Stephanie Coontz: The Future of Marriage

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stephanie Coontz teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families: Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.]

Any serious discussion of the future of marriage requires a clear understanding of how marriage evolved over the ages, along with the causes of its most recent transformations. Many people who hope to “re-institutionalize” marriage misunderstand the reasons that marriage was once more stable and played a stronger role in regulating social life.

For most of history, marriage was more about getting the right in-laws than picking the right partner to love and live with. In the small-scale, band-level societies of our distant ancestors, marriage alliances turned strangers into relatives, creating interdependencies among groups that might otherwise meet as enemies. But as large wealth and status differentials developed in the ancient world, marriage became more exclusionary and coercive. People maneuvered to orchestrate advantageous marriage connections with some families and avoid incurring obligations to others. Marriage became the main way that the upper classes consolidated wealth, forged military coalitions, finalized peace treaties, and bolstered claims to social status or political authority. Getting “well-connected” in-laws was a preoccupation of the middle classes as well, while the dowry a man received at marriage was often the biggest economic stake he would acquire before his parents died. Peasants, farmers, and craftsmen acquired new workers for the family enterprise and forged cooperative bonds with neighbors through their marriages.

Because of marriage’s vital economic and political functions, few societies in history believed that individuals should freely choose their own marriage partners, especially on such fragile grounds as love. Indeed, for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission. In Anglo-American law, a child born outside an approved marriage was a “fillius nullius” - a child of no one, entitled to nothing. In fact, through most of history, the precondition for maintaining a strong institution of marriage was the existence of an equally strong institution of illegitimacy, which denied such children any claim on their families.

Even legally-recognized wives and children received few of the protections we now associate with marriage. Until the late 19th century, European and American husbands had the right to physically restrain, imprison, or “punish” their wives and children. Marriage gave husbands sole ownership over all property a wife brought to the marriage and any income she earned afterward. Parents put their children to work to accumulate resources for their own old age, enforcing obedience by periodic beatings.

Many people managed to develop loving families over the ages despite these laws and customs, but until very recently, this was not the main point of entering or staying in a union. It was just 250 years ago, when the Enlightenment challenged the right of the older generation and the state to dictate to the young, that free choice based on love and compatibility emerged as the social ideal for mate selection. Only in the early 19th century did the success of a marriage begin to be defined by how well it cared for its members, both adults and children.

These new marital ideals appalled many social conservatives of the day. “How will we get the right people to marry each other, if they can refuse on such trivial grounds as lack of love?” they asked. “Just as important, how will we prevent the wrong ones, such as paupers and servants, from marrying?” What would compel people to stay in marriages where love had died? What would prevent wives from challenging their husbands’ authority?

They were right to worry. In the late 18th century, new ideas about the “pursuit of happiness” led many countries to make divorce more accessible, and some even repealed the penalties for homosexual love. The French revolutionaries abolished the legal category of illegitimacy, according a “love child” equal rights with a “legal” one. In the mid-19th century, women challenged husbands’ sole ownership of wives’ property, earnings, and behavior. Moralists predicted that such female economic independence would “destroy domestic tranquility,” producing “infidelity in the marriage bed, a high rate of divorce, and increased female criminality.” And in some regards, they seemed correct. Divorce rates rose so steadily that in 1891 a Cornell University professor predicted, with stunning accuracy, that if divorce continued rising at its current rate, more marriages would end in divorce than death by the 1980s.

But until the late 1960s, most of the destabilizing aspects of the love revolution were held in check by several forces that prevented people from building successful lives outside marriage: the continued legal subordination of women to men; the ability of local elites to penalize employees and other community members for then-stigmatized behaviors such as remaining single, cohabiting, or getting a divorce; the unreliability of birth control, combined with the harsh treatment of illegitimate children; and above all, the dependence of women upon men’s wage earning.

In the 1970s, however, these constraints were swept away or seriously eroded. The result has been to create a paradox with which many Americans have yet to come to terms. Today, when a marriage works, it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before. A good marriage is fairer and more fulfilling for both men and women than couples of the past could ever have imagined. Domestic violence and sexual coercion have fallen sharply. More couples share decision-making and housework than ever before. Parents devote unprecedented time and resources to their children. And men in stable marriages are far less likely to cheat on their wives than in the past.

But the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation. They have also made marriage seem less bearable when it doesn’t live up to its potential. The forces that have strengthened marriage as a personal relationship between freely-consenting adults have weakened marriage as a regulatory social institution.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the collapse of the conditions that had forced most people to get and stay married led to dramatic - and often traumatic - upheavals in marriage. This was exacerbated by an economic climate that made the 1950s ideal of the male breadwinner unattainable for many families. Divorce rates soared. Unwed teen motherhood shot up. Since then, some of these destabilizing trends have leveled off or receded. The divorce rate has fallen, especially for college-educated couples, over the past 20 years. When divorce does occur, more couples work to resolve it amicably, and fewer men walk away from contact with their children. Although there was a small uptick in teen births last year, they are still almost 30 percent lower than in 1991.

Still, there is no chance that we can restore marriage to its former supremacy in coordinating social and interpersonal relationships. Even as the divorce rate has dropped, the incidence of cohabitation, delayed marriage and non-marriage has risen steadily. With half of all Americans aged 25-29 unmarried, marriage no longer organizes the transition into regular sexual activity or long-term partnerships the way it used to. Although teen births are lower than a decade ago, births to unwed mothers aged 25 and older continue to climb. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. And gay and lesbian families are permanently out of the closet....

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