Since everyone loves a pop quiz, apply your mental skills to this: Is the following statement true or false?
Throughout history, philosophers and theologians have always believed that strong marital commitments form the foundation of a virtuous society.
The answer, much to the chagrin of those who currently profess the sanctity of marriage, is false. In ancient Rome, philosophers and theologians believed loving your spouse too much was akin to adultery; early Christians, on the other hand, thought marriage was tainted by the dreadful three-letter word: S-E-X. But what about today? What do we think about marriage now? Chances are, Stephanie Coontz has the answers.
To put it mildly, Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, could teach most of us about "that something with a capital 'M'." Much of it she's learned since the mid-'90s, when reporters started asking her if the institution of marriage was crumbling. What she found out during her ensuing investigations surprised her.
For one, she discovered that practically every marital and sexual combination seen in the U.S. in recent years has been tried, somewhere else, before. Yet the concept of marrying for love, which is the driving force behind most contemporary marriages in the country, is a practice that dates back only a few hundred years. And that nearly every society imagines a "marriage crisis," though one brought about by different culprits.
These days in the U.S., this "crisis" is typified for some by a number of states pushing for marriage equality, which would allow any two consenting adults, regardless of gender, the legal right to wed. But, as California's divisive Proposition 8 proved last November, many still see marriage as a union between a man and a woman. (Fifty-two percent of state voters approved that initiative, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.)
And so it was that last week Coontz, currently the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, offered a mini-history of marriage. Speaking by phone, she debunked the myth of "traditional marriage," recounted what love did to marriage, and described why the 1950s -- sorry, Ozzie and Harriet -- didn't constitute marriage's golden era.
Today's an auspicious day to talk about marriage, given that the California Supreme Court just heard arguments on the future of Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages in California. What have you learned about our beliefs around marriage from everything that's gone down with Prop. 8?
Well, I think that one of the big myths around marriage is that there is such a thing as a traditional marriage. The idea that traditional marriage, for example, is one man-one woman is not borne out by history. Actually, the type of marriage preferred by more societies than any other -- by 70 percent, in fact -- is polygamy. That is: one man-many women. But there have also been societies in which there have been one woman-several men; societies in which two living human beings have not been married together; [or] that a person -- a man or a woman -- has been married to the ghost of a child of another family who didn't live long enough, called "ghost marriages" or "spirit marriages." There even have been same-sex marriages: There have been at least 30 societies in Africa, and several in traditional Native American societies, where two people of the same gender could marry.
Where do you think our societal perception comes from, this male/female, man/woman as the traditional marriage?
Well, there's one kernel of truth in it. Throughout most of history marriage was based upon a division of labor by gender, a very rigid division. Men did one sort of job and women did another. And if you look at the same-sex marriages in history, they were almost always where one of the partners, even though they were the same sex, played a different gender role. So a woman who amassed cattle or wealth in Africa might become a female husband and have the social prerogatives of a male. Or say in a Native American society, a man who did not want to play the hunting or warrior role might take on some of the tasks traditionally associated with females and be the wife, so to speak, of a male. But let me add one other thing: It was heterosexuals who actually pioneered this idea of a gender-neutral marriage over the last 30 years. So to the extent that the kind of marriage being demanded by same-sex advocates is radical -- it is radical -- it's a radical innovation that heterosexuals pioneered.
Can you talk a little bit more about how?
Well, through most of history marriage was a relationship that gave men power over women. Just take for example Western Anglo-Saxon history. In the Middle Ages, and even in colonial America, disobedience to the husband or father was seen as a small form of treason. The man had the power to physically imprison his wife, to beat her -- within reason -- but their idea of reason was very different from ours. When married, the wife lost her independent legal existence. The man owned all the property that she brought with her or that she earned.
Now, by the end of the 19th century this type of inequality had begun to decrease. But up until the 1980s, the law still defined marriage in terms of very specific, distinctive gender roles. It was the man's duty -- but not the woman's -- to support the family; it was the woman's duty -- but not the man's -- to provide sex, take care of the children, keep the house clean. It was really only in the 1980s that the courts began to rule that marriage was a relationship between two individuals, who had equal rights, equal responsibilities, and who could negotiate for themselves who did what in marriage.
There seems to be this belief that there's this halcyon age of marriage. But was there?
Through most of history, it certainly was not. Through history, yes, marriages were more stable, but that was because you had fewer options. You couldn't leave a marriage, especially a woman, if [your] husband mistreated [you]. In the mid-19th century, a man could leave a marriage if his wife committed adultery; a woman could only leave a marriage if the man committed adultery and did something else. It was very difficult to leave a marriage just because you were unhappy or because your partner did not love you.
Now, the one place that seemed in retrospect to us more idyllic was the 1950s. At least wife beating was at least disapproved of. But in fact there was plenty of misery: A third of all the marriages formed in the 1950s eventually ended in divorce. So I think that although the 1950s was in some ways an easier [time] to start a family -- real wages were rising for the poorest, there was lots more government support for young families, there was a tremendous attempt to make housing affordable for young families -- when we look at the internal dynamics of family life, I don't think very many people, especially women, would like to go back.
You brought up the word "love." So how has romantic love impacted our ideas about marriage?
Well, it's worth reminding your readers that romantic love, through most of history, was something that existed outside of marriage and apart from marriage. Love was considered to be a very bad reason to get married.
