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Episode 38

In this week’s conversation with Stephanie Coontz, we discuss the history of marriage, its social and political significance, and marriage’s changing paradigm in the modern world. We learn about the factors surrounding marital and sexual satisfaction, the importance of egalitarianism, and the lessons to be learned from single people.

Lastly, we speak to the importance of cultivating a sense of community and trust through casual connections and small interactions—particularly in today’s perpetually disconnected world—and the ways in which putting more energy into interactions with friends, coworkers, and even strangers can actually help strengthen our romantic partnerships.

Stephanie Coontz is the author of five books on gender, family, and history, including Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which was cited in the US Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. She is a Director for the Council on Contemporary Families, as well as emeritus faculty of History and Family Studies at The Evergreen State College in Washington.

Stephanie, thanks so much for joining us on the show today.

My pleasure.

So you are a historian researching one of the oldest, but also as compared to today, one of the institutions that perhaps has changed more than any other. So to begin, I’d love for you to just give us an idea from the practical to perhaps some of the comical, ways in which the traditions and expectations of marriage has changed.

Well there is so many ways. There are so many illusions about what is a traditional marriage? With the big debate over same sex marriage – one man, one woman. Actually, if you look through the ages and count up the different societies and ask what kind of marriage, they most approved of, the one that comes up most often is one man, several women. But marriage has also been between one woman and several men. Many societies have ghost marriages where a live person is married off to the ghost of a deceased person. And the reason you get all this variation is, when you actually look at the history of marriage. And when I was researching it and I looked at all the theories and some, at first, people said well, it was invented to protect women. And then, later we found out that it actually, very often oppresses women. And anthropologists pointed it out that in many societies it’s actually women who provide 60 to 90% of all the groups calories.

Then the next theory, it was invented to oppress women. But the more I looked at it, the more I became convinced that it was actually invented to get in-laws. Which is why they were very creative about doing that. So it was a way of earliest peaceful foraging societies. It seems to be a way of making sure that you had relatives in every band that you encountered, so that you knew that you had obligations to them, and from them. For example, in Anglo-Saxon history, the word wife means peace weaver. In other societies, as you got more stratification, marriage became increasingly a way of getting alliances with the right in-laws. In a peaceful band level society, I really wouldn’t care who my son married. But he had to marry out of the group, or my daughter had to marry out of the group.

But once there’s stratification and I may even say, the top 10% of a group, I certainly don’t want my child to marry down. If they’re marrying into another group, I want him to marry someone in the top 10, preferably in the top five. And at that point, marriage becomes this way of gathering in-laws. In some societies. It was such an important way of establishing political, and social alliances, and economic, pooling capital. That, as I said, if you engaged your kids at a very young age to families that wanted an alliance, and one of them died, you’d just go ahead and marry them to the ghost. And then, if it’s a woman, she could have other affairs, but they would be related to the original kinship family. So those kinds of things went on for thousands of years. And for thousands of years, marriage was really not about love.

Love was kind of an extra. But of course, young people, do fall in love in most societies. And people have often dreamed about being able to marry someone they love, rather than someone whom their parents needed. Although, many young people also married for convenience. So, really since about the era of the enlightenment, and especially with the rise of wage labor, that allowed a woman to forego the dowry. Because your parents didn’t want you to marry someone, they wouldn’t give you a dowry. And if you were a man, they wouldn’t give you a plot of land to settle on. But once you had wage labor, you could defy your parents. You could set up a house earlier. And gradually, with new ideology is about the rights of the individual. The idea emerged that people should marry for love, and parents and the older generation shouldn’t dictate to them.

But even so, there’ve been tremendous variations. Recently, when Anthony Kennedy legalize same sex marriage in his majority opinion, he had all this romantic stuff about why we need marriage. And as far as I’m concerned, he made the right decisions, for exactly the wrong reasons. He was talking about how historically it had been this protection for people, the most sacred kind of commitment you could enter into. Well not true at all. It was really something that did for thousands of years, oppress women. Women were sometimes expected to be faithful. Men were very seldom expected to be faithful. Men had authority over women. They own the property that a woman brought into a marriage. What has changed and what was the real reason, it seems to me, to grant same sex marriage is that, in the last hundred years we’ve increasingly seen marriage as an individual right. And in the last 40 years, we’ve begun to say it doesn’t have to be between a man who is legally obliged to do one sort of thing, but not anything else. And a woman who is legally obliged to obey but doesn’t have equal rights in the outside parts of the marriage. So, once you’ve done that, and opened the way to truly, a marriage that is based upon individual love, you have also opened the way to getting past a gender stereotype.

