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Love or money: the matrimonial mystique.

Discussed in this essay:

Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. Viking, 2005. 448 pages. $29.95.

Reading a book on the history of marriage written by a self-proclaimed happily married historian--one who holds that these days "most marriages are pretty happy"--you can't help but imagine (in Borgesian fashion, since every text has its shadow text) the as-yet-unwritten companion volume, the longue duree of marriage by the unhappily married historian, the one staying together "for the sake of the kids" or under some other neurotic pact, whose marital bickering sessions punctuate assorted social events; the one with a retinue of therapists and counselors on speed dial who learns his wife is having an affair just as he's finishing up his chapter on courtly love. How would that history of marriage get told?

For that book we will have to wait. Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage is largely an upbeat tale of a protean, continually evolving, increasingly flexible social institution, one that enhances the well-being of its participants more these days than ever before, with men and women moving closer to the egalitarian ideal, enjoying more intimacy and better sex. The hero of this cheery connubial tale is love, or, more precisely, the invention of the love-based marriage by choice. And no, the numerous upheavals undergone by the marital enterprise over the last thirty years are not plummeting us all toward imminent social decline, as the conservative set so fears. Yes, there may be a decreasing number of individuals who choose to tie that knot; and yes, divorce rates for first marriages continue to hover around 43 percent; but the upside is that the marriages that do somehow manage to survive must be exceptionally harmonious and mutually fulfilling. Or so this historian avers, apparently never having attended a dinner party like the one I was at recently, where two long-married couples spent the evening addressing their respective mates in tones of such subtle and well-honed contempt that they would have chilled Edward Albee.

Of course, the idea that marriage should provide its habitues with such benefits as personal fulfillment and mutual sexual gratification is altogether a recent invention. The premise that love is a good enough reason for embarking on marriage took grip only in the late eighteenth century, and then only in Western Europe and North America, concomitant with other sweeping political changes during the era, from the spread of a market economy and the rise of individualism to the invention of the novel. This part of the story has been told often enough; the point that Stephanie Coontz wishes to make--after leading us through a whirlwind history, a fascinating cross-cultural expedition beginning with coupledom in hunter-gatherer societies and winding up in the thickets of contemporary gay-marriage debates--is that the love marriage, regarded by so many as a happy development in human history, was also what undermined marital stability, causing untold trauma to marriage as a social institution and to all those tormented spouses whose affinity for each other proved not as eternal as they'd once so headily vowed. The soul-mate syndrome is also what sows the seeds of marital destruction.

In other words, despite Coontz's efforts to provide readers with a cheery story arc, her history of marriage is also highly conflicted and not entirely consistent, which seems only fitting these days. After all, ambivalence suffuses the subject, in addition to suffusing the nation's households, which means that any credible history of marriage rites through the ages will also be, of necessity, a history of divorce procedures through the ages. Once love marriages became the norm, those trapped in unloving ones began demanding legal egress. Arranged marriages at least had the virtue of low romantic expectations; marriages entered into by choice necessitated divorce as a safety valve--errors do occur, and people do change (or, more alarmingly, mutate into entirely opposite personality types from the one you thought you'd pledged yourself to). A big problem--one of many--was that as the ideal of marital intimacy spread, the definition of what constituted intimacy was also being ratcheted up to stratospheric, and frequently impossible, proportions. Consequently, dissatisfaction with the failure to achieve or maintain such intimacy was also on the rise--at least among the couples who managed to stop fighting long enough to notice how miserable they were with those supposed soul mates who proved emotionally remote or incessantly demanding, who didn't care about your needs or were caught pursuing alternative intimacies in non-marital venues. The "romantic love complex," as sociologist Anthony Giddens calls it, has an intrinsically subversive character: the conditions that make it possible simultaneously undermine it.

Yet our culture hardly invented divorce. Despite present-day fretting about the divorce epidemic and all the finger-wagging at modern culture for its rampant individualism and sexual loucheness, divorce has been common at numerous points in history, from ancient Rome on through the Middle Ages. It was only toward the end of the eighth century that the Catholic Church began imposing stricter limits on splitting up--and sorry, no remarriage except in cases of annulment. (Annulment was no walk in the park either, as grounds were limited, too: a husband's impotence was one permissible reason, but this had to be proven before witnesses, entailing humiliating semipublic rituals to test the claim.)

