Marriage Demystified

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

interview with Stephanie Coontz

[STEPHANIE COONTZ IS the author of Marriage, A History (reviewed in this issue by Johanna Brenner) and three earlier books on the family institution in historical perspective. She was interviewed by Dianne Feeley from the ATC editorial board.]

AGAINST THE CURRENT: Your first books were looking at women’s roles in pre-class and early class society. What made you interested in starting there? What insights did this work bring to your discussion about marriage in modern society?

STEPHANIE COONTZ: I was influenced by the feminist insights of the 1970s, which challenged the traditional idea that the role of the family was to protect women and children.

At first I was persuaded by some of the early feminist authors that there had been some sort of early “fall” from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one, but I was soon convinced that the evidence did not support the idea that a matriarchal society ever existed. It also became clear that “patriarchy” was far more variable and complex than we had initially thought, and that talking about “the patriarchy” was as abstract and unhelpful as talking about “the class society.”

After that, I worked with an anthropologist colleague, Peta Henderson, to develop a more nuanced view of the evolution of marriage and family life. Our research confirmed many feminist criticisms of the “benevolent” theory of marriage, and gave me lots of examples of how marriage was a way of controlling women in many societies of the past. But it also showed how marriage also controlled young men, and paved the way for my more recent research, which suggests that the origins and functions of marriage were not so much about the relationship between men and women as about the relationship between groups, especially the creation and recruitment of in-laws.

ATC: What would you consider the REAL traditional marriage?

SC: Well, the most common form of marriage in the past was not one man, one woman, but one man, many women. Polygyny is the marriage form preferred by more societies than any other. But there were tremendous variations in the past, including polyandry (one woman, many husbands), ghost marriages, “female husbands,” etc.

The main thing to remember is that for thousands of years marriage was not about love and mutual attraction but about making political and economic alliances, even sealing peace treaties, and also about expanding the family labor force.

ATC: In discussing “real traditional marriage,” are these basically tribal societies? Is polygyny also a frequent form in peasant societies?

SC: Polygyny is found in many ranked clan societies (what most people call tribal) and in the upper classes of many aristocratic class societies. But in most societies where polygyny was the preferred form of marriage, only a minority of men had multiple wives. For other men that family form was aspirational — just as the Ozzie and Harriet model was only aspirational for many Americans in the 1950s.

Multiple wives were both a route to wealth and social status, and a sign of it. Commoners took multiple wives whenever they owned enough property or livestock to need more female labor (or when, as with the Plains Indians, they were hunting for the fur trade and killing more animals than they needed for household consumption.) Elites often had multiple wives to widen their alliance system and to ensure that they had enough heirs.

ATC: I first thought that marriage was originally just an institution for the propertied class, and that everyone else just lived together? You indicate that marriage was more or less a universal institution. Why? What were the politics of marriage?

SC: In many societies, the clearest rules about marriage are indeed for the propertied classes, because there is so much at stake in family alliances and inheritance. But some version of marriage is found in almost all groups in almost all societies, with a few striking exceptions that I explore. Even in the lower classes, marriage was a tool for making work alliances and trying to hook up with advantageous in-laws.

It is true, though, that many societies made little distinction between cohabitation and marriage. In Rome, if a couple lived together with the “intent” to be married, then they were married. No license or other ritual was required. The early medieval church held that if a couple claimed to have exchanged words of consent, then they were married, even if there were no witnesses and no involvement of a priest. And it was not until 1754 that England required a license to have a valid marriage.

ATC: You indicate that while love in marriage was born out of the bourgeois revolution, it is only since the 1960s, with the invention of reliable contraception, married women staying in the work force and services which cut down on the amount of time and energy to maintain a household, that people could truly choose to marry for love, or remain unmarried. Have our notions of family and adulthood kept up with reality?

SC: We often think of women as being the romantic sex, but in fact it was men who first embraced the love revolution. Women’s legal and economic dependence forced them to be more calculating. As late as 1967, two-thirds of college women, but only 5% of college men, said they would consider marrying someone they didn’t love if he met all their other criteria.

Today, 80% of both sexes say they are looking for a “soul-mate.” So the triumph of the love match is complete, which of course carries the implication that you shouldn’t marry someone you don’t love, even if you happen to be pregnant, and that you have the right to leave an unhappy marriage.

So our romanticizing of marriage as a love match exists in uneasy tension with the reality of unwed motherhood, intentional singlehood, and divorce, and we are still scrambling to figure out how to deal with a world in which marriage as a relationship is still highly valued but marriage as an institution has lost its power to organize personal and social life.

ATC: There’s the old story of the nun who worked in a leper colony. Someone visiting remarked, “Sister, I wouldn’t do this for any amount of money.”

The nun responded, “Neither would I.” Hasn’t the notion of love been a club used against women so that they are locked into a role because of their love? What’s different now?

SC: When the love match first came into vogue a little over 200 years ago, the old harsh realities of female subordination in marriage began to be glossed over. Women’s work, once required of them under threat of punishment, came to be seen as something they did voluntarily, out of love. So in some ways the idea of love made it easier for women to internalize their dependence.

