Knot For All

Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz (Viking, 448 pages, $25.95)

Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America by Jonathan Wauch (Times Books, 224 pages, $22.00)

Marriage is a shape-shifting institution if there ever was one. Those who think they know what “traditional” marriage is might ponder these facts:

  • The biblical patriarchs were polygamous, effectively owned their wives, and had the power of life and death over their children.
  • The early Christian prelates were so suspicious of sex even within marriage that in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great warned that conjugal pleasure “cannot under any circumstances be without blame.”
  • For centuries the Catholic Church refused to bless the remarriages of widows and widowers, especially if the woman was too old to have children.
  • Ireland, the last western European country to legalize divorce in the 20th century, was the last to forbid it in the Middle Ages. An Irish woman was justified in leaving her husband if she found out he was telling his buddies about her sexual performance.

The one thing traditional marriage was not about was love. As social historian Stephanie Coontz reminds us in her new book, for thousands of years the theme song of most weddings could have been “What's Love Got to Do with It?”

In prehistoric times, marriage had to do with sealing tribal alliances, acquiring friendly neighbors, and avoiding war by turning potential enemies into kinfolk. Later, as societies settled down and began to accumulate surpluses, marriage became a means of protecting, acquiring, and passing along wealth and property. Marrying for political and economic advantage was the norm until what Coontz calls the “Love Revolution” of the late 18th century. Things haven't been the same since.

Coontz, author of the acclaimed The Way We Never Were, a clear-eyed social history of the 1950s, admits that her original goal in this latest book was to debunk the notion that lifelong marriage was in decline from some mythical “golden age” that never existed. But her research also convinced her that marriage today is indeed declining in importance as an institution. Once people began to demand emotional intimacy in marriage and the pursuit of personal happiness became an acceptable, attainable goal, marriage as a universal, life-organizing institution was a goner.

Coontz details how the relatively recent invention of the male-breadwinner marriage, based on an ideal of spousal love, fought off the centrifugal forces for roughly 200 years. But in the 1970s the dam broke, and marriage definitively shifted from organizing people's lives to accommodating people's desires. As a result, Coontz argues, marriage has become much more fragile, but also more fulfilling. Although there are a few exceptions in the world -- arranged marriages are still the norm in India -- the triumph of individualism and a free market in mating is complete in the West.

In the United States, more people than ever before are living alone. More than one-fourth of all households contain only one person, and those households outnumber married couples living with children. Unmarried individuals account for 42 percent of the workforce and 40 percent of homebuyers.

More people are also marrying later. While parents once hoped that their children would marry and “settle down,” now parents pray that their daughters as well as their sons will wait until they gain the education, opportunities, and skills it takes to succeed.

Marriage is no longer necessary for bearing and raising children. Unwed mothers and children born out of wedlock are discouraged but no longer stigmatized; women don't need a husband in order to support a child. One-third of all American children are born to unmarried mothers, and a 1997 study found that more than 40 percent of those births were intentional.

Divorce is easy, socially acceptable, and common. Although divorce rates have been slowly declining for more than 20 years, fewer divorced people are remarrying.

All of these trends are international, indicating that they are intrinsic to contemporary society. Spain has a higher percentage of unmarried 25- to 29-year-old women (more than 50 percent) than the United States (nearly 40 percent). France and Britain have a higher percentage of births out of wedlock. The rate of marriage is much lower in Italy. And so on.

* * *

The burgeoning demand for gay marriage is also global. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada legalized same-sex marriage between 2000 and 2004, and countries as diverse as Germany, Taiwan, Argentina, Spain, Hungary, and South Africa have all given same-sex couples many of the same legal rights as married heterosexuals. Obviously once marriage is about love and happiness, it becomes harder to tell one group of citizens that their love is wicked and that they don't have an equal right to happiness.

I admit that until I read Gay Marriage by Jonathan Rauch, I thought that civil unions were a sensible solution to the inflamed passions surrounding gay marriage. Now I'm not so sure. Rauch, whose book is a reasoned, informed, and passionately persuasive polemic, argues that “marriage-like” and “marriage-lite” proposals, by offering alternatives to marriage, will make it easier for heterosexual as well as gay couples to go the extramarital route. How can marriage be the norm if couples can choose from an array of competing partnership arrangements? How can marriage be preserved if hundreds of thousands of devoted couples are told to forget it, you don't qualify?

Rauch, a child of divorce, is a fierce defender of marriage. In his words, it is “the great civilizing institution. No other institution has the power to turn narcissism into partnership, lust into devotion, strangers into kin.” He wants to shore up the sagging state of marriage by making it more inclusive -- a refreshing antidote to the hysterics of people like right-wing columnist Maggie Gallagher, who has written that same-sex marriage will encourage divorce, further disconnect marriage from child rearing, and bring about the loss of American civilization.

Still, although gay marriage is clearly the fair way to go, I'm not so sure that civic partnerships for gays or others would threaten the essence -- as opposed to the monopoly -- of marriage. Rauch believes that marriage is ultimately the commitment to care for another person. Gay partners have certainly proven since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that they can and will provide unstinting care even in the absence of any legal assistance. They will hardly do less in civil unions, which would provide much more support for partnership care.

Coontz approvingly cites historian Nancy Cott's observation that what is happening to marriage now is akin to the disestablishment of a state religion. When state churches were disestablished in Europe and America, many feared that the loss of legal privileges would deal a deathblow to religion. We now know that in the United States at least, a proliferation of churches produced an even more religious society. It's conceivable that more choice in attractive partnership arrangements could do the same for loving relationships.

No one really knows. But we do know that most self-styled defenders of marriage are not really defending the substance of marriage. They are insisting on one particular form of marriage, the heterosexual male-breadwinner model, which has already changed beyond recognition. It would be nice to see a more vigorous defense of the substance of family life, which I agree is to care for one's children and other family members, including one's spouse.

The United States does less than any other prosperous country on earth to support or provide incentives for family caregiving. We don't provide any Social Security credit to spouses who spend years caring for family members. Divorce courts don't have to award compensation for the financial losses suffered by the spouse who primarily cares for the children -- even though family-law experts say that making divorce more costly to the primary breadwinner would do more than anything else to reduce the rate of divorce. Employers can demand working hours that destroy family life and can summarily fire people who can't work more than 40 hours a week without neglecting a child.

Scarcely a peep has been heard from the Focus on the Family crowd -- or from gay-rights activists, either -- about any of these issues (although as more gay couples raise children, I predict that they will join the chorus demanding more support for families).

Back in the 1950s, the Ladies' Home Journal ran a regular column called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Now the debate has shifted to the question, “Can Marriage Itself Be Saved?” Even more is riding on the question of how caring for each other can be saved, in a culture that worships every man for himself.

Ann Crittenden is the author of The Price of Motherhood and If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything.

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