Monday, August 4, 2008

Marriage, A History

In the late 50s or early 60, some close friends of my parents got divorced. My parents were shocked. I don’t think we knew any divorced people in those days. And this was such an upstanding Christian couple—the husband was an ordained minister, for Pete’s sake. To make things worse, he’d run off with an old school friend of theirs, a woman who had, as I recall, bleached blonde hair.

“I can’t imagine why he’d do such a thing,” my mother said, tears in her eyes. “His wife was always such a good housekeeper.”

I was only a junior-high kid when we heard the news, but I could imagine what was in Mr. Untel’s mind, or whatever part of his anatomy he was thinking with at the time. The first Mrs. Untel was indeed clean and well-organized. She also gave the impression of being cold and humorless. (Of course, her husband may have had a lot to do with that—it is rarely safe to assign blame in marriage break-ups.) Whereas the second Mrs. Untel... well, even though she was already 50 years old, the fire obviously hadn’t gone out, if you catch my drift.

What I couldn’t imagine was why my mother would think that keeping house equaled keeping a husband.

Stephanie Coontz’s 2005 book, Marriage, a History, gives the fascinating historical and sociological context for my mother’s remark and my incomprehension. Her provocative subtitle summarizes the book’s approach: How Love Conquered Marriage. Here’s how she introduces her thesis:

In the eighteenth century, people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love. The sentimentalization of the love-based marriage in the nineteenth century and its sexualization in the twentieth each represented a logical step in the evolution of this new approach to marriage.

. . . As soon as the idea that love should be the central reason for marriage, and companionship its basic goal, was first raised, observers of the day warned that the same values that increased people’s satisfaction with marriage as a relationship had an inherent tendency to undermine the stability of marriage as an institution. The very features that promised to make marriage such a unique and treasured personal relationship opened the way for it to become an optional and fragile one. (5)

Writing like a journalist, not an academic, Coontz lays the groundwork in the first half of the book by describing utilitarian marriage as practiced from prehistoric times through most of the seventeenth century. Local customs differed widely, of course, but marriage was a practical, community-based arrangement believed necessary for survival and prosperity.

In the eighteenth century, all that began to change. Love, always a blessing when it occurred between husband and wife, began turning into the very reason for marriage. Work, formerly a team effort of both spouses (and children and in-laws and cousins), became the province of the husband, especially in the middle and upper classes.

This radically new style of marriage filled some observers with alarm. “Conservatives warned that ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ claimed as a right in the American Declaration of Independence, would undermine the social and moral order” (150). But such marriages continued to increase, so that by the postwar Baby Boom years—the era of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet”—any other form of marriage was nearly unthinkable. In spite of a slowly climbing divorce rate and a steady increase in female employment, most “sociologists of the 1950s and early 1960s saw no challenge to the primacy of marriage or the permanence of the male breadwinner family, . . . because society clearly needed women in the home to raise the children and because ‘families continue to rear their daughters to take only a modest degree of interest in full-time careers’” (243; the quotation is from William F. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns, 1963).

And then came the paradigm shift of the sixties and seventies. “It took more than 150 years to establish the love-based, male breadwinner marriage as the dominant model in North America and Western Europe,” Coontz writes. “It took less than 25 years to dismantle it” (247). In their conservative communities in the 1930s, my parents—and the Untels—married for love. They assumed that the men would earn the family income and the women would cook, keep house, rear children, and represent the family in church and community. Their marriages worked well right through the fifties, when community pressure, inadequate birth control, and workplace discrimination conspired to keep couples together even when love flickered and dimmed.

Then the separate worlds of male professional life and female housekeeping left one couple with nothing to talk about at the end of the day. A flashy colleague—a professional woman, yet—awakened sensations that the prim and tired wife seemed unable to provide. Would a clean house and a hot dinner suffice to keep the man at home? My mother, born in 1910, thought it should. I, born in 1948, thought it probably would not.

Not that I approved of Mr. Untel’s behavior. His kids were my age, after all, and he was seriously hurting them. He had made a vow many years before to stick with his wife for better, for worse. If this was worse, he had an obligation to do all in his power to make it better. Even though I thought I understood his motivation, I joined in my community’s criticism of his action.

But the era of love-marriage model was unraveling, and love itself was picking at the seams. If love was the reason for marriage, then lack of love could be the reason for divorce. The definition of marriage could expand to include same-sex marriage. And perhaps love was its own justification, and marriage could be optional. Perhaps, after all, marriage was just a reason to have a really big party.

I don’t know if I agree with Coontz’s assessment that love conquered marriage. Marriage runs in my family—my parents were married 62 years, my in-laws 60; my husband and I have been married 40 years, my daughter Molly and son-in-law Byron18—and behold, it has been very good. I would not want to go back to a time when parents arranged their children’s marriages for financial reasons, or when people had to stay with abusive spouses, or when unmarried women had no way to support themselves. Nor do I like the idea of living in a time when marriage has become a quaint social custom with few societal implications.

But Coontz’s social history clearly shows that there's no point in trying to strengthen marriage by going back to the mores of the 1950s, when the water was mounding over the top of the glass and getting ready to spill, just as there’s no point in scooping up drowning lemmings and taking them back to the edge of the cliff from which they leapt. Better to toss them a raft or teach them to swim.

Many of the changes over the last 40 years have been positive, as Coontz points out. Besides, lemming suicide is a myth fostered in part by White Wilderness, a Disney movie from—yes— the 1950s. The lemmings are plunging, to be sure, but maybe they’re mostly hoping to migrate to a distant shore with better climate, richer soil, fewer owls, and more opportunities for their lemming babies.

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