And that part about marrying the ghost. I remember in your book, “A History of Marriage’, getting to that part. And I was walking down the street laughing out loud, because it talks about how marriage was this kind of oppressive, daunting concept for a lot of women. And so, in a family of, as it says, one of the sisters had already declared herself a spinster. All the others had to marry off, and when one of these options was, the ability to marry a deceased man, or his spirit, or the ghost, in order for his family to have a daughter-in-law and for the girl’s family to have these in-laws. The women would vie over who got to marry the dead man, so that they wouldn’t have to give up all their independence to be in, what at the time, a marriage was like with a living man.

Yes, that I found that very amusing too. You would read these oral histories of women. Just in China, when the silk industry began to develop, women got a certain amount of independence. That’s the historical route to independence for women is these niches of taking their traditional women’s work, in the home, outside and being able to earn wages for it. And many of these women’s social workers did not want to obey the Confucian Law of the three ambiances. Which is first, you obey your father, then your husband, then your son. So when they heard of a good family that [inaudible 00:06:48] had lost the son that they thought their parents would approve of they marrying into. They reported that they would vie with each other, to get there first, and make sure that they got his hand in marriage instead of a live oppressor.

[laughter] Live oppressor. And then, there were even mentions of where, the family didn’t have any more children left, so they would marry off a foot of somebody, or even the dog. So just comical…

That was much more rare. But yes, there are a couple of indigenous societies that did that. Because it was a way of establishing trading partners and there was absolutely no sense that this, was a marriage, that would involve sex or love or anything. It was just a way of saying, we recognize that we have a special relationship with this family that sets up obligations on both sides.

And creates reciprocity, and resources in a way that interestingly enough, when you look back and think about how, not desperate, but, proactive even more so, people were in seeking out resources outside their home, outside their bloodline to create this community. And then, today’s society, the ways in which perhaps we’ve become more inter-focused and our communities are less widespread. In a way digitally, more broad, but in terms of how many close friends we go to, or how many people we count on for shared resources, or help. The number of people in the United States say that, they could call up, any day, if they needed them, has actually been going down over the past few decades. And so, the interesting discrepancy between these two styles.

Well there’s so many trade-offs in history. Actually, I’ve been reading a lot of very new research since I wrote my last books that suggests that kinship wasn’t the cause of sharing, but the outcome of sharing. It now appears that the most ancient ancestors, forging ancestors, moved back and forth between households and not all blood related. But at a certain point you eat together, you share, you call each other kin and then that becomes a way of extending, sharing and codifying it and institutionalizing it, which is great for a small-scale society. But as you say, when you begin to get the kind of mobility in market society we have, you have to go beyond kinship. And I think one of the progressive things about the development of free market and capitalism was that sense that obligations have to extend beyond who you’re related to.

They have to be objective of course, at a certain point. On the other hand, you get the extension of the market economy to everything and that begins to undermine some of these personal ties. But what you say about friends and family is interesting to me, because I’m also doing a lot of research right now on the sorts of social ties that people need and that really make us feel good. One thing that I have known for a while is that it’s your friendship. It’s not whether you have a partner, whether you’re married, that determines how you do as you age, and mentally, and physically, but how wide your social networks are. And of the social networks, friendship networks are even more important than family networks. I suspect that’s because you can get rid of a friend who’s not supportive, who is stressful, but it’s harder to get rid of a family member.

So it does, these voluntary ties that you’re talking about are becoming increasingly important to us and some of our technology, and our consumerism is getting in the way of that. I worry, for example, just about the extent to which we are losing informal interactions, that somebody wants called consequential strangers. It turns out that if you interact with somebody just to exchange pleasantries, that improves your mood for not only a day, sometimes for a week. And as we have apps do everything, all of our interaction with other people, I think we may be losing that kind of really important contact with people who are not deep friends. But the people who just, we enforced the fact that we are members of a community, that we have social interactions with other people.

Yes. I just chatted the other day with Nick Epley who studies exactly that and they’ve done some of these studies on the Metro where they require people to talk to a stranger during their commute. While everybody predicts they will be much less happy talking to a stranger, and that the stranger will not be very open to talking to them. They essentially had a 100% response rate from the strangers. The strangers were much more open to talking to them and wanting to learn, and exchange information, and connect with these people than they had expected. And everybody also, basically, reported regardless of being an introvert or an extrovert, being happier in the instance of being forced to talk to a stranger rather than, than sitting on their own. And so, reminders of these small benefits, and in the happiness research that it’s not actually the depth of that, the happiness experiences, that really, really is what contributes to our overall wellbeing and happiness. But the frequency.

Yes, yes. I didn’t know that particular study, but there’s lots of other evidences that shows the same thing. And so I get worried when all you interact with are Siris and Alexis, in order to [inaudible 00:12:29].