On the other hand, it also gave women more influence over their husbands in many instances, and as women have gained the legal right and economic resources to leave marriage, we find that love can be used to negotiate fairer, more fulfilling marriages. I think the big struggle today is to balance our understandable desire for love with our equally significant needs for social support networks and friendships beyond the couple.

ATC: New studies indicate that a majority of women are single in the United States (51%), and this has been a huge news story. Does this bring us more in line with Europe today? What does this say about the future of marriage (and perhaps all the attempts by the Bush administration to encourage the institution, worry about it, etc.)?

SC: I was astonished that this news story got so much attention. Most of the change is simply because the age of marriage has risen so much. (And the difference between men and women is mostly because there are more widows than widowers.) Actually 88-90% of women will eventually marry, but due to the rising age of marriage and the time people remain single after divorce or the death of a spouse, people are living more of their lives outside marriage.

This is a threatening statistic to the people who see marriage as the only way of raising children and caring for dependencies, because we can no longer pretend that marriage is the main place where people begin their sexual lives,  engage in caregiving (of the young or the old), or incur long-term obligations.

ATC: Although people today marry for love, isn’t the fact that most people marry within their class and race indicate that modern love isn’t as free in its choices as we assume? Who really gets to marry for love? Who is left out? Given that many are working a longer work day and many forced to work two- or three part-time jobs, who has time for love?

SC: Of course love, like every other emotion, takes different forms and is given different meanings according to our social background. So people tend to love what they find familiar, and all sorts of social needs and habits work together to construct our definition of what is lovable. That doesn’t mean that love doesn’t exist; but it does mean that whom we love and how we love are, like all else we do, socially constructed in important ways.

As for the question of who has time for love, it is true that finding time for family obligations is increasingly difficult in our speeded-up economy. But ironically, people seem to put even more emphasis on love as their time for community ties and neighborly socializing declines.

One interesting trend in the past 20 years is that more people report their spouse is their best friend than in the past, but the total number of friends people have has been declining. So we’ve become more dependent on love to meet more of our personal needs. That diminishes our larger social ties, and it also puts a lot of burdens on the love relationship.

ATC: Marriage is a strategy the right wing encourages for poor women. The current administration has earmarked $100 million a year to encourage poor women to marry. What social strategy would be helpful for poor women?

SC: The administration  had to back away from its early insistence that promoting marriage is the way to end poverty. Now they say they only want to help people overcome obstacles to marriage, providing them with the problem-solving skills and psychological resources that middle-class and upper-class people can purchase in the market.
I have to say that I am in favor of providing counseling to help couples develop healthier relationships. But of course, sometimes the best way to get to a healthy relationship is to dissolve an unhealthy one. As for solving poverty through marriage, that is a dangerous illusion.

A poor woman who enters a stable marriage does get economic benefits from doing so. But if she marries and later divorces, she ends up worse off economically — and her kids often end up worse off emotionally — than if she never married at all.

A surer, more long-term way of reducing female poverty is to expand women’s access to higher education and to fund decent, affordable child care. The poverty rate of single mothers with a college education and who work fulltime is less than 2%.

ATC: The ATC editors briefly discussed what is the meaning of marriage in an era where even though most people marry, the majority of adulthood more often is not lived within marriage. Do you care to speculate on the impact this will have on marriage as an ideal, and as a reality in people’s lives?

SC: The real challenge to our society is to help people imagine and respect a range of commitments. Right now we have an all-or-nothing approach: Inside marriage we demand total loyalty, intimacy, altruism; outside it we make no attempt to figure out social standards for responsible behavior that stops short of a lifetime commitment.

Yet with Americans spending on average half their adult lives outside marriage, we can no longer assume that marriage is the only place that people enter into meaningful, longterm relationships and engage in caregiving for others. We have to give unmarried people the social supports they need to build healthy relationships.

For most Americans, marriage remains the highest expression of commitment that they can envision. Paradoxically, as marriage has become less compulsory and alternatives to marriage have multiplied, marriage has become in some ways MORE meaningful to many Americans. But instead of being the way people embark on adult life and longterm commitments, as it was in the past, it has come to be seen by many as the culmination of adulthood.

It’s something you enter when you are economically and educationally set and have already established the foundations of a strong relationship. Impoverished people often tell ethnographers that they will marry as soon as they can pay all the bills, afford a “decent” wedding, and have proved their fidelity. They live together outside of marriage not because they don’t value marriage, but because they idealize it so much.

More and more, people value the relationship of marriage over the institution of marriage. So they are willing to leave a marriage that’s based on an unsatisfactory relationship, or not to marry at all if they can’t find the “right” partner.

Like most historical changes, this has positive and negative elements. People’s high expectations make a good marriage much more satisfying and beneficial to its members than in the past. But such expectations also make a difficult marriage much less bearable — and many people expect too much from marriage and too little from other relationships. They try to get all their needs met by one other person, instead of through a variety of social networks and meaningful forms of social involvement.

The result is that they overburden their marriage by expecting their partner to meet all their needs, and find themselves terribly isolated if the marriage has difficulties.

ATC 127, March-April 2007