It wasn't until the sixteenth century on the Continent and 1753 in England that legal formalities to validate marriages were even instituted; prior to that, a declaration that you had already married sufficed. When the church and later the state started sticking their noses into the marriage business, elaborate rules and rituals, licenses and restrictions, began to be imposed. Political theorists have elsewhere made the point that one of the ways that state power consolidated itself in its early, more insecure days was by asserting control over popular and informal local customs such as marriage rites; licensing marriage and regulating divorce were formative elements in the evolution of modern statehood. Obviously, to the extent that the state could intervene in the daily lives of the citizenry, its power grew. Unregulated populations were potentially seditious ones.

Today, submitting to such regulations seems entirely natural, but let's not forget that licensing our life decisions (not to mention regulating desire) remains a tool of modern population management. So the next time you file for divorce, amidst the angst and sense of personal failure, take a moment to consider why the state wants to dictate the conditions under which love's dissolution may occur--particularly in states like New York, where enmity for your spouse, or the simple desire for a happier life, does not qualify as sufficient grounds for divorce. You will have to declare adultery or abandonment to succeed, unless you have already spent a year apart from each other. One of the many interesting marital factoids to be found in the pages of Marriage, a History is that spouse murders and suicides both drop when unilateral divorce is made available.

What an unwieldy tale the history of marriage proves to be, continually doubling back on itself, ever contradictory. For every example of some time-honored marital custom, for every assumption about what's "natural" between a man and a woman, a counterexample can be found somewhere else. On the one hand, the "'til death do us part" version of matrimony; on the other, temporary marriages, couple trading, places where husbands are not permitted to live with their wives, places where unmarried couples may have sex but not eat together, and certain Native American cultures that allow you to marry someone of your own sex as long as you or your spouse performs the labor traditionally assigned to the opposite sex. And one society, the Na of southwestern China, for whom marriage does not exist. It's all very confusing: at one moment divorce is common; at another, taboo, as with adultery and illegitimacy. The progress, such as it is, isn't linear. In fact, as Coontz points out, the current condition of marriage--including the prevalence of premarital sex and cohabitation, frequent divorce and remarriage--seems to have much in common with the informal ways of marriage in preindustrial communities, with unions contracted and dissolved in an altogether casual manner, and with the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate births not particularly crucial. In those preindustrial communities, marriage often occurred only after childbirth; an historian who examined birth records for one small town in England between 1270 and 1348 found that the illegitimacy rate ran to 33 percent.

But then you find that other attitudes and practices have moved in an entirely opposite direction: adultery, for instance, seems to be rather more frowned upon these days than previously. Coontz speculates that more couples now expect fidelity from each other than in the past precisely because divorce is more readily available, thus leaving fewer excuses not to honor marital commitments. She also tells us that the percentage of people who believe it's okay to cheat, lie, or keep secrets in a marriage has fallen over the past forty years, though she fails to tell us what percentage of people do so anyway. (One senses a certain inattention to the frequently substantial gaps between what people profess to believe and what they actually do when the lights are out.) Of course, all sexual self-reporting is notoriously unreliable. Peruse contemporary sex surveys and you will learn that adultery rates vary between 15 and 70 percent depending on the survey, or perhaps on the degree of selective amnesia accompanying the experience. And on the whole, mutual fidelity is actually not the sine qua non of marriage: Coontz cites a study of 109 societies, in which anthropologists found that only 48 forbade extramarital sex to both husbands and wives. Unfortunately, we don't learn whether these prohibitions are formal or informal, observed or breached. Taboos invite violation; adultery may be formally prohibited and also tacitly sanctioned.

