Love is in the air around Valentine’s Day, and for some it may be the time for a romantic proposal. Today, love is something most people are looking for in a partnership with a spouse, but that hasn’t always been the case: In fact, for much of history, marriage was an institution that had very little to do with love.
Stephanie Coontz is the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage and director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. She spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live about the history of tying the knot and the state of marriage in the United States today.
Why was marriage invented in the first place?
The more I research marriage, the more I’m convinced it was invented to get in-laws. It was a way of making connections with other people. The earliest Anglo-Saxon word for wife meant 'peace weaver.' It was a way that people could get relatives in other levels of society. And as societies became more complicated and stratified, marriage became the way you made alliances with families of your own or higher status -- to make business deals, economic alliances, peace treaties, military treaties.
In the absence of banks and credit institutions, [marriage] was the way you got business loans and made alliances. You married into another family to increase your fortune ... Even among the lower classes, marriage was an economic proposition, because you couldn’t run a farm or business without two laborers. So you looked for someone who you knew had a good reputation as a worker or your same skills.
For much of history, love was seen as a threat to marriage
[Marriage] was a very important economic institution, too important to be ruled entirely by such a fleeting emotion -- people thought -- as love. Now, young people have always dreamed and fantasized about being able to marry for love. But it’s no accident that most of the great love stories in history, romance novels, ended in tragedy.
For thousands of years, love was almost considered a threat to marriage, because this could lead young people into defying their parents’ attempts to arrange a good political and economic alliance with other families. The tradition in Western Europe was, yes, love was a good thing if it happens to come after marriage. But it’s not a good reason for marriage and it’s in fact a very frivolous and scary reason for marriage. And that was true right up until the 18th century.
The 2015 Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage was the culmination of a century of radically changing ideas about marriage
In some ways, I think that [the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court ruling requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriages] came out of how heterosexuals changed marriage so much.
For thousands of years, marriage was not about love. Then, in the 19th century, we made it about love, but we desexualized it. There was this idea that women didn’t like sex and that it wasn’t the most important thing in a marriage. So, in the early 1920s, we had the first sexual revolution, which said, no: marriage should be about sexual satisfaction for both men and women. Then we said, you don’t have to have children, as we introduced birth control. So even if you don’t want children, or can’t have children, you can marry.
In the ’60s, we decided marriage was a right. We said, you can’t forbid black and white people from marrying. In the 1970s, we began to rearrange marriage laws and said, just because you’re a man and woman in a marriage doesn’t mean that one of you has to do one thing and the other has to do another thing -- marriage should be a gender-neutral institution where you can make a decision on how you relate based on your individual desires. By that time, it seems to me that we’d made it absolutely clear that same-sex marriage was inevitable.
Want to have a successful marriage today? Look to same-sex couples
In the last 30 years, one of the most important predictors [of a successful marriage] is not specializing in the way we were told in the 1950s, but sharing. Sharing child care, sharing chores, sharing contributions to the household economy. It’s still very hard for [heterosexual] couples to do that. Studies of marriages formed since the 1990s have shown that the happiest and most sexually satisfied couples are those that share housework and child care. But less than a third of couples did that. Same-sex couples don’t share everything equally, but they’re much more likely to share the routine housekeeping and laundry equally, and much more likely to discuss who does what on the basis of individual inclination, and it seems to make them much more satisfied than heterosexual women tend to be in marriages.
Today, Americans consider marriage less of a necessity, but we hold it to higher standards
Today, the average age for women [to marry for the first time] has reached 28; for men it’s 30. And what’s even more interesting and significant is that the spread in the age at which people marry for the first time is much higher than it’s ever been. Some people are marrying for the first time in their 40s, their 50s, even 60s.
Demographers think that about 85% of Americans will marry at some point in their lives. But most of us will spend a much longer period of our adult lives outside of marriage -- either before marriage or, in the case of divorce or death of a spouse, after marriage -- than ever before in history.
A lot of people say, ‘Marriage is dying; people don’t care about marriage anymore.’ Actually, we care much more about marriage as a relationship than people did in the past. We’re less attached to it as an institution that everybody has to enter, but we actually have higher expectations of marriage as a relationship. There’s more emphasis on intimacy, comradeship, communication and sharing.
Access to a happy marriage today is becoming more dependent on socioeconomics
We’re seeing a very disturbing but understandable class gap in access to marriage. Educated people are more economically stable; they’re more likely to get married and stay married. The divorce rates of college-educated people have been falling steadily since 1979-81, which was the high point of divorce in America. But for people without that stability, and under the constant stress of increasing economic volatility, that’s one of the best predictors of conflict in a relationship -- much higher than your experiences as a child and whether your parents divorced … We have to give people more supports that make it possible to have decent, secure lives -- in and out of marriage.
New York Times Opinions: How to Make Your Marriage Gayer (13 February 2020)
Pew: The American Family: Waiting to Say ‘I Do’ (May 3, 2019)