News & Politics

The Myth of Marriage

A radical new book debunks the concept of marriage as a time-honored institution, and argues that we need to loosen up about it.
The institution of traditional marriage is in a state of crisis.

There's a misstatement in that sentence. But it's not that marriage is in crisis. It's that the institution of marriage is, or was at any time, traditional. As Stephanie Coontz reveals in her new book, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, human unions have gone through a number of evolutions. We would be remiss to think that it was ever a stable institution. Instead, it has always been in flux. It has only been based on the concept of love for 200 years; before that, it was a way of ensuring economic and political stability. Through painstakingly-detailed descriptions and anecdotes from hunter-gatherer days to the modern era, Coontz points out that "almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before." So when we think of cohabitation, gay marriage, or stepfamilies as deviating from the "norm," we are wrong, because there has never really been a "norm."

For a country obsessed with the perfect image of the nuclear family -- mother, father and two kids -- this is eye-opening. We are trying to force ourselves to be something we never really were, or were for a very brief period of time. Instead, Coontz argues, we need to be more tolerant of and open to different forms of union. People with traditional "family values" lack the skills to adapt to social realities that have changed marriage, such as the increased independence of women.

Coontz argues that many of our familial woes come from an unrealistic, idealized version of marriage, and advocates a more liberal interpretation of marriage. Many have had this idea before, but Coontz's centuries-long historical survey confirms it. Below, she answers our questions about gay marriage, the government's support (or lack thereof) of the institution, and what really makes a marriage work.

What is the central thesis of your book?

The basic argument for this book is that what we think of as the traditional marriage -- the marriage based on love, and for the purpose of making peoples' individual lives better -- this was not the purpose of marriage for thousands of years. Instead, marriage was about acquiring in-laws, jockeying for political and economic advantage, and building the family labor force. It was only 200 years ago that people began to believe that young people could choose their own mates, and should choose their own mates on the basis of something like love, which had formerly been considered a tremendous threat to marriage. As soon as people began to do that, all of the demands that we now think of as radical new demands -- from the demand for divorce, to the right to refuse a shotgun marriage, to even recognition of same-sex relations -- were immediately raised.

But it was not until the last 30 years that people began to actually act on the new ideals for beloved marriage. Social conservatives say that there has been a crisis in the last 30 years, and I agree with them, that marriage has been tremendously weakened as an institution. It's lost its former monopoly over organizing sexuality, male-female relations, political social and economic rights, and personal legitimacy. Where I disagree with them, is in how to evaluate that change and its consequences. I agree that it poses tremendous challenges to us, the breakdown of this monopoly of marriage, but I disagree with the idea that one could make marriage better by trying to shoehorn everyone back into the older forms of marriage. Because the main things that have weakened marriage as an institution are the same things that have strengthened marriage as a relationship. Because marriage is now more optional, because for the first time ever, men and women have equal rights in marriage and outside it. Because women have economic independence. This means that you can negotiate a marriage, and make it more flexible and individualized than ever before. So a marriage when it works is better for people, it's fairer, it's more satisfying, it's more loving and fulfilling than ever before in history.

But the same things that make it so are the things that allow people not to marry, or to leave a marriage that they find unsatisfying. My argument then is that you can't have one with out the other. And so we'd better learn to deal with the alternatives to marriage. Alternatives to marriage being singlehood, cohabitation, divorce and stepfamilies, all of these kinds of alternatives to marriage that have arisen.

So it's not about necessarily strengthening the union of marriage as it's been known for years, but adapting better to new forms of marriage?

I think of the revolution in marriage very much like the industrial revolution. It opened up some new opportunities for many people. It also created havoc in some peoples' lives. But the point is that it was not reversible, there was no way to go back to turn everyone into self-sufficient farmers. So we had to reform the factories, and we had to deal with the reality we faced. I would say that the revolution in marriage is the same. There is no way to force men and women to get married and stay married. There is no way to force women to make the kinds of accommodations they used to make, to enter a shotgun marriage or to stay in a marriage they find unsatisfying. So we have to learn with both the opportunities and the problems that raises for us.

You mention that evangelical Christians are just as likely to remain single or divorce as atheists.

Yes. One of the signs that this is in fact a huge, irreversible revolution in personal life on the same order as the industrial revolution, is that it doesn't matter what your values are. Everyone is affected by this. Even people who want or think they are in a traditional marriage are not exempt from these changes. So that the divorce rates of evangelical Christians are the same as those of agnostics and atheists. And in fact, the highest divorce rates in the country are found in the Bible Belt. First of all, the Bible Belt is a more poor area of the country, and poverty is a huge stress on marriage and other relationships. But I also think that there's something in the values of the Bible Belt. People who are extremely traditional, people who believe that sex outside of marriage is immoral, tend to get married early. And in today's world, that is a risk factor for divorce. So that's one of the reasons that they tend to divorce more. We are experiencing a revolutionary change in the way that marriage operates, and the dynamics of marriage. It's so much more important now to meet as equals, to be good friends as well as lovers, to have values that allow you to change through your life and negotiate. And a lot of people with so-called traditional values in fact don't have those skills.

Would you say that Republicans with "family values" have better marriages?

No, and I wouldn't say that Democrats have better marriages either. I think that you really cannot predict how well a marriage is going to go by the values that people have entering it. And in fact, one thing we do know for sure is that women with higher egalitarian ideas about gender are still slightly more likely to divorce than women with more traditional ideas. The opposite is true for men. Men with more traditional ideas about male bread-winning and female roles are more likely to divorce today than men with more egalitarian liberal views.

