Love and Marriage

To most of us, nothing sounds worse than a loveless marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, it wasn't always that way.

Then, in the space of about 15 years, all of those things were overturned. We got the pill in 1960. We got a new, more professional economic system that was much more interested in how fat your wallet was and what your job credentials were than what your personal situation was. We got the development of drip-dry shirts and other conveniences that made men less dependent on having a full-time housewife. And in the 1970s we had women's entry into the workforce, which made women less dependent on marrying.

The result was that people really could marry for love, completely for love, in a way they hadn't been. As late as the 1960s, two-thirds of women in college polls said they would marry a man they didn't love if he met all of their other criteria. And you could begin to expect higher things of marriage. As late as the 1970s, many women who were interviewed, working-class women, told reporters that their definition of a happy marriage was one where the husband didn't hit them. Now, in the last 20 years, of course, our expectations have grown much higher.

The result is that many marriages are happier than many couples I studied in the past would ever have dared to dream. But the very things that make marriage more intimate and more flexible have also made it more optional. And they've made people less willing to put up with a marriage that doesn't meet those aspirations.

Stephanie Coontz: "You keep getting this wishful thinking that women will give up their jobs and go back to the home, at least while they are mothers. That is not going to happen."
Roy Rodgers
Stephanie Coontz: "You keep getting this wishful thinking that women will give up their jobs and go back to the home, at least while they are mothers. That is not going to happen."

CP: Why do you think this sea change is so terrifying to so many people?

Coontz: It contradicts the emotional expectations for marriage that we've developed over the last 150 years, that it's the only way to make commitments. But even more than that, it contradicts the way that we've organized work and social welfare policies and teen sex education. We've assumed that marriage will be the thing that initiates most people into sex. It's the way that you will spend the majority of your adult life. We have also assumed for the last 50 years that every worker would have a wife to take care of life.

It's also the way that we've organized the division of labor between men and women. Right up until the 1970s a gendered division of labor was part of the legal definition of marriage in many states. The husband had a duty to support the family but the wife didn't, and the wife had a duty to provide her husband with sex and housekeeping. Nowadays, not everything is organized through marriage, which does pose certain challenges. But it also provides us with opportunities because it means that if you're not cut out for marriage, or if you had a bad marriage, you have an opportunity to live a different way. And if you're in a marriage and you don't fit those 1950s gender roles, you can renegotiate your marriage in a way that you never were able to before.

CP: Is all of this the reason our society is so unwilling to deal with issues such as childcare and flex time and so many other things that are important to modern families?

Coontz: Absolutely. One of the important ways people are in denial about how much and how irreversibly marriage has changed is that you keep getting this wishful thinking that women will give up their jobs and go back to the home, at least while they are mothers. That is not going to happen. Mothers are in the workforce to stay. But because we refuse to recognize that, we're prevented from looking seriously at the need for subsidized parental leave, so that being able to stay home for a while is not a class privilege. It also allows us to avoid confronting the need for high-quality childcare to give mothers and fathers a reliable place to send their kids while they are at work.

CP: You have observed that you and right-wing evangelical James Dobson finally agree on something.

Coontz: It's not so much that I agree as it is that I think for once he has understated the case. James Dobson says that allowing gays and lesbians marriage threatens to end marriage and family as we have known it for 5,000 years. I usually disagree with people who make catastrophic claims, but I think in this case Dobson is understating the case. Marriage and the family as we've known it has already been decisively overturned.

Where I continue to disagree with him is that it is heterosexuals who changed marriage and gays and lesbians are simply responding to that change. It was heterosexuals who said marriage does not have to be about procreation. It was heterosexuals who pioneered the reproductive revolution that allowed infertile people to have kids. It was heterosexuals who gave you a choice whether to marry. And it was heterosexuals who said we don't have to organize marriage around rigid gender roles; men and women can construct what roles they want to play, or they can play equal roles.

Once you've gotten rid of the idea that it has to be for procreation, that is has to be between two people who can physically reproduce, and that you must have kids if you can, and that one has to play the male role and one the female role, then many of the arguments for denying marriage to gays and lesbians go out the door.

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