I have commented fairly extensively on different aspects of the history of marriage in The Last Psychoanalyst, so I was happy to read that expert Stephanie Coontz agrees with some of my observations. As might be expected, I agree with some of hers. On other matters we respectfully disagree.
In my book I emphasized that marriage has rarely had anything to do with romantic love. People did not start marrying for love until the early 16th century in Europe and they did not institutionalize love marriage until 17th century England. The champions of love marriage were, of course, the unfairly maligned Puritans.
Coontz believes that love triumphed over marriage. I believe that freedom won out.
Marriage underwent its most significant change when women were given the freedom to choose their husbands. Some women must have chosen to marry for love, but, obviously, women are perfectly capable of taking into consideration the many other factors that make up a durable and happy marriage. To think that women are led around by their emotions or that they make major life decisions for sentimental reasons is slightly demeaning.
This difference noted, we examine the views of Coontz:
Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.
In ancient India, falling in love before marriage was seen as a disruptive, almost antisocial act… In China, excessive love between husband and wife was seen as a threat to the solidarity of the extended family.
Marriage has always been a foundational social institution. The survival of one’s genes and one’s culture depends on it. Since most people at most times in human history married when very young, it made sense that adults would not want to trust such an important decision to callow adolescents.
Besides, Coontz continues, if marriage was based on love, the loss of love would be grounds for divorce. Thus, love marriage would be socially destabilizing:
People correctly recognized that marriages based on love were potentially very destabilizing. It was going to lead people to demand divorce if the love died. It was going to lead to people refusing to get married. They were very frightened by this and they thought, “How can we get people to get married and stay married?”
As it happens, in most parts of the world today, marriages are either arranged or semi-arranged. Even in America, where young people want to marry someone they love, but they do not fall in love with just anyone. They take other factors into consideration. If you ignore all of the social implications and run off with someone you love but who is unacceptable to your family and friends, you will have problems.
As Coontz describes today’s marriage, she seems to emphasize ideology more than love. She seems to believe that a marriage of equals is necessarily going to be a love marriage. And yet, marrying for love and marrying according to an ideology are not the same They need not coincide. If Coontz confuses the two, she is in error.
Many of today’s young people believe in a marriage of equals, in marriage as a statement, in marriage making a political point. And yet, on the most practical level, a woman who defers marriage will often find that she will not be marrying the man of her dreams and the love of her life. As a woman gets older, her options decrease and she will often find that she has to settle.
Regardless of whether it is a love match, in a marriage of equals the old rules, Coontz explains, no longer pertain. Such are the wages of politicizing the institution. She means that neither party is bound by the old rules or the old roles. Coontz considers this to be a great opportunity, even though she recognizes that it produces unnecessary stress.
Allow Coontz her say:
The fact that individuals can now lead productive lives outside marriage means that partners need to be more “intentional” than in the past about finding reasons and rituals to help them stay together. A marriage that survives and thrives in today’s climate of choice is likely to be far more satisfying, fair, and effective for the partners and their children than in the past. However, couples have to think carefully about what it takes to build, deepen, and sustain commitments that are now almost completely voluntary.
The notion that the choice of a spouse has now become almost completely voluntary is an illusion. Coontz recognizes it when she says that people should think deeply about their decisions. If they do, their choices cannot be as nearly completely voluntary. They might, however, be willful.
I emphasize that if you fail to take into account the views of those near and dear to you, you will be imposing someone on them whom they may not like. And this will cause you all manner of grief in the future.
Coontz is enamored with the idea of overcoming reasons and rituals. So much so that she considers it inevitable. She offers a different picture of marriage:
You can no longer force your partner to conform to a predetermined social role or gender stereotype or browbeat someone into staying in an unsatisfying relationship. “Love, honor, and negotiate” have to replace the older rigid rules, say psychologists Betty Carter and Joan Peters.
Here she seems to believe that one must choose between coercion and chaos. She is echoing an old feminist notion, to the effect that the only reason women wanted to be mothers to their children, even to the point of working less, was that they were forced to do so.
Over time, cultures have developed rules and roles in order to make marriage more efficient, more effective and more economical. If you need to negotiate every dish, or every chopped carrot or the vast number of activities that need to be coordinated to have a harmonious marriage, you will be spending an ungodly amount of time in conversations that might easily lead to confrontation and drama.
If you choose to waste that much time on unnecessary activities, you are free to do so.
And yet, a marriage where the least gesture must be negotiated will often descend into a power struggle. After a time, women might find that they would rather be alone and men might decide to run off with the nanny—who observes more traditional rules and plays a more traditional role. Of course, not every family has a young nanny… and not every man can afford a divorce. Many of today’s modern marriages stay together because no one can afford divorce and because divorce is bad for the children.
Strangely enough, Coontz has no problem with a marriage filled with constant bickering. One does not understand why she prefers it to harmony, but here is her rationale:
Bickering is absolutely vital to a modern couple coming to marriage with their own habits and expectations and histories. It turns out that 10 years down the line, the couples that didn’t bicker are either divorced or less satisfied with their marriage than the ones who do bicker.
Bickering takes time and energy. It does not advance anything. Those who prefer not to bicker might have decided that a marriage of equals, a marriage where everything is subject to constant negotiation is not worth the trouble. Of course, bickering and negotiating are not the same thing.
Today marriage is, above all, a relationship. What makes it a good relationship is that you can enter it or not; you get to choose. You get to change your mind. You get to renegotiate the rules over time. You can leave it if it ceases to be good, and that means that you have more negotiating power within it. But it also means that if you can’t negotiate it to mutual satisfaction, it can break up. The same things that have improved marriage as a relationship have made it less stable as an institution and have required us to do more continuous work and change in our marriages than people used to have to.
In truth, marriage is a social institution. When you consider it to be an expression of love or a political statement, you weaken it. If you make it into a relationship that can be entered into or dissolved at will, you will be diminishing it and will also destabilize the home life of far too many children.
A married couple is involved in a relationship, but there are many different kinds of relationships and it is wrong to believe that they are all the same.
The best marriages are not filled with constant bickering. They might begin by trying to recreate the institution to suit them, but they often find it too taxing and too disagreeable. At best, they will revert to the mean or to the norm. It beats wasting your time trying to reinvent the wheel.