November 3, 2005

Author Talks on Marriage

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About halfway into Stephanie Coontz’s lecture yesterday, entitled “Courting Disaster? The Worldwide Revolution in Marriage,” something quite unexpected occurred: her cell phone rang. While this event may have been an unforeseen and unwelcome turn of events, Coontz dealt with it in the best way she could, she quipped a joke. “It’s probably my husband,” she said.

This attitude of accepting change, welcome or not, is the same attitude Coontz applies to the changes that have occurred in marriage. Coontz, the author of several books on matrimony, including, most recently, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, is a professor at Evergreen State College.

In Coontz’s opinion, the best way to deal with the unexpected twists that marriage as an institution has taken is not to wish them away, but to consider the best and most productive ways in which to deal with them.

“The right research question is not what kind of families do we wish people live in, but what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths and work on their weaknesses,” she said.

To help the audience better understand these changes, Coontz characterized them within the framework of a balance that has been shifting since the 18th century: as marriage’s power in society has weakened, the personal relationships within in it have gotten stronger. This inverse relationship, Coontz explained, is quite logical.

“What makes an institution strong? Rigid rules, structure. Those are the very sorts of things that don’t make a relationship satisfying. The same things that strengthen the institution may weaken the relationship,” she said.

Essentially, what lay behind Coontz’s theory is the idea that when marriage is the factor around which a society is based, the relationship between the individuals in it is weakened, because they are bound out of obligation, not love.

In its earliest stages, said Coontz, the obligatory attitude towards marriage was at its strongest. In order to survive on a social and economic level, one had to enter in marriage pact. As such, the personal relationships that existed within these marriages were not only unimportant, they were non-existent. Coontz explained: “People worked in their marriage, but not at it. Both parities could make each other fairly miserable.”

In the 18th century, the balance began to shift. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution brought new ideas not only in the political spectrum, but also in the marital spectrum. As people began to appreciate ideals of independence and to challenge the establishment, they also began to form new ideas about marriage. For the first time, people considered the idea that one should marry only for love, not for political or economic well-being.

Marriage’s central role in society continued to decline gradually into the 20th century and then plunged in the 1920s. With the advent of contraceptives and new attitudes towards sex, some of the obligations individuals had previously felt towards marriages were removed, Coontz explained.

During the 1930s and 40s, Americans were occupied with the Depression and World War II, thus any changes in the institution of marriage were put on hold. These events were not inconsequential in the history of marriage, however, because they greatly shaped attitudes towards it in the 1950s.

During the 1950s, as a reaction to the tumult of the prior two decades, individuals began to place more power in the institution of marriage as a stabilizer and normalizer. Both the government and media, said Coontz, pointed to the institution and said: “If you want happiness, here’s the way to do it.”

As Coontz’s balance theory would suggest, as society’s focus on marriage began to increase again, the happiness of individuals in it decreased. According to Coontz, in a poll taken during the time, although 97 percent of housewives claimed they were happy, more than 90 percent also said they did not want their daughters to have the same life.

As it turned out, their daughters, in fact, did not live the same lives as their mothers. In the generations after the 1950s, marriage arrived to its current state. Coontz went into detail about the way in which this marriage and marriages of the past differ.

First, women in a marriage now control income, and thus “do not need to enter nor stay in a marriage to survive,” Coontz said. As a result, marriages have become “more egalitarian, and more satisfied.”

Furthermore, there no longer exists penalties for having children born out of wedlock, thus one does not need to be the child of a married couple in order to have various legal rights. The result of this “huge social reform,” according to Coontz, is that it “ended marriage’s monopoly over legal rights” but, at the same time, “weakened the institution of marriage.”

The decision not to have children at all is also changing the nature of marriage, according to Coontz.

“Children are no longer the automatic, essential aspect of marriage,” she explained. Thus, marriage in its classic sense, is no longer “the central glue” of society.

Finally, the age at which individuals have decided to marry has also changed. Young adults are waiting longer to get married, said Coontz, and, as a result, they spend more time experiencing “the rights of adulthood” on their own. The consequence, of course, is that marriage is no longer is the pinnacle of adulthood. As a result, it loses weight as a “central institution.”

The idea that marriage may not be the buttress of society, for many, according to Coontz, is troubling. In Coontz’s opinion, however, it is also a reality. In order to deal with this reality, Coontz suggest not that we attempt to change it, but that we find a way to incorporate it.

“Marriage coexists with many other ways of organizing your life. The thing that gets me about current debate is that we can do both at once, it doesn’t need to be either/or.”

Lisa Kwok grad, who attended the lecture, agreed with this conception of marriage saying: “In order to understand marriage is the current discourse, it is important to understand to where we’re coming from, and to base that on ideals is a bad policy.”

According to Meg Gardinier grad, however, Coontz’s attitude was not fully satisfying.

“I feel that her general approach is a little bit too passive,” she said. “We just need to look at what is, and adjust our policy to respond to that. To me, unfortunately, marriage is a normative social structure – for academics, we have to look more innovatively at what marriage could be, can be and should not be.”

Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Staff Writer