I haven’t had much luck interacting with… I’ve never used Siri, but Alexa. Whenever I’m at my brother’s house, she doesn’t seem to understand anything anyone is saying. So kind of going back a bit more into the history and these other very interesting cases. There’s also, in your research, you talk about how same sex marriages were widely accepted in cases in which one of the persons in the relationship had taken on a traditional gender role. So it was more a gender marriage versus a sex-based marriage. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?

Well first of all, we should be cautious about using traditional gender roles, because of Gender [inaudible 00:13:23] Labor has been around for a long time, but it’s not always been the same it’s very [inaudible 13:28}.

Right. Thank you. It’s very stereotyped, perhaps? Stereotypes, gender roles.

Most societies have found in the past, that there’s some efficiency to some kind of gender division of labor. The earliest societies that hunted with surrounds where the entire group surrounds an animal, an animal herd and gradually moves them into some kind of trap where they can easily be dispatched. That was pretty much the whole band would take place. But once you get projectile weapons and some people going out to hunt from which you can come home, really successful and share with the whole group. Or you may come home, but none of them had gotten anything. That began to be divided. And it made sense for women to be the ones who continued gathering. You didn’t have to put down your baby to run after an animal and you are less likely to risk injury. So, you get these kinds of divisions of labor, and some societies have different ones.

For example, the idea that the traditional division of labor was the male breadwinner, the female staying at home is completely wrong right up until the 18th century, late 18th century. A man never described themselves as a sole provider, unless he was asking for pity, because his wife was not available to share the laborers on the farm or the business. But the point is that yes, because most of the societies have had some division of labor by gender. Many of them accepted same sex marriages. If one wanted to play the gender role of the other. In other words, if I wanted to act as an Africa, as a female husband, I wanted to be the one who raise the cows, or I wanted to be a hunting woman. Then, I might take another woman for my wife, to do the more traditional female roles. And it would not be considered a same sex marriage.

And some of those same sex marriages as far as we can tell, actual sexual attractions were heterosexual, some were, same sex. But there was a tremendous variety. What’s really new, in the history of marriage and one of our best opportunities, but our biggest challenges, is that, for the first time ever, we have decided that marriage is something that everyone has a right to do, but also the option not to do. And we’ve decided that marriage ought to be based upon a mutuality of service, right up until the 1970s. I think most people probably know, that a man cannot be charged with rape because a woman owed sexual services to her husband. And so legal definition of rape in all states of America and around the world, most of the world, was a forcible sexual intercourse with someone other than your wife. Now we can change that.

Perhaps even more importantly, we’ve begun to change the rules in America. We’ve abandoned them completely now. The idea that men had more rights to decide what happened to the community property, than the woman did. And at the very latest change, and this is where it became gender neutral. It used to be that woman owed comfort, consortium it was called. Comfort services around the home, to the man. And if she died, he could sue for the loss of her consortium. The man owed breadwinning. And if he’d died, she could sue for breadwinning to compensate for anyone who caused a death and lost her access to his wages. But vice versa, you couldn’t sue the other way around, and that changed in the seventies and eighties. And now, really how we define marriage is that it’s an association of equal people who can decide who does what, outside the home and inside the home.

And increasingly, in majority of people believe that those things should be shared, and that’s the basis of a satisfying marriage. The most recent research shows that it is. There’ve been a tremendous transformation in just 40 years. Back in 1992 when they collected a studies of marriages over the long trend, they found that people who had the very traditional 19th century traditional division of labor where the man was the breadwinner, and the woman did the housework and the childcare, they reported highest marital satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. And the people who had different arrangements, including more egalitarian ones, were less satisfied. But in marriages formed since the 1990s, the opposite is true. The couples who are most satisfied and report the best sex, and the highest marital satisfaction are the ones who share breadwinning, child care, and housework. But of course, we still don’t share equally.

So that’s what I meant by the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge. This represents a real opportunity for people to enter into a relationship that does not deprive them of one half of their human potential and say, you only have to do this kind of thing, because it suits your gender stereotype. But at the same time, it says you can decide how you’re going to divide things yourself as individuals. And it turns out that you will be much happier if you do this in an egalitarian way. And yet, we have all these old tapes in our heads that tell us that men have to do this, and that we women are better at that. And of course, baked into all of our institutions, especially in the United States with its lack of parental leave policies. But in the way we organize work, our school hours, everything is the assumption, that this actually relatively abberant family form of male breadwinner, female homemaker, is the way that the future will be organized. And so, it’s very difficult for us to break out of these patterns that stand in the way of what seems to make most couples happier.

