Marriage: Pass the Rose-colored Glasses

Houston Chronicle, Saturday June 18, 2005
By Jeannie Kever
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Brett Coomer / Chronicle
Author Stephanie Coontz, who spoke last week at the Menil Collection, says the ideal of marrying for love began more than a century ago, but the changes that wrought have accelerated over the past 30 years.

Stephanie Coontz set out to prove there is no marriage crisis, despite the worrywarts who pointed to high divorce rates and the ever higher number of people living together without marriage.

Oops. She found a crisis.

The problem, she discovered, was love.

On a tour to promote her book, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage , Coontz argues that today's marriages are more fragile for the same reasons that they are more satisfying than ever.

The history factor

People expect more emotionally from marriage than they once did, and they're unwilling to settle for less, a movement driven by access to birth control and women's increasing economic independence. Coontz calls it a societal shift as unsettling as that caused by the Industrial Revolution.

"When a marriage works today, it is fairer, more intimate, more satisfying than any of the marriages in history," she said. "On the other hand, you can leave a marriage that's not fair. You don't have to marry someone that's going to be bad to you."

That wasn't true for most of recorded history, a fact reinforced when she began shifting through the historical artifacts of marriage. The ideal of marrying for love began more than a century ago but really took hold only over the past 30 years.

"The things that transfix us about the Scott Peterson case, they're just minor compared to the marriages of the past," said Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. She spoke last week at the Menil Collection in Houston, sponsored by a consortium including the University of Houston.

Even as nontraditional families proliferate, including gay and lesbian couples raising children and heterosexual couples living together without marriage, Coontz said that marriage still matters.

"I think in some ways it's more important than ever to people psychologically," she said.

Her new book comes at a time when marriage is hotly debated in political circles. That's a problem, Coontz said in an interview, because policymakers generally have outdated ideas about marriage.

One misconception is that women are always better off economically if they're married. That was true decades ago, but not necessarily today, Coontz said.

The income factor

Lower-income women, especially, are smart to be cautious about marrying men without solid job prospects. If the man loses his job, she will end up supporting both of them, as well as any children. A job and higher education can be a better investment for a woman and her children than a husband.

Add that economic reality to the expectation that marriage should be a true merging of soul mates — as opposed to the historical notion of a marriage as an economic or political arrangement, with women legally and economically subordinate to men — and people become even less likely to marry.

Nonetheless, public policy continues to hold marriage between a man and a woman as the ideal.

"If you assume that you can shoehorn everybody back into marriage in today's world of choice, I think you're going to end up having to adopt fairly repressive policies," said Coontz, who spent a dozen years as a single mother before marrying. "You're going to have to penalize unmarried people."

And marriage alone won't solve anyone's problems, she said. "People need child care. They need parental leave. They need humane workplace policies. Married couples need much more help than the marriage license alone."

Those things would help unmarried people, too, she noted. "It's very frustrating to me that this sort of magical thinking goes on: 'If we'd just get everybody married, all the problems would go away.' "

As for the idea that people worked harder at their marriages in the past, Coontz said it's not true.

"They just had fewer choices."

The gay factor

Society will continue to evolve, but Coontz predicts that the United States won't join the short-but-growing list of countries that sanction gay marriage. (As an aside, she noted that Massachusetts, the only state to sanction gay marriage, also has one of nation's lowest divorce rates; only Delaware reported fewer divorces per capita in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.)

"But gay and lesbian households are not going to disappear, and many of those households are raising children. I think we have to, whether we like it or not, have clear rules for how you form and dissolve those families."

The likely answer, she said, will be some form of civil union or a state-by-state system devised by the courts. That won't be the result of "activist" judges, she said, but judges who are forced to find solutions for nontraditional families who have broken up.

The stress factor

Coontz's book, published last month, is the latest in a torrent of books examining the state of modern marriage and relationships.

One impetus is the recognition that everybody — including married couples — leads stressful lives, said Coontz, 60. Another is the ongoing attempt to renegotiate gender roles.

That's a relatively new arena. Until the 1970s, most states legally gave the husband the final say in family matters. "The idea that a man could rape his wife was considered a contradiction in terms," Coontz said. "It was assumed that when you said 'yes' in marriage, you said 'yes' in perpetuity to sex."

Change isn't just a luxury of the middle class.

"It's going on society-wide. In the lower-income levels, men and women may work split shifts to share child care," she said. "They're renegotiating their relationships every day."

Higher-income couples actually have an easier time negotiating gender roles because they can afford outside help, in the form of child care, house cleaning and other services, she said.

The education factor

"People assume it's highly educated women who are walking away from marriage," she said. "Actually, they've had more luck renegotiating marriage and, in a reversal of hundreds of years of history, it's the more highly educated couples that are least likely to divorce."

That's true in every profession except law, she noted.

People may be unrealistic about marriage, expecting an endless honeymoon with nary a dirty towel on the bathroom floor. But Coontz insists that high expectations are a good thing.

"Those low expectations of the past led people to put up with adultery and abuse and day-to-day blinding misery. These high expectations are a huge historical victory."

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