Coontz tries to find her way in this tortuous human mess by selecting a through line to impose on it, the story about the growing influence of love on marriage over the last couple of centuries. Of course, love itself has meant many different things through the ages, and although Coontz is critical about the propensity to project our own marital inclinations back upon history so as to validate present models, when it comes to love, things get a little fuzzy: the story starts running into difficulty with itself. In Coontz's telling, marriage has historically been a malleable institution, incorporated into existing social purposes both political and economic. For instance, consider the effect of the early accumulation of wealth and growing economic inequality on the notion of an "acceptable" match in ancient societies. As families started hoarding wealth and the older communal models withered away, as economic differentiation became the social norm, wealthier kin groups began refusing to marry into the more impoverished branches. So marriage, at this juncture, stopped being a way of forming reciprocity between groups and started becoming a way of consolidating resources; for this reason, mate choices became increasingly restricted. In later periods, marriage would play an equally important role in promoting political alliances between kingdoms and rulers in times of political strife or palace intrigue. Marrying for political and economic advantage remained standard until the gradual adoption of the love-marriage model in Western Europe.

Up until this point in Coontz's narrative, we've been the beneficiaries of her nuanced treatment of the varied roles played by the marriage enterprise in successive modes of social organization across cultures. At one moment the communal aspect is dominant, at another the economic, at another the political, and so on. In other words, marriage was subsumed to various larger purposes whatever those purposes happened to be; it was never a self-governing entity piloting its own boat. It's when we reach the modern period that the story takes a sharp turn; as does, in a bit of methodological whiplash, Coontz's historical approach. Suddenly, marriage is granted a surprising--and questionable--degree of autonomy, as if the economic and political determinations on personal life had unaccountably withered away and coupledom now occupied its own separate sphere, operating by its own private rules, cordoned off in a protective bubble. Suddenly, it's love running the whole show--acting as the new motor of history, shaping social reality to suit its purposes, triumphing over all the cold calculations of the past. Plus, Coontz insists, inserting herself into the story, all this is a really good thing. Somewhere between chapter breaks, the historian's critical distance has been dropped and cheerleader's pom-poms have been donned, with Coontz describing modern marriage in such glowing terms--"joyful," "loving," "egalitarian"--that married readers may be tempted to ask what she's on. Needless to say, those joyful marriages will require hard work (that annoying and currently inescapable therapeutic mantra), but Coontz, now in plant-foreman overalls, regards all this as an obvious good.

Sure, those of us ensconced in modern coupledom may feel as though we're in our own private bubble; yes, personal life appears to us as autonomous and freely chosen; but notice how we move through our assigned paces in lockstep with all the other equally "autonomous individuals" of our time, each of us exercising our free choices in the same narrowly confined ticky-tacky boxes. To declare that the love marriage constitutes some kind of historical break with the social controls of the past is to succumb to a certain ... romanticism. If in every period in history marriage has been co-opted by the prevailing forms of social and political power, on what account have the causality arrows so radically reversed themselves in the modern period?

A different way of reading the present marital moment might be to observe the ways that older models of marrying for economic or political advantage have simply become incorporated into modern procedures. Perhaps things have changed less on the mate-selection front than we'd like to imagine. Admitting as much conflicts with the desire to tout the decline of arranged marriages as a sign of our progress and enlightenment (a card frequently played these days when seeking to score political points against Islam, with the monogamous love marriage touted in propaganda for modernity), but let's be frank: to what extent do we really get to love whomever and however we please? Economic rationality was hardly eliminated when individuals began choosing their own mates instead of leaving the job to parents, since the vast majority of us do somehow manage to select partners remarkably similar to ourselves--economically, and in social standing, education, and race--even without parental oversight. That is, we choose "appropriate" mates, and we calculate their assets to the decimal point: each party gauges just how well he or she can do on the open market, knowing exactly his or her own exchange value (which includes attractiveness, finances, cultural capital) and that of prospective partners. Scratch the romantic veneer, and you'll find hardnosed realists armed with inner pocket calculators. As sociologist Eva Illouz argues in Consuming the Romantic Utopia (1997), the real transformation of modern love is that ranking mates for material and social assets is now incorporated into unconscious structures of desire. We've managed to internalize the economic rationality once exerted by parents, "freely" falling in love with mates who are also, coincidentally, good investments. Marrying down isn't the norm, though certain assets are fungible categories: rich ugly men can nab beautiful younger women and, once in a while, vice versa.

