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Is Marriage Dead?

by Ruth Rosen

Marriage, A History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage
Author: Stephanie Coontz
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 413 pp
Price: $29.95

Richard Nixon is justly famous for opening up China, covering up Watergate, vetoing a comprehensive child care act, and passing some of the most protective envi ronmental legislation in our nation’s history. But until I read Stephanie Coontz’s engaging and provocative history of marriage, I did not recall that he had predicted—as early as 1970—that we would have to wait until 2000 before gay marriage would be acceptable to the American people. He wasn’t far off. Even though a majority of Americans still don’t support same-sex marriage, social attitudes have changed dramatically since 1970. Within the last few years, a few courts have declared same-sex marriage constitutional, and several mayors have issued marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. At the same time, George W. Bush has threat ened a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, and state initiatives to ban same-sex marriage mobilized many new voters during the presidential campaign of 2004.

Stephanie Coontz, a distinguished historian of the family, who teaches at Evergreen College, did not set out to prove that gay marriage is inevitable. But her fascinating history of heterosexual marriage suggests that same-sex marriage now tops the cultural wars because it symbolizes the end of a mythic “traditional marriage” that has been transformed by irrevocable economic and social changes in our society.

Let me back up. Coontz originally thought her book would debunk the current hysteria over the demise of marriage by demonstrating how much people have fretted about the stability of marriage for thousands of years.

She accomplishes this goal superbly. We are not the first generation to bemoan the demise of marriage. “The European settlers in America,” she writes, “began lamenting the decline of the family and the disobedience of women and children almost as soon as they stepped off the boats.”

The sense of crisis, moreover, persisted throughout much of our history. In 1929, writes Coontz, “Samuel Schmalhausen, an ardent supporter of modernity and one of the few unrepentant advocates of the right to engage in sex outside marriage, wrote, ‘The old values are gone. Irrevocably. The new values are feverishly in the making. We live in a state of molten confusion. Instability rides modernity like a crazy sportsman. Civilization is caught in a cluster of contradictions that threaten to strangle it.’ ”

But Coontz ended up doing more than documenting a series of moral panics about marriage. Her research revealed how the changing nature of heterosexual marriage led to an unprecedented fragility and instability in American marriages, which I now view as the fear fueling the hysteria over same-sex marriage.

What social conservatives currently describe as “traditional marriage” no longer exists in most developed countries. For centuries, young people married to create political partnerships and to consolidate economic resources between families. Sure, people “fell in love,” but they didn’t usually marry for love. People who entered into that indescribably delicious altered state of consciousness engaged in premarital or extramarital relationships, but such unions rarely ended in marriage.

Marriage, in Coontz’s words, “did much of the work that markets and government do today. It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated peoples’ rights and obligations, everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property.”

During the late eighteenth century, however, marriage in Western Europe and North America began to change dramatically. Growing numbers of young men and women embraced the radical new idea that people should marry for love. This love-based marriage idea lasted throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Several economic and social changes contributed to the end of traditional marriage and the growing acceptance of love-based marriage. The new market economy made children less dependent on their parents for inheritance of land. The Enlightenment promoted the twin ideas of individual natural rights and the pursuit of happiness. Public schools replaced the family as the source of children’s education. A newly sentimentalized culture romanticized love and marriage.

This new view of marriage quickly brought about new demands for conjugal happiness. If you could marry for love, argued advocates of easier divorce, then you should have the right to end a marriage when that love ends. At the same time, women demanded equal rights so they didn’t have to remain in loveless or abusive marriages.

In short, heterosexual marriage became a shadow of its former self, a shrunken institution that thrived when and if it fulfilled the emotional and sexual needs of two individuals who might be raising children.

The stability of this love-based marriage began to collapse in the 1960s and 1970s for a variety of reasons. The expanding economy of the 1960s drew women into the labor force and provided them a degree of economic independence; an accelerating consumer culture created labor-saving devices, take-out food, and cleaning agencies, which allowed men to remain bachelors without missing a wife’s traditional work; and the proliferation of the birth control pill irrevocably ruptured the tie that had yoked sexuality to procreation. Equally important, changes in the economy in the post-1973 era made it necessary for couples to have two incomes in order to achieve a middle-class standard of living.

After the 1950s, marriage also ceased to be the pivotal experience that conferred adulthood upon young people. As young men and women enjoyed more premarital sexual relations and longer educations, they no longer viewed marriage, even if love-based, as the defining rite of adult life.

Many conservatives don’t know this history and look back, with considerable nostalgia, to the 1950s as the ideal of marriage. Both they and Coontz are right that this was the last decade when the “male protector love-based marriage” retained its stability.

Coontz, however, knows that we cannot reverse the economic, sexual, cultural, and labor changes that have occurred since the 1950s. She also understands that this relatively short-lived, love-based marriage was built on the subordination of women.

Social conservatives, on the other hand, are desperate to repeal the 1960s. Programs to promote marriage and abstinence and books that urge female subservience may fuel the cultural wars, but they won’t turn the clock back.

It was not gays and lesbians who changed marriage. However, when love became the main reason for marriage, they quite naturally began to demand the same economic benefits and social legitimacy conferred upon heterosexual marriage.

