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Readers Write: The Myth of Marriage

AlterNet readers greeted Monica Mehta's recent interview with Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, with an outpouring of responses ranging from deeply personal accounts of marital problems to deeply-held opinions on marital policy.

Coontz's book proposes that our idea of what constitutes a "traditional marriage" is not based in fact. The concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman based on love and mutual consent is only about 200 years old. Whereas many see marriage as a solid, unwavering institution, Coontz describes it as an ever-changing entity that "has always been in flux." The push to preserve an earlier model of marriage, to "shoehorn everyone back into the older forms of marriage," is a vain attempt, Coontz says.

Changing perceptions of gender roles are a root cause of the most recent shift in marriage, Coontz argues. More women have managed to become economically independent and now see themselves as equals to men, and if the woman has more of an egalitarian view of the relationship than the man, she is more likely not to get the change she wants. This situation often leads to divorce.

What threatens to make marriages less secure also makes them more rewarding when they work, Coontz says. While marriage today is more delicate and demanding, it is also fundamentally superior to its older form: It's more satisfying, loving and fulfilling than ever before in history.

Coontz and Mehta also discussed the government's role in marriage. Coontz believes that the government's current support of marriage is concentrated only on getting couples married as a cure-all to their problems. She advocates more concrete aid, such as childcare programs, paid parental leave and decent jobs. These, she says, will help keep marriages stronger because poverty "is a huge stress on marriage."

Gay marriage is the most hotly debated facet of marriage today. Coontz avoids passing an ethical judgment, merely admitting that "people have different moral values," but feels the government must be ready to accept gay couples. "Gay and lesbian relationships are not going to go away," she says. Couples will separate, however, and this, she feels, is the biggest reason the government needs to be involved.

AlterNet readers exchanged opinions about changing gender roles, the history of marriage and homosexuality question. They also gave each other tips on marital felicity and, in one case, a recommended reading list. Most readers agreed with Coontz's assessment of marriage as an amorphous entity, although there was serious dispute over whether today's incarnation of marriage is an improvement over past ones.

A few readers felt Coontz's comments related directly to their own personal experience. Xenacat wrote: "For those of us who have ever been trapped in a bad marriage with all of its destructive implications, this article is a breath of fresh air." Angie hailed Coontz's statement, that "the difference in divorce rates is that if the woman is more egalitarian than the man, she's more likely to not get the changes she wants," as "my new summary for why my marriage didn't work." AZcrone declared that the book should be "mandatory reading."

Not everyone was as enthused, however. Agarillo, for example, thought the book was "a thinly-veiled justification for gay marriage."

Readers disagreed on the government's role in regulating marriage. Mmaden1@cox.net argued that "the law should have nothing to do with it." Marriage should be "relegated to one's particular religious or philosophical ideals." 09times, on the other hand, said marriage definitely is the government's business, especially in terms of homosexuality, which the reader described as a "sexual perversion." This reader felt gay marriage "should not be sanctified by vows through a religious group or made legal by our government."

09times' comment about gay marriage provoked its own heated mini-debate, one that was central to the discussion surrounding the article. 09times wrote, "If we are coerced to accept one perversion, what will follow?" Rodrigo_c supported civil unions even though he said homosexuality is a sin: "I believe with every fibre of my being that a man and a women belong together!! What's wrong with defending that. I love my wife so why can't I be as verbal as some others on the other side of the fence."

To 09times' cautionary comment about "what will follow?" thirdmg replied "Why, we might even coerced into accepting tolerance. And, then, who knows what might happen!" Kat144 argued that there are many sins described in the Bible that we no longer consider serious offenses or even crimes (such as eating shellfish and drinking alcohol). She added "Finally, who does it hurt? Oh yeah, no one. Funny how we worry more about a 'sin' that hurts nobody and in fact involves loving someone, rather than all of those that actually have a detrimental effect on people."

RedRobin also weighed in: "Fundamentalists are not just upset about the changes that have occurred to their idealized traditional family." Rather, they are motivated by their conviction that homosexuality is a sin and "that to legalize gay marriage would be condoning a sin, which of course they will not do." He also warned that following the Old Testament's definition of sin will keep us forever in the Dark Ages, which, he reminded us, "were not a good time for anyone."

Gender roles were another important topic, centered largely around the changes in the man's roles in the family. Although Pomes, for example, discussed how women have more responsibility along with more freedom ("Modern women are expected to carry their own weight socially and financially"), most of the comments related more to men and their weakened position. Turil wrote about her husband's low self-esteem, which she blamed on the fact that our society doesn't teach our men how to cope in today's world: "It's so hard for men in our society to feel secure in a modern relationship because we still tend to train them for the traditional 'head of household' role of protector and wage earner. We women at least have gotten lots of education (formal and informal) for being independent, equal partners in relationships. But these poor guys are still sort of winging it when it comes to being in a modern marriage." Nazrafel, likewise, was frustrated by her husband's low-self esteem. She is studying for her MBA at night school while he continues to work at a fast food restaurant.

The women exchanged marital advice and got some input from other readers. Angie counseled persistence: "There are probably tons of self-help guides on building confidence. Everyone has some strengths or hidden talents." HeidiLockwood, on the other hand, advised an end to the relationships: "If, given time, the imbalance is worsening, when it becomes clear that the support and tolerance that she extends to her partner is deepening his resentment, that he believes that it causing his neediness and discomfort, that he must compensate by exercising his power to undermine and/or wound her, well...then it's time to let go of her dreams for him and for their future together."

All the readers agree that marriage has changed dramatically recently, mainly due to transforming gender roles; the debate lies in whether this change is for the better or for the worse.

Iana_g believed modernity in this case is not desirable. She referred to the 1950's in general as "happier, simpler times," claiming, "Women are unhappier now than they have ever been." This characterization raised hackles among other readers.

HeidiLockwood reminded her, "children are less apt to be abused, now that their mothers have more authority in the home, and when they are, they or someone else who notices can actually do something about it." Kittynboi argued forcefully: "I suppose they were 'happier' because people like me had to stay in the closet all our lives? Were they happier with segregation? Were they happier times because freedom to expression was more limited then? Were they happier because all kids were forced to pray in school every day? That sounds miserable and awful to me, not happier."

Pbr90king described the essential change in modern marriage as the end of "totalitarian marriage." Men are finally relinquishing their "iron grip" and, in the long run, men will benefit from being able "to mine this astronomically rich field of dignity and respect obtainable through thoughtful methods of acquiescence rather than through forceful methods of totalitarianism."

The thoughtful readers of AlterNet didn't disappoint with their comments on this article. They were varied, eloquent, and even polite despite opposing viewpoints. The ever-changing reality of marriage and, inextricably linked, that of gender identity, deserves to have its many facets examined -- a feat well accomplished by the readers as well as by Coontz herself.

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