Same-sex marriage. Increased divorce rates. Couples living together before they say, “I do.” For those who wring their hands and pine for marriage’s good old days, Stephanie Coontz has this to say: There were no good old days.
Coontz, an Evergreen State College professor of family studies and author of several books on marriage and gender roles, said during an hour-long lecture at Lower Columbia College’s Rose Center for the Arts Thursday evening that marriage isn’t worse than it used to be. It’s just different now.
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh. People don’t do marriage as well as our ancestors did.’ Well, the thing is, they never tried to do marriage the way we have,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be in a marriage. This is a totally new ball game.”
Coontz, who has testified before Congress, appeared on the Colbert Report and been published by the New York Times, delivered LCC’s annual William Vest Memorial Lecture, which honors the college’s late social science instructor.
Thursday’s presentation spanned hundreds of years of marriage history from across the Earth. For much of modern human history, men were expected to have sex outside their marriages or have multiple wives. Same-sex marriages weren’t unheard of in some cultures. And American Indian women could divorce simply by placing their husband’s belongings outside their teepees, Coontz said.
Romance had nothing to do with most marriages — at least at the outset. Rather, marriages forged peace treaties and military alliances among the powerful and solidified business arrangements among the middle classes.
“For thousands of years, ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ could have been the wedding march for most marriages,” Coontz said, referring to the Tina Turner song.
That changed in the late 18th century with the French and American revolutions, which introduced the idea of the pursuit of personal happiness. People forged a new idea of marriage, and it became taboo for parents to interfere with their children’s romantic choices, she said. Social conservatives of the time — just as they are today — were scandalized by these developments, she said.
Yet, even through much of the last century, women had little or few property rights. They had few opportunities for employment. Men married because they needed a companion at home to care for them. Women married because they needed someone to support them financially. Courtships were short — only six months on average. And if couples were lucky, Coontz said, they formed friendships and romantic bonds that kept their marriages happy.
And then came the 1960s. Birth control made premarital sex more feasible. Interracial marriage became accepted. Laws designed to discourage the bearing of “illegitimate” children were wiped off the books. Women had the option of working: Not just jobs, but careers. And no-fault divorce laws made it easier than ever to dissolve an unhappy union.
Not incidentally, suicide rates among wives plummeted and fewer husbands were murdered by their wives, Coontz said.
Yes, she said, all of this weakened the “institution” of marriage — people no longer had to get married or stay married. But, she said, marriages themselves became happier.
Today’s marriages have the potential to be “more passionate, fulfilling, more mutually beneficial than most people of the past would ever have dared to dream,” Coontz said.
Now, predictors of a good marriage are the very things that the nay-sayers of old declared would destroy the institution. The more educated a woman is, the happier her marriage, Coontz said. The happiest coupes share career and child-rearing duties more equitably. And, where couples living together before marriage used to make it more likely their eventual marriage will end in divorce, today those statistics are reversing. Since the mid-1990s, cohabitation has made it no more likely that a couple will divorce. In time, Coontz predicted, statistics will show that couples who live together before they marry are more likely to stay married.
“Discard those rose-colored glasses when looking at the past,” Coontz said. “We’re not doing marriage worse than people have in the past. We’re trying to do it better.”