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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Sex & Family

MARRIAGE AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE—OR IS IT?

by Mike D'Virgilio

Stephanie Coontz, a teacher of family history at a northwestern U.S. university, considered the changing state of marriage recently in the Washington Post. She wrote as a sociologist making observations about the state of marriage, but one gets the strong feeling she doesn’t have much respect for traditional notions of marriage.

Coontz’s basic contention is that once love became the driving force behind marriage, marriage changed for the worse. Individual choice, which had been held in check by a number of restraints over the centuries, effectively changed the social significance of marriage in the economy and culture. There is a bit of Marxist dialectic going on in Coontz’s analysis. These changes are somehow inevitable, she implies, and nothing can be done to alter their dynamics.

Because of this she derides any notion that these forces that work against marriage can be stopped or turned back, arguing that traditional notions of marriage are simply outmoded:

What these campaigns have in common is the idea that people are willfully refusing to recognize the value of traditional families and that their behavior will change if we can just enlighten them.

But recent changes in marriage are part of a worldwide upheaval in family life that has transformed the way people conduct their personal lives as thoroughly and permanently as the Industrial Revolution transformed their working lives 200 years ago. Marriage is no longer the main way in which societies regulate sexuality and parenting or organize the division of labor between men and women. And although some people hope to turn back the tide by promoting traditional values, making divorce harder or outlawing gay marriage, they are having to confront a startling irony: The very factors that have made marriage more satisfying in modern times have also made it more optional.

This is an interesting argument that is in many ways correct as far as it goes. Marriage, throughout history and in many cultures still, was a mandatory state in which the parties directly involved had little say. No one wants to go back to such times.

But is it true that marriage based on love is inherently less stable? Are we to throw in the towel and say that it is simply not possible to make marriage a more enduring social institution in our country? Coontz thinks so, but she is inferring an ought from an is. It is one thing to make observations about what marriage has become, and then base your conclusions on the behavior you observe. That is the way of the skeptic and cynic, who in effect believes in no higher ideal that can compel human behavior, whether that relates to marriage or anything else. It is another thing altogether to start with the ideal and then try to determine whether and how human behavior can fit into that ideal, even if we can only hope to approximate such ultimate fulfillment.

Here is how this cynical mentality is reflected in the article:

Marriage is no longer the institution where people are initiated into sex. It no longer determines the work men and women do on the job or at home, regulates who has children and who doesn't, or coordinates care-giving for the ill or the aged. For better or worse, marriage has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life, and will not regain it short of a Taliban-like counterrevolution.

Notice that what “is” is what “should be.” Coontz claims that only the repression of religious extremists can change marriage, and then only from the outside. Moral suasion has no place in this woman’s world.

Thus Coontz makes two critical errors that underlie her conclusion of inexorable forces beyond human control. One is in the very foundation of her argument, the notion that marriage today is based on love. To most moderns, American or otherwise, love is fundamentally an emotion. Emotions of attraction, we believe, are very hard to control. Things change (it’s a fact of life), and once they do, so will my emotions and so will my choices.

If, however, we look at love from a different, distinctly non-modern perspective, we see a very different picture. This is the idea that love is a commitment to the well-being of another. As to where emotion fits into this idea of love, I would argue that emotion will always follow our obedience to the commitments we have made. There really is no such thing as being “in love,” in my view, because real love is nothing like the lust and infatuation that tend to drive a new romantic relationship. The last thing on my mind during the first months of my courtship of my wife was self-sacrifice. Everyone who has fallen “in love” can attest to this.

When we see love as a commitment to another’s well-being, traditional ideas of marriage makes great sense. The following words from the 13th chapter of the book of Corinthians in the Bible have great power regardless of one’s religious beliefs or ability to apply them (but it is much easier with the grace of God and prayer):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

The irony of this biblical conception of love is that although it is the least self-centered idea of relating to others imaginable, it is also the most self-satisfying. Love truly given invites love in return. Note that phrase about keeping no record of wrongs; that is all but inconceivable for most people, yet is a key to enjoying a relationship with another person. Hence, regardless of what marriage looks like today or how cynical Ms. Coontz may be, traditional marriage would continue to be viable today if people were taught how to truly love instead of being encouraged to indulge in transitory emotions.

The second mistake Coontz makes is in accepting an obviously untrue assertion that has made marriage much weaker in the modern context:

None of this means that marriage is dead. Indeed, most people have a higher regard for the marital relationship today than when marriage was practically mandatory. Marriage as a private relationship between two individuals is taken more seriously and comes with higher emotional expectations than ever before in history.

Coontz is dead wrong here. Marriage is most certainly not “a private relationship between two individuals.” As soon as a couple decides to marry, their relationship changes from private to public. Now two families are involved and tied together. The dynamics of the relationship of each spouse to friends made prior to marriage change dramatically. The state now has a vested interest in the relationship unlike any considerations it may have had when the two individuals were not married. The couple becomes a legal unit in the eyes of the law. And need I mention children? Once two people marry, others become dependent on the success of that relationship.

(Of course, a couple who have children while living together without being married have people dependent on the success of their relationship, but that is what makes their relationship serious: the fact that it is like a marriage even though the couple has not seen fit to formalize it according to law and custom.)

Coontz states that marriage is taken “more seriously” now, which she indicates in the same sentence as meaning there are greater “emotional expectations” attached to the relationship between the couple. But that is exactly the problem with the modern vision of marriage. Marriage relationships are less fulfilling when they are viewed as merely private affairs. Self-centeredness is invariably less satisfying than openness to others.

When marriage is viewed from the broader perspective I have proposed, the paradigm changes entirely. Self-fulfillment is more a product of self-sacrifice than of selfishness. If you always get what you want and if things always go your way, if there are no struggles and no challenges in your life, you may well be the most miserable creature alive. So it is with personal relationships: it is when problems arise that we see who truly loves us.

The illusion that Coontz wishes to strengthen—the vision of marriage as an emotional attachment first and foremost—is the very thing that causes most people go into wedlock with an infatuated idea of an ideal marriage in which problems indicate that something is wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fairy tale idea of marriage—that people can live happily ever after—is actually true, but it doesn’t mean the couple subsequently lives a frictionless life. It means they’ve learned to love one another in spite of themselves, and that they recognize that their marriage has profound repercussions for them, their children, their town, their city, their state, their country, their culture. They commit to the hard work involved in holding a family together, and they reap incalculable rewards for their effort.

Ms. Coontz may think that the “series” called traditional marriage has been “cancelled,” but as program directors of the network called “my life,” millions of Americans have a say in bringing this show back. If they did, I am convinced it would be a hit. •

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