Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage

And many attorneys and judges have come to support legal recognition for same-sex unions because they are already having to deal with the division of assets and similar issues in de facto gay and lesbian divorces.

Another limit on intimate marriage in the nineteenth century was that many people still held the Enlightenment view that love developed slowly out of admiration, respect, and appreciation of someone’s good character. Coupled with the taboos on expressions of sexual desire, these values meant that the love one felt for a sweetheart often was not seen as qualitatively different from the feeling one might have for a sister, a friend, or even an idea.

But a woman’s right to leave a marriage can also be a lifesaver for men. The Centers on Disease Control reports that the rate at which husbands were killed by their wives fell by approximately two-thirds between 1981 and 1998, in part because women could more easily leave their partners.32

But the biggest single obstacle to making personal happiness the foremost goal of marriage was that women needed to marry in order to survive.

But the Newsweek claim was wrong even back in 1986. And by 2002 Hewlett’s “nowadays” was already three decades out-of-date. More women than ever before are marrying for the first time at age thirty, forty, fifty, and even sixty.

But there was as yet no way of living on cash alone. Household production was still essential for survival because few commodities could be bought ready to use. Even store-bought chickens needed to be plucked. Factory-made fabrics had to be cut and sewn. Most families had to make their own bread, and the flour they bought came with bugs, small stones, and other impurities that had to be picked out by hand. As a result, in the early stages of the cash economy most families still needed someone to specialize in household production while other family members devoted more hours to wage earning. Typically, that someone was the wife.

By 1952 there were two million more working wives than there had been at the height of World War II.

College graduates and women with higher earnings are now more likely to marry than women with less education and lower wages, although they generally marry at an older age. The legal profession is one big exception to this generalization. Female attorneys are less likely to ever marry, to have children, or to remarry after divorce than women in other professions. But an even higher proportion of male attorneys are childless, suggesting there might be something about this career that is unfriendly to everyone’s family life, not just women’s.

Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that in states that adopted unilateral divorce, this was followed, on average, by a 20 percent reduction in the number of married women committing suicide, as well as a significant drop in domestic violence for both men and women.

High male earnings have also become less important to women. A 2001 poll in the United States found that 80 percent of women in their twenties believed that having a husband who can talk about his feelings was more important than having one who makes a good living.11

However, couples have to think carefully about what it takes to build, deepen, and sustain commitments that are now almost completely voluntary. Modern marriages cannot just glide down the well-worn paths of the past.

I do not believe, then, that marriage was invented to oppress women any more than it was invented to protect them. In most cases, marriage probably originated as an informal way of organizing sexual companionship, child rearing, and the daily tasks of life.

In practice, Athenian democracy was very limited. There were twice as many slaves as citizens, and no woman or foreigner had citizenship rights. But for those who were included, this nascent democracy had extraordinary implications, undercutting the ability of aristocratic families to build and maintain their private power bases.

In the late 1960s a woman in the poorer countries of the world typically had six children. Today the average is fewer than three. In fact, demographers now project that the world’s population will begin to decline before 2050.47

Like it or not, today we are all pioneers, picking our way through uncharted and unstable territory. The old rules are no longer reliable guides to work out modern gender roles and build a secure foundation for marriage. Wherever it is that people want to end up in their family relations today, even if they are totally committed to creating a so-called traditional marrige, they have to get there by a different route from the past.

Many people felt much closer to their own sex than to what was seen as the literally “opposite”—and alien—sex. In letters and diaries, women often referred to men as “the grosser sex.

Men repeatedly noted how much easier it was to talk to other males than to women, and their journals often expressed the worry that being married to an angel might not be as easy as it sounded.

Moving lockstep through a series of predictable transitions is no longer a route to personal security. Each man and woman must put together a highly individualized sequence of transitions in and out of school, work, and marriage in order to take advantage of shifting opportunities and respond to unexpected setbacks--a "do-it-yourself biolography.

Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable. Although many Europeans and Americans found tremendous joy in building their relationships around these values, the adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.

Once people came to believe that families should nurture children rather than exploit their labor, many began to feel that the legal consequences of illegitimacy for children were inhumane.

People did not pick up the sexual connotations that often make even the most innocent expression of affection seem sexual to our sensibilities today. Perfectly respectable nineteenth-century women wrote to each other in terms like these: “[T]he expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.” They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights.24

People have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one.

[S]ince the dawn of civilization, getting in-laws has been one of marriage's most important functions.

That process culminated in the 1950s in the short-lived pattern that people have since come to think of as traditional marriage. So in the 1970s, when the inherent instability of the love-based marriage reasserted itself, millions of people were taken completely by surprise. Having lost any collective memory of the convulsions that occurred when the love match was first introduced and the crisis that followed its modernization in the 1920s, they could not understand why this kind of marriage, which they thought had prevailed for thousands of years, was being abandoned by the younger generation.

The big problem is how hard it is to achieve equal relationships in a society whose work policies, school schedules, and social programs were constructed on the assumption that male breadwinner families would always be the norm. Tensions between men and women today stem less from different aspirations than from the difficulties they face translating their ideals into practice.

The breakdown of the wall separating marriage from nonmarriage has been described by some legal historians and sociologists as the deinstitutionalization or delegalization of marriage or even, with a French twist, as demariage. I like historian Nancy Cott’s observation that it is akin to what happened in Europe and America when legislators disestablished their state religion.

The cultural consensus that everyone should marry and form a male breadwinner family was like a steamroller that crushed every alternative view. By the end of the 1950s even people who had grown up in completely different family systems had come to believe that universal marriage at a young age into a male breadwinner family was the traditional and permanent form of marriage.

The long decade of the 1950s, stretching from 1947 to the early 1960s in the United States and from 1952 to the late 1960s in Western Europe, was a unique moment in the history of marriage. Never before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households. Never had married couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. And never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was “normal.

The Victorians did not have some secret formula, since lost, about how to expect the best of marriage and still put up with the worst. Rather, they were much more accepting than we are today of a huge gap between rhetoric and reality, expectation and actual experience. In large part, this was because they had no other choice.

Until fifty years ago, men typically under-reported how much household work or child care they did because they did not want to admit to doing “women’s work.” It is a huge step forward that men think they should say they do more than they actually do.