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?

Illustration by Amanda Duffy.
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Aside from pure storytelling, most works of history fall into one of two camps. Either they are narrow scholarly monographs trying to nail down the details of what happened in a particular place at a particular time, or they are sweeping exercises meant to tell us something about how we live now.

Marriage, a History, by Stephanie Coontz, is not a scholarly monograph. Anything but narrow in focus, it ranges from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies to the red states of the 2004 American presidential election. Although her subject is global, Coontz offers nary a footnote in any language other than English. If she consulted original documents and manuscript collections, she makes no mention of them. At best, Marriage, a History is not a history at all but a retelling of many histories written by others.

Yet Coontz's book does not quite fit the "what we can learn from history" model either. This is odd because all of her previous books did. Indeed it would be hard to find a historian more willing to draw out of history conclusions about our present condition than the author of The Way We Never Wereand The Way We Really Are. That Stephanie Coontz, anxious "to expose many of our 'memories' of traditional family life as myths," was as didactic as they come. Some Americans, mostly conservatives, saw in the movements toward gender equality and personal liberation of the 1960s and 1970s an attack on the family as it has always been. They were wrong, Coontz responded. The so-called traditional family of the 1950s was itself "a qualitatively new phenomenon," and as such had none of the legitimacy that would follow from its presumed universality.

Coontz has changed her mind; the "Ozzie and Harriet" family, she now writes, "was not just a postwar aberration." Her new book argues that, while not universal, marriages based on love and personal commitments started to emerge as early as the 14th century and really began to flower in the 1700s. I admire Coontz for her willingness to drop an idea that never seemed all that credible to begin with. The last thing we need is another book ostensibly teaching us about marriage in the first decade of the 21st century but in reality fighting the culture wars of 50 years ago.

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Marriage, a History certainly offers an intriguing thesis. "Marriage," Coontz writes, "has become more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history. At the same time it has become optional and more brittle. These two strands of change cannot be disentangled." Marriage, Coontz is acknowledging, need not be a source of misery and oppression for its female members; it might even satisfy some of their deepest emotional needs. If marriage was as bad for women as the left used to maintain, it was hard to explain why so many women married. Now we know; they do it because they want to.

If the notion that people find happiness in marriage undermines the left's case against the traditional family, what follows—that personal choice can contribute to divorce—undermines the right's case in favor of it. Yes, there will be greater marital instability and confusion of proper gender roles if married people are negotiating all the time instead of following authoritative rules, but higher rates of marital breakup are the price we have to pay for more emotionally satisfying unions. "It would be wonderful if we could pick and choose what historical changes we will and won't accept," Coontz concludes, "but we are not that lucky."

Because she changed her mind about history, I assumed Coontz would also question her earlier political views. There I was disappointed. Coontz's new position is more a retreat than a re-examination, and her book suffers because of it.

As in all of Coontz's work, ideology is never far beneath the surface in this one. Good leftist that she is, she is critical of the 1950s marriage writer Paul Popenoe for his eugenic beliefs but never manages to tell her readers that Margaret Sanger, a feminist heroine, held similar views. She attacks conservatives such as Stanley Kurtz for defending marriage in general while denouncing gay marriage in particular without bothering to note that some of the strongest arguments in favor of gay marriage were made by conservatives such as Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan. For all her newfound moderation, Coontz cannot let go of the idea that her side is all virtue and that of her opponents all vice.

And although Coontz has changed her mind about marriage, she has not altered her views about divorce. In Coontz's world, the best marriages are those in which husbands and wives refrain from hurting each other more than they actively help each other. Coontz is as worried today as when she wrote her earlier books that strong commitments in marriage will be harmful to women. Yes, marriage can be "remarkably beneficial," she writes, but then, reverting to form, she adds that "many of those benefits would disappear if we tried to reimpose the societal norm of lifelong marriage for everyone." Divorce is here to stay, and we had better get used to it.

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.

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.

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