Stephanie Koontz: What Married Couples Need ... Some More Friends

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stephanie Coontz, a history professor at Evergreen State College, is the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”]

EVER since the Census Bureau released figures last month showing that married-couple households are now a minority, my phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from people asking: “How can we save marriage? How can we make Americans understand that marriage is the most significant emotional connection they will ever make, the one place to find social support and personal fulfillment?”

I think these are the wrong questions — indeed, such questions would have been almost unimaginable through most of history. It has only been in the last century that Americans have put all their emotional eggs in the basket of coupled love. Because of this change, many of us have found joys in marriage our great-great-grandparents never did. But we have also neglected our other relationships, placing too many burdens on a fragile institution and making social life poorer in the process.

A study released this year showed just how dependent we’ve become on marriage. Three sociologists at the University of Arizona and Duke University found that from 1985 to 2004 Americans reported a marked decline in the number of people with whom they discussed meaningful matters. People reported fewer close relationships with co-workers, extended family members, neighbors and friends. The only close relationship where more people said they discussed important matters in 2004 than in 1985 was marriage.

In fact, the number of people who depended totally on a spouse for important conversations, with no other person to turn to, almost doubled, to 9.4 percent from 5 percent. Not surprisingly, the number of people saying they didn’t have anyone in whom they confided nearly tripled.

The solution to this isolation is not to ramp up our emotional dependence on marriage. Until 100 years ago, most societies agreed that it was dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion.

St. Paul complained that married men were more concerned with pleasing their wives than pleasing God. In John Adams’s view, a “passion for the public good” was “superior to all private passions.” In both England and America, moralists bewailed “excessive” married love, which encouraged “men and women to be always taken up with each other.”...

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