It's really not until the late 18th century that Western society begins to accept the idea that young people should be able to choose their own mate instead of having their parents choose -- and that they should be encouraged to do so on the basis of what would make them happy. And this Love Revolution, as I've called it, was something that was greeted with considerable alarm by social conservatives. They said, "If we allow people to marry for love they're not going to marry the right people. They might even refuse to get married. And they're certainly going to demand the right to divorce." And I think the social conservatives were right: Today's high rates of divorce were actually built into the very invention of the love-match that we now think of as the ideal marriage. But until the 1970s, that instability was held in check by women's economic dependence on men, by the ability of employers and political elites to penalize men and women who weren't married by a certain age or who were divorced. It's really only in the late 1960s and 1970s that the social controls over personal life began to erode, and women began to gain enough economic independence to make decisions based on their heart rather than their wallet. Well, rather than the man's wallet. [Laughs.]
What about religion?
One thing that people tend to forget is that in the Western tradition, marriage has never been validated by the churches. The Catholic church took the position, and held this up till the 16th century, that if a man and a woman claimed to have exchanged words of consent -- they didn't have to be married in a church, they didn't have to be married by a priest, they didn't even have to have any witnesses -- it was a valid marriage and had to be accepted as such. But here in the United States, just as in most of Western Europe, the church has never decided the validity of a marriage. The states can authorize the church to validate marriage, but the church cannot in and of itself either validate or dissolve a marriage.
So are there any benefits to being married?
There are a lot of benefits on a couple of different levels. One is just the practical, that society treats that relationship with social respect and it supports the relationship. It's considered quite unethical to try to seduce somebody who is married. There are also legal rights: the automatic right of inheritance, that you can get medical benefits in many jobs, that if you go into the hospital you can make medical decisions for that other person. Then there are emotional benefits. We know that marriage for most Americans is the highest expression of commitment they can conceive of. So we find that a good marriage has all sorts of benefits. People in a good marriages, their blood pressure is lower, their immune systems work better. But here is the other side of the coin -- [Laughs.]
There's always one.
-- Precisely because we have such high expectations, a bad marriage is almost unbearable and it has the opposite effect of a good marriage. We've done studies of couples who are unhappily married and even a few minutes' extra time together raises their blood pressure and lowers their immune functioning. So a good marriage is really, really good and when a marriage is bad, it's horrid.
What about living together? Benefits there?
Marriage, cohabitation, all of these things mean different things to people at different periods. In America we are much more likely to put faith in the marriage license. Twenty to 30 years ago, people who cohabited before marriage had higher divorce rates. Today, however, it appears the lowest divorce rates are among people who cohabit before marriage. For people who cohabit, it really depends if they're cohabiting with the same intention: Some people cohabit because they're in love, but one of the person's behavior is kind of bad and they hold off marrying hoping that behavior will change.
You mentioned the big d-word: divorce. Is it always a negative experience?
No. Divorce is like moving your home: Even if you're moving to a better home, it's a traumatic experience. But it depends where you're coming from and where you're going as to its long-term impact. In marriages that have conflict, or even low commitment [or] lack of affection, we find that the adults are better off, and often the kids are too, or at least don't have long range consequences. On the other hand if people suddenly have a divorce after things have been going very well, that tends to increase the sense of betrayal and increased disappointment.
You wrote an op-ed about [comedian] Robin Williams and his wife getting a collaborative divorce. What is a collaborative divorce?
Collaborative divorce is when a couple is so committed to not letting any argument over possessions, custody, or whatever interfere with their amicable divorce and their ability to co-parent effectively, [that] they jointly hire a lawyer and agree that if the differences can not be negotiated, they have to fire that lawyer and start all over. So that operates to increase cooperation and removes the incentive for the attorney to increase acrimony. One good piece of news: The number of collaborative divorces and the number who are able to co-parent amicably after divorce seems to have been rising pretty steadily over the last 10 years.
I hope this isn't too personal, but what were your own thoughts about marriage before you got married?
[Laughs] I grew up in the '50s, and when I was young that's what I wanted to do of course. That's what all girls in the '50s wanted to do. As I got older I realized that my mother was quite unhappy in her marriage. I loved my father but he wasn't a very great husband. Then when I went off to college and I learned about the history of marriage, I went through a period of thinking, "I'll never get married!" [Laughs.] So I've gone through all the changes, and when I first got married at an older age, I was quite nervous. But having gone into it with my eyes open, with no illusions that it will automatically confer happiness, and with considerable caution about the bad habits we can fall into, I'm very happy to be married. To have the relationship respected by the outside world, that's another big benefit that is unfortunately denied to co-habiting couples and to same-sex committed couples.
Do you think there's ever going to be a time in the U.S. where same-sex couples are going to be able to be married and no one's going to think it's a big deal?
Well, the United States is an anomaly. Same-sex marriage is spreading across the world: Nepal is thinking about instituting same-sex marriage, even Taiwan; Italy and Spain are more favorable to it than America. So America tends to be an outlier in its intolerance of same-sex relationships. On the other hand, we do see that every generational cohort, including young evangelicals, are much more accepting than the one before them, at least of same-sex relationships. So I'm not predicting same-sex marriage, because I think there is a tremendous opposition to it, but I do think that same-sex civil unions granting most of the same rights of marriage is something that will eventually come to America.
Is a civil union equal to a marriage?
That's the big issue. This is why some people say maybe everyone should just have civil unions. Civil unions could certainly get rid of a lot of the practical problems that same-sex couples face. But given the fact that marriage is held in such high regard -- and so far, in the United States, that respect is only given to marriage, something with a capital "M" -- I'm not sure civil unions would be given that.
Because I was not married in a church, I've asked myself, "Why don't I just call my marriage a civil union?" Well, for one thing, I don't have anything to call my husband: my significant other? My civil union partner? For another thing, I don't have a word to describe our relationship that is highly respected by the rest of society. I think that is the issue for people.