How the marriage institution has evolved, from primitive societies to the present.
Coontz (Family Studies/Evergreen State) turns from scrutiny of the family (The Way We Really Are, 1997, etc.) to examination of marriage itself. With a host of examples, she considers the long-established system of marriages as they were arranged for economic, social and political advantage. These involved the input of parents, in-laws, siblings, rival nobles, concubines and, after the Middle Ages, popes, bishops and church reformers as well. This system, Coontz finds, remained the norm until the 18th century, when the spread of the market economy and the beginning of the Enlightenment brought profound changes. By the end of that century, the model of a love-based, male-protector marriage was firmly in place, with men and women seen as occupying separate spheres of existence, each dependent on the other and each incomplete without marriage. While the early-20th century saw changes in sexual expressiveness and relations between the sexes, the love-based model persisted, culminating in “the golden age of marriage” in the 1950s. It was, Coontz says, a “unique moment in the history of marriage,” a time when breadwinner husband and stay-at-home mom were considered the norm, and marriage provided the context for the greater part of most people’s lives. While short-lived, the 1950s model has come to be regarded by many as “traditional marriage,” an ideal whose decline is mourned. Coontz, however, exposes that view as shortsighted. Using both story and statistic, she demonstrates that for most of human history marriage has been an alliance held together by outside forces, and that an array of societal transformations continue even now to shape the institution. Just as the long-lived economic/political model can’t be revived, she counsels, neither can the 1950s “traditional” model. In her concluding chapters, she examines the pluses and minuses of contemporary marriage and looks at the value of alternatives.
A rich, provocative and entertaining social history.