The History of Marriage | Omega

Marriage has changed rapidly as society has redefined its meaning. Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families explains how the institution has evolved.

Omega: You say marriage has changed more in the past 30 years than in the past 3,000 years and that the very traits that make marriage in our contemporary society more rewarding have also made it less stable. How so?

Stephanie: Marriage used to be a very powerful but very rigid institution—powerful largely because it was so rigid. There were few alternatives since women could seldom earn a decent living and unmarried men and women faced social stigma and discrimination. Gender roles were strictly divided, making it difficult for men and women to appreciate each other as well-rounded individuals, but assuring their dependence on each other.

Today, with many alternatives to marriage and much higher expectations of mutuality and equality within marriage, people have higher standards for what they want in a partner and how they expect to be treated. These changes have made many marriages fairer, more intimate, more passionate, and less violent than the past. But they have also made the idea of entering or staying in a less than satisfactory marriage seem less bearable. 

Omega: Historically, marriage was a political and economic familial alliance. In your book Marriage, A History, you state it was men who were first to embrace marriage for love while women continued to use more instrumental reasoning in choosing partners. How is the experiment working out? How does the growing acceptance of LGBTQ marriages reflect history?

Stephanie: When the love match first triumphed in the early 19th century, men more often had the luxury of marrying solely for love than did women, who were economically dependent on men and legally subordinate to their husbands once they married and therefore had to proceed more cautiously. Today both men and women have the option to marry for love, and that is a much stronger motivation for most people than older considerations such as how well a partner fits his or her assigned gender role.

"Most relationships work on an economy of gratitude." —Stephanie Coontz

Marrying for love has improved marriage in many ways. But our definitions of love and erotic attraction are still based on outdated gender norms that can cause real problems in a marriage. One of our big challenges, after 150 years of being socialized to define love in terms of opposites, is to make equality sexy.

Sometimes people claim that same-sex marriage is going to revolutionize heterosexual marriage. But I argue that it was heterosexuals who revolutionized marriage in the 1970s, with their unprecedented emphasis on individual choice and equality, and their rejection of rigid gender roles. These changes in heterosexual marriage emboldened gay and lesbian couples to demand marriage rights and encouraged many heterosexuals to see such demands as reasonable. One of the exciting things for researchers is that we are learning that same-sex partners and heterosexual partners have distinctive strengths and each can learn from the other.

Omega: You’ve noted that interest, respect, and friendship are vital in relationships today. Do you have a daily practice that you would recommend to partners?

Stephanie: I don’t think there is any single tip that works for everyone—except to pick your partner very carefully and to do so on different grounds than we were traditionally socialized to do. Many of the things we find sexy when we first meet someone—skillful self-presentation, mystery, novelty, even a slight sense of unpredictability or danger—are actually destructive in a long-term relationship.

I will say this: Most relationships work on an economy of gratitude—recognizing and acknowledging the many ways in which your partner makes your life richer or easier. Demonstrating that sense of gratitude and appreciation every day, in whatever way works for your particular relationship, counts for far more than whether you follow some generic tip handed out by a relationship guru.

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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