Social conservatives are wrong that same-sex marriage is the slippery slope that will lead to the demise of marriage as we have known it. The much-mythologized “traditional marriage” died long ago, and it was heterosexuals who shaped the new fragile and unstable marriage that we seek to strengthen today.

It was heterosexual men and women, not same-sex couples, who began to adopt children as single parents, who contributed to the soaring divorce rate, and who decided to live alone if they couldn’t find the right marriage mate. It was heterosexuals who pioneered the reproductive revolution that changed the relationships between sex, marriage, conception, childbirth, and parenting, and who began to embrace new gender relations that challenged male dominance and control of women that had characterized the “traditional marriage.” The fact is, concludes Coontz, that “it was heterosexuals who had already created many of the alternative structures for organizing sexual relationships or raising children and broke down the primacy of two-parent families based on a strict division of labor between men and women.”

It was also heterosexuals who shaped the marital revolution that began to embrace new ideas about gender equality. Regrettably, Coontz gives short shrift to how much the modern women’s movement promoted such egalitarian unions.

She accurately notes, “Relations between men and women have changed more in the past thirty years than they did in the previous three thousand.” But she does not credit the women’s movement with shaping those changing gender relations.

The sexual revolution, women’s entry into the labor force, and the decline in men’s wages definitively altered women’s lives and the experience of marriage, but it was the women’s movement that changed the terms of debate, redefined certain customs and crimes, and altered laws and public policy.

As a social movement, the feminist revolution not only responded to the sexual and economic changes that altered marriage, it also “named” the experiences—such as domestic violence, marital rape, date rape, sexual harassment—that women had suffered at home and at work.

This is the weakest part of Coontz’s otherwise outstanding analysis of how marriage has evolved into a fragile and unstable institution. She also tends to underestimate how much the cold war contained and sustained marriages during the 1950s and how powerfully the growing culture of consumerism has contributed to individualism at the expense of family and community life.

Consider how differently we live today: In the 1950s, married couples represented 80 percent of all households in the United States. By the early twenty-first century, that figure had dropped to less than 51 percent. Today, one-quarter of all households now contain only one person. Married couples with children now represent only 25 percent of all households.

Norms have changed as well. Men with traditional views of marriage are the first to get married, but they are also the first to get divorced. Men’s participation in child-rearing has increased, and they are much more likely to boast about their meager participation in domestic work than to feel embarrassed by such activity.

Women, too, are seeking different things from men. Coontz cites several polls that indicate that a majority of women would prefer to live alone rather than in an unhappy marriage.

As love becomes the main reason for heterosexual marriage, and as marriage becomes a choice among many options, growing numbers of Americans find it increasingly difficult to justify why gays and lesbians should not also have the choice to marry. In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics embraced legalized partner adoption when a child lives with same-sex partners. In 2004, a poll of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds by USA Today found that half of these young people support gay marriages. Across the globe, moreover, some nations have legalized same-sex marriage while others—as diverse as Germany, Taiwan, and Argentina—have passed legislation that gives gay couples many or most of the legal rights enjoyed by married heterosexuals.

Ironically, those who most oppose same-sex marriage tend to be born-again Christians, whose divorce rate is only slightly lower than the rates of atheists and agnostics. The Bible Belt, populated by some of the lowest income people in the South, has the highest divorce rate in the nation, as well as the greatest number of children born out of wedlock. Not surprisingly, this is the same political constituency that expresses the highest disapproval of “non-traditional” family behaviors.

The conservative and religious opposition to same-sex marriage, then, may very well be viewed as a misdirected effort to save the promise of a love-based heterosexual marriage.

And what about the future of heterosexual marriage? With women no longer legally and economically dependent on men, with marriage buffeted by a consumerist culture that sells individualism and promotes personal desire, with an economy that requires two workers to support a family, and few stay-at-home moms to spare, what is to be done?

The conservative right has a simple answer: return to a marriage in which women stay at home, care for their chidren, and surrender their rights to their husbands. The strength of this vision lies only in its mythic power, for it bears little resemblance to the economic reality in which most Americans struggle today.

Progressives understand these changes are irrevocable and seek ways for society to strengthen family life—such as providing affordable and accessible child care, universal health care, subsidized parental leave, affordable housing, and a restructured work environment.

The argument that we can’t afford these supports to strengthen family life is specious. All these pro-family measures would be easily affordable if we cancelled tax breaks for the wealthy, and if our nation were not squandering its wealth on war and space-based weapons. And such policies would ease the lives of couples who marry for love and then find themselves caught in an exhausting and joyless search for individual solutions to what should be viewed as society’s collective responsibility.

Coontz offers no easy answers. “We cannot turn the clock back in our personal lives,” she writes. “We can never reinstate marriage as the primary source of commitment and care giving in the modern world. . . . For better or worse, we must adjust our personal expectations and social support system to this new reality.” These are not words likely to convince Americans to cast a vote for a liberal presidential candidate.

The challenge for all of us, then, is to imagine a future in which marriages and families can prosper. Not an easy task, but if we are to forge our nation’s political future, we must persuade Americans that there is a positive alternative to a “traditional family” that no longer exists. Coontz’s gracefully written and accessible book is a must-read for anyone who wants to help build that future.


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