is done to advance the family labor force and obtain political and economic advantage. In-laws are a huge key to the success of the marriage. Women are subservient.

C. Marriage is a personal and private choice with mutual love being the determining factor. At its best, it fulfills all emotional and sexual desires.

The correct answer? I can tell you that it's not "A," even though, as Americans, we tend to reflect back to the 1950s when "Ozzie and Harriet" taught Marriage 101 to a large television audience.

Stephanie Coontz, historian and expert in family studies, has researched and written a much-needed historical perspective on marriage, dating back 3,500 years. In her fascinating book, "Marriage, A History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage" (Viking), Coontz calms us all down by sorting through our melancholic, dreamy longings for bygone days and shows us hard evidence about the way it really was.

Back to the quiz: The correct answer is "B." For thousands of years, marriage was not at all about love.

Coontz writes: "Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love . . . Kin, neighbors, judges, priests or government officials were usually involved with negotiating a match."

Coontz says that "marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than it had in the previous 3,000."

One of the greatest love stories of all time? Coontz proves that Anthony and Cleopatra had a union "more to do with political intrigue than romantic passion." She found that ancient and medieval marriages among the elite would be more like "political thrillers, corporate mergers, military epics and even murder mysteries" than everlasting love stories.

Not until the 17th century did political, economic and cultural changes begin to "erode the older functions of marriage." There was some encouragement to choose a mate based on personal affection. By the 19th century, Europeans and Americans began to accept a new view that men provided for the family and women nurtured the home and children.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, the pinnacle of what many perceive as "traditional marriage," dad worked, mom stayed home to keep house, raise the kids and all of this was based on love.

The situation seemed perfect, but love is fickle and humans are hard to please. When love began to change and fade, people started asking for divorce. Mix in some sexual freedom, legal and personal autonomy for women and Coontz says that people didn't need to marry to construct successful lives or long-lasting sexual relationships.

With any vital subject, well-researched history illuminates central questions on how we got to a particular point in modern times. History offers a particular depth and wisdom.

After five years of research on marriage, Coontz feels there are a few general principles based on psychology and sociology that can apply to most modern marriages. That brings us to today's hope for marriage, "C" on the quiz.

Not only should this book be read by the masses contemplating marriage, it should be read by every marriage and family therapist, the professors who teach them, policy-makers and government officials who think they know what's in our best interest.

Not to understand the history of marriage is bad for the institution's future. If it's true what clergyman Joseph Barth said, that "marriage is our last, best chance to grow up," then we must have scholarly perspective. "Marriage, a History," is a ground-breaking landmark for our time.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 22, 2005.

Facebook Image You Tube Image