What is the analysis of that? Do you think it's that both parties have to come halfway to meet each other?

I think it's because for thousands of years marriage was set up to benefit men more than women. Most of the emotional expectations and the kinds of tasks that people brought to marriage involved women shouldering the physical work and emotional work that makes life goes on. So it is women that have an interest in changing the traditional terms of marriage. They are the ones most likely to ask for change. And people who actually study marital dynamics report that it is one of the best predictors that a marriage will last and be happy is when a women asks for change and the man responds positively. So I think 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. But if the man is equally or more egalitarian, she is likely to get the change she wants and that marriage is going to work better, for the man as well as the woman.

So what about gay marriage? You mention that states in favor of gay marriage don't have higher divorce rates.

Massachusetts is one of the states with the two lowest divorce rates, and even though it's the poster-state for non-traditional values. It seems to me tremendously perverse to say that the institution of marriage is threatened by the one group that is clamoring to enter it, when so many heterosexuals are refusing to enter it. But I think that there's a lot of magical thinking going on in people who believe that we should campaign against gay and lesbian marriage. They are I think arguing that if we could just draw this one line in the sand we might be able to reverse all the other changes that have occurred in marriage. But in fact, I would argue that gay and lesbian marriage is not at all a cause of the changes in married life. It's a result of the revolution that heterosexuals have made in how marriage is organized.

I think we have to deal with reality. People have different moral values and I certainly would not say that any church that opposed gay marriage would have to conduct a ceremony in the church. But I think that we have to deal with the fact that marriage has always been evolving and that particularly right now we have to have some sort of recognition and rules for people who are taking on caregiving outside of traditional marriage.

Gay and lesbian relationships are not going to go away. There are millions of gays and lesbians who live together and many of them have children. So the best argument for gay and lesbian marriage, in my opinion, is the fact that gays and lesbians are no better at keeping their relationships going than heterosexuals are. So there are going to be divorces, de facto or real, and you need exit rules. If people are taking on responsibilities for children or for dependent care and one person is sacrificing, they should get the benefits of that, but they should also be subject to the same rules for dissolving their relationships so that it's not terribly unfair and a free-for-all battle when they do.

How do you think that the current government is faring in terms of supporting marriage?

I think almost all of its support is at the totally abstract level of values, family values and family rhetoric that doesn't really help either married people or unmarried people. So much of the government campaign to promote marriage has been about telling people how good marriage is for them, coaxing them to get married, sometimes offering incentives to get married, but never really investing in long-term ways to build healthy relationships, married or unmarried. There's a sort of attitude, again, magical thinking, that if we get you married, then you'll be fine and we don't have to worry about anti-poverty programs, we don't have to worry about job training for men and women, we don't have to worry about child-care. And if we can't get you married, well then we don't want to bother with you either, for a different reason. If we get you married we say you're fine, you don't need anything else. And if you don't get married, it's like you're not fine and you don't deserve anything else. So I find the rhetoric and the millions of dollars that are being spent to promote marriage very frustrating because it seems to me that we would make a better effort to do two other approaches. 1. If you're going to fight poverty, the best way to fight that is to get good child-care, affordable child-care, and decent jobs. And 2. If you want to help people do their relationships better, I'm all for that. And if we help people with healthy relationships many of those people will marry. But those counseling skills ought to be available to people who have no plans to marry or who are divorcing.

What do you think of the current emphasis on marriage counseling and therapy?

Well, we're still in the early stages of figuring out what interventions work and what ones don't. I think that it is important to allow people better access to counseling, but as I said, I think that we would do better to not confine that to people who marry or have intentions to marry, but to any couple who wants that kind of counseling. So that's the first thing I would say that is a problem with this new emphasis on marriage preparation, that it excludes so many couples. The second is that a lot of people are getting themselves certified as marriage counselors in two or three days, and then they go into communities with which they're not familiar. And we don't know exactly what some of them will be teaching. Some of these people are sincere people but people whose values about how a marriage should operate may be quite different than the on-the-ground reality for the impoverished couple who they're trying to help. So I'm concerned about that too. What I'm trying to say is that tested interventions to help people strengthen their relationships, married or unmarried, are a very good thing. But I worry about untested ones.

So from all of your research, if you were to sum up what does make marriage work, what would you say?

Well, first of all, there are two different things: one is interpersonal relations, and one is social context. You cannot produce one success without support from the other. Married couples in their interpersonal way certainly have to be deeper friends and more respectful of each other than at any time in the past. It used to be that people basically fell in love with the gender role. "This is a manly man, he'll take care of me." "This is a womanly woman, she'll take care of my kids." Nowadays, people need to like each other as much as they love each other, and they need to respect each other. That's one important thing. They need to learn how to negotiate and how to handle conflict more than they had to in the past when the rules of marriage just said that women had to obey.

But in addition to that, people need support systems. We live in a very unfriendly environment for families. Married couples, if they're going to keep their marriages going, need things like parental leave, subsidized parental leave so it's not a class privilege to take some time with your kids. They need family-friendly work policies. They need high quality, affordable child-care. So that they don't have to call in sick or quit a job or spend hours agonizing about their kids. The lack of these social supports for families really stresses families. So it's very ironic that many of the people who claim to be most in favor of marriage do not spend any time building these support systems.

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Monica Mehta is an associate editor at AlterNet.