Economic rationality in mate selection is now largely tacit in mainstream speech codes rather than the open matter it once was, and to ensure that it stays tacit we've devised a useful vocabulary of vaguely metaphysical terms like "chemistry" and "clicking." (More accurate terms like "economic self-interest" aren't considered polite.) We do retain slightly dusty phrases like "gold digger" or "fortune hunter" for those who jump rank (or aren't subtle enough about their economic motives for current sensitivities), and "good provider" or "security" may occasionally be invoked favorably in middle-class conversation, but their usage is strictly governed. Discussing economic rationality in too much detail tends to be regarded as either declasse or cold. Despite all our supposed modern freedoms, the social rules governing mate selection are as finicky and precise as they were in Jane Austen's day. The main difference is that it's now taboo to acknowledge them. So does this amount to more freedom or less?

Because Coontz is so committed to the premise that previous models of marriage were constricting and that the love revolution subverted preindustrial-age conformity, she can be a tad oblivious about the equally constricting aspects of modern love and coupledom. In Marriage, a History, what you don't find much of, once we arrive at the present, is the texture of life as it's actually lived; on the interplay between subjectivity and history, Coontz's vantage veers toward the Olympian rather than the street or the kitchen. It may be technically accurate to say that urbanization allowed the freedom of greater anonymity and that certain barriers to personal autonomy, such as the influence of relatives and neighbors, have eroded, but look around: it's not as though herdlike behavior is in any danger of extinction. It simply comes in different guises, like the velvet-glove authoritarianism of therapy culture, with all its constricting notions of "healthy relationships." Or in the invention of new pathologies like "sex addiction" or "fear of intimacy," disorders virtually unknown to humankind fifty years ago, yet requiring immediate and extensive treatment, upon successful completion of which such strictures will have become internalized and self-enforced. The prying eyes of fellow villagers may be things of the past, but given the self-policing capacities of the modern individual, the celebration of personal autonomy seems a little premature.

The second installment of Coontz's triumph-of-love narrative concerns the effect of the love revolution on women's quest for gender equality. The story of female social progress gets a new twist here: it wasn't early feminism or the suffragist movement so much as the evolution of marital intimacy that got the ball rolling on the whole female-emancipation thing. After all, Coontz surmises, how could men maintain the "head of the household" role with an intimate partner? When the desire for marital closeness smacked up against the rigidity of nineteenth-century gender roles, it was the gender roles that crumbled, destabilizing male hierarchy; when love began to be valued over wifely obedience, domestic violence started to lose its social legitimacy as the default enforcer of wifely compliance. So the cult of married love wasn't only gratifying at the individual level: as these domestic transformations percolated out into the wider world, increasing social equality between men and women was the happy result.

Although Coontz does acknowledge that men, throughout the course of history, have used marriage to exploit women's labor and appropriate their property, she's quick to assert that marriage was never in itself a form of slavery as feminist critics have occasionally charged, since nothing in it inherently requires one half of the union to oppress the other. Besides, the amount of male dominance in effect has varied with every different cultural arrangement. (Male readers will be pleased to know that Coontz's account of patriarchy's origins is the guy-friendly version: she believes it was the invention of the plow that subordinated women, rather than any intrinsically male desire for domination. Plows required greater strength, consequently diminishing the value of women's agricultural labor in relation to men's and shunting them into domestic labor and childrearing--where they would be stuck and pissed off for the next few millennia. In addition there was the spread of warfare, largely a male pursuit, and ultimately more significant in the shaping of human history than female endeavors back on the home front.)

