The thesis of this most interesting book by a Cambridge University psychologist (Richards) and a sociologist (Reibstein) is that the institution of modern marriage is ``inherently unstable'' because it's based on a set of impossible ideals. According to the authors (who spent ten years conducting 200 interviews in America and Britain for their study), the Anglo- American marriage model ascendant today is sexually exclusive, intimate, and companionate—in marked difference to, say, Victorian marriage, which had more to do with the exchange of property and the tactic acceptance of infidelity (at least on the man's part). Reibstein and Richards believe that adultery can be studied only in this context, and that modern marriage impels spouses toward affairs that must be kept secret—a secrecy the authors consider more damaging than the affairs themselves. Fascinating, seemingly contradictory facts are noted along the way: that most adulterers are deeply attached to the idea of a sexually exclusive marriage even though they play around; that sexual frequency and satisfaction levels drop in marriage despite an increased emphasis on fidelity. The source of the sexually exclusive, intimate marriage model is traced back to the primary, mother-child relationship, and gender differences regarding how people pursue and feel about sex are studied as well—with a general disavowal of biological causes for these differences. Three types of marriages are given as a kind of menu of choices: the companionate, sexually exclusive model; open marriage (still a rare bird); and the segmented version, in which spouses seek from other sources whatever their partners can't provide. The authors do a lot of dot-connecting to substantiate their thesis and aren't scrupulous about identifying their sources. Nor do they move beyond criticism to point the way to something better. But in dispassionately assessing the nature and effects of marriage as our culture practices it, they reach the intellectual—if not the moral—nub of the matter. A decidedly challenging book.
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