Stephanie Coontz's Marriage: A History.

How we interpret the past.
May 17 2005 7:21 AM

The Malleable Estate

Is marriage more joyful than ever?

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Yet everything depends, not on whether a norm is reimposed, but on who reimposes it. If some authoritarian force such as the Christian right were to step in and, in the name of reaffirming traditional gender rules, make divorce difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, I would join with Coontz in protest. But there exists another, far more likely, possibility. If marriage under modern conditions is rooted in personal choice, aren't those who choose it under some kind of obligation to hold themselves to its lifelong durability, at least to their best of their ability? I kept waiting for Coontz, who places so much emphasis on individual choice, to remind individuals that choice brings responsibility in its wake. But this she never does, and for a reason. If what she learned from history has changed, her approach to history has not, and that approach will not allow her to assign autonomy to real individuals.

"The erosion of the male breadwinner family," Coontz writes at one point, "is a classic example of what some historians call an overdetermined event." Actually, all of Coontz's history is "overdetermined," a term borrowed from Marxism, which technically means that an event has many causes, but is invariably used to suggest that history will be following out its theoretically ordained course even if it does not appear to be doing so at any particular moment. Marriage, divorce, children—these are things that happen to us. Even when we think we are choosing, history has chosen for us. Just as the Industrial Revolution transformed our work life, the introduction of personal choice into marriage has transformed our intimate life.

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Coontz has the description right; Americans face a situation in which the ideal marriages they want are threatened by the individual freedom they crave. But she has the prescription wrong; still committed to battling her enemies, she has little or nothing to offer those Americans who view marriage as the most important social institution in their lives. We need to learn how to give to others while reserving room for ourselves. Treating history as a clash of forces before which ordinary people are powerless does not help us get there.

Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?