Numerous factors and technologies contributed to reshaping modern family arrangements, from the reform of marital property laws to the invention of reliable birth control. But more than anything, as Coontz points out, it was the entry of women into the labor force throughout the twentieth century that shook the foundations of marriage. Women's workforce participation had increased in every decade of the twentieth century, and during the 1970s the combination of economic recession, inflation, and rising housing costs propelled married women into the workforce in record numbers. At the same time, feminism was offering a new language to vent long-standing anger between the sexes; working women were forcing the housework question on recalcitrant hubbies; and the ascendancy of therapy culture was encouraging everyone--male and female--to articulate their discontent. Divorce rates more than doubled between 1966 and 1979 and birthrates continued to drop following the introduction of the pill in 1960, leaving women with time to contemplate their circumstances and an increasing number of post-childrearing years to spend cultivating dislike for their husbands. With new possibilities for economic independence from men, more women were free to leave unsatisfying marriages, which also meant they tended to make more demands on the ones they chose to stay in. As we learn here, perhaps surprisingly, most divorces are initiated by women; in one study, only a quarter of divorces were unilaterally sought by men.

Which brings us to the present moment, widely construed as one of crisis. Marriage is the new disease of the week, with outlandish cures regularly proposed, such as the Bush Administration's $1.5 billion initiative announced last year to promote "healthy" marriage to low-income couples. But, Coontz reveals, the crisis-in-marriage rhetoric is hardly new: marriage has been "in crisis" for thousands of years, though different culprits are always to blame. None of our own present marital dilemmas are particularly new either: high divorce rates afflicted the Romans, and "blended families" have had a long precedent, given high mortality rates and frequent remarriage. Practically every culture, from the ancient Greeks to our own, invented some past golden age of supposed marital stability with which to compare present woes: ours is the 1950s-era male-breadwinner, stay-at-home-morn family arrangement, frequently held up by social conservatives as the most "natural" model for marriage. In fact, this kind of relationship was quite a short-lived affair, reigning supreme for a brief twenty-year period before it fell apart in the 1970s.

Coontz might have added that the role of stay-at-home mom espoused by conservatives is, ironically, entirely incompatible with the economic policies they also promote, unconstrained market capitalism having been far more radical in destabilizing the middle-class family than anything ever dreamed up by radical feminists. Although feminism often gets the credit (or the blame) for propelling women into the workforce, let's give credit where credit is actually due: the transition from an industrial economy to an information society required new kinds of workers, and women offered an available, cheaper, and typically more acquiescent labor pool.

Indeed, as women gained economic ground over the last twenty-five years, men have lost it--and in absolute terms, not just relative to women. According to new wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men's wages have stagnated or dropped in the same period that women were making such gains. (Women now make 80 cents for every male dollar--up from 62 cents twenty-five years ago.) In other words, the dirty little economic secret of our time is this: the job market played women against men to depress wages. Or, to put it more contentiously, was equity feminism the unwitting shill for the scorched-earth labor policies of the new economy? And even though women have achieved increasing economic independence from men, what this really means is not exactly "independence," as Berkeley sociologist Neil Gilbert points out in a recent article in Society, but merely a shift in dependency from husbands to the vagaries of the job market: to bosses, customers, and time clocks. Women can now be overworked, soulless, corporate drones just like men--what a great accomplishment for us!

So what's the denouement for the matrimonial enterprise? The meaning of marriage is being redefined as a result of seismic economic shifts, the roles of men and women are being transformed, and everyone is scrambling to wrest some personal happiness out of the situation. But is it really the case, as Coontz suggests, that "marriage has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life"? The distinction between being married and unmarried remains a primary marker of identity; marriage remains, for the majority of the citizenry, the presumptive venue of emotional gratification, despite its regular failure to provide it. But do we expect so much from our mates these days because we get so little back everywhere else? In this respect, maybe the good news is the high divorce rate. At least it demonstrates, as nothing else does in national life at the moment, that some residual expectation of the good life persists, even while all its traditional components, such as basic economic security, are being radically redefined downward or yanked out from under us. If only the married classes could transport their increasingly high expectations of their spouses onto jobs, politicians, and our government; if only other social contracts and vows beside the matrimonial ones were up for reexamination ... then what other ossified, unresponsive institutions would be next on the emergency list?

Laura Kipnis is a professor of media studies at Northwestern University and the author of Against Love: A Polemic (Vintage).
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Title Annotation:book by Stephanie Coontz
Author:Kipnis, Laura
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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