So much to go off of there. But in the beginning, I was taking note in my head, about how not only was marriage a sharing of resources, but a sharing of skills. And basically, as you described it almost just a division of labor quite frankly, is what it was. And it also kind of led to these highly specialized relationships, or almost agreements. In which, in your book you give the example of, if you were raised in a family as a baker, then perhaps you would look for a partner who had some complimentary baking skills, so that you could really specialize into both of your strengths and collaborate sharing those resources and skills.

So those were, those were actually fore runners with dual-earner marriages. Unlike the 19th century, when once you’ve got wage labor, if you made your money in a bakery as a man, you would go out, and your wife would stay home, and process, and use all of the money that you brought in.

And it’s interesting, because it seems while we have now come to expect so much more from that one person. We have also continued to expect them to be specialized, but in more things with kind of a wider range of skills, not being like a generalist, but a generalist who is specialized in everything that they can do. For example, from being a mentor or coach type personality, to comforting support system, to sexual connection, to all of these things that as a super Al famously refers to as being the things that an entire village used to provide rather than just one person.

Yes, that’s an interesting point. People often say to me, our expectations of marriage are too high. And I usually blanche when people say that, because after studying marriages of the past, when expectations were low, I know about [inaudible 00:21:34]. But I think that the real issue is that as we have expanded our expectations of marriage in good ways, so that we expect the fairness, and intimacy, and equality that was not there in the past. That same time, especially recently, we have developed into a society that is expecting less from the other members of our community. From the corporations who used to be expected to stay in the same community that they were employing people in, and no longer have any of that kind of loyalty. The social safety net has been declining. And the emotional safety net has been declining, as we live in an increasingly volatile, precarious economy with an ideology on the part of political leaders, which is that it’s every man or woman for him or herself. And you don’t succeed it just because you didn’t try enough, and we don’t have time to stop and lend your hand. So, enter that kind of circumstance, and then you pile on top of it, all of the technology, and the speed up, and the fact that you can’t even talk to a real person on the phone anymore. And we are indeed having to expect a lot of other emotional input from our spouse. And so, when people tell me we expect too much of our partner, I say no, I think we expect too little of our society, our community, and our friendship networks. And that we need to learn to expand those and cultivate them the same way that we cultivate on marriages. We work on our marriages, but we don’t work so much on our other relationships.

Yes, I love that. In terms of going back to talking about resources, other people, and our close relationships are the most important and valuable resources we have. So really making sure that we continue to cultivate those other relationships outside of our partnership, which in turn, actually help solidify and strengthen that romantic partnership as well.

Yes, they do. But I want to go back to this study that you quoted earlier too. Our interactions with strangers are very important too, because they establish a certain base level of trust. That means you are not always looking for reassurance from your close friend, or your partner, or whatever. When people feel that they live in a world where they have things in common, where they can talk to people. It’s a much more trusting and relaxed atmosphere. But I agree with your last point, that ironically, focusing on strengthening your relationship with other people actually will strengthen the relationship with your partner. Studies show that people are most satisfied with their partner when they do things outside the home with their partner, and socialize with people other than their partner, and socialize together, and learn new things about new people. So, this is a win, win, situation. If we can avoid the temptations of sitting and streaming movies on television all the time.

Right. And you actually have an article in the New York Times, titled, “For A Better Marriage, Act Like A Single Person”, which isn’t totally what it sounds like, for anybody listening who might immediately be a doubtful. But it’s exactly about the mentality of continuing to explore new things, going out, being social, not just relying on that one person. And in a way it’s almost continuing also to focus on your relationship with yourself. Emma Watson, I recently heard a piece where she says, instead of saying she’s single, she says she’s self-partnered. Because she’s focusing on her relationship with herself, which is debatably our most important relationship, and the foundation of any strong partnerships. So thinking about how even in those partnerships, we can continue to grow, learn, explore with our partner and with ourselves.

 Yes, no, I understand why Emma would say that. But, one of my passionate conclusions, it’s not just an assumption, it’s a conclusion that I’ve drawn in my studies at this [inaudible 26:03], is that there’s no such thing as the self-made person, or a self-partnered person. There can be self-contained, and self-assured, and self-directed people, but all of that comes from having had, relationships with others and that not necessarily romantic relationships. So that’s, I think what Emma’s trying to say. Is that you can be a complete person without romantic relationships.

Yes, yes. Or even just as a relationship status, instead of single, which gives the illusion of you’re on your own while looking for other people, or in no relationship. Versus, well, no, I’m using this time to take what I’ve learned from past relationships. Or focus on the other relationships with other people in my life. Or most importantly, dig deeper within myself. It being a term referring to a process, maybe I would say.

I guess. I would just want to under line and I doubt that you would disagree with me. Digging deep into yourself is probably not the best way to get happiness. Digging deep into the things that bring you meaning and satisfaction, reaching out to others, not in relationships even, but doing things that are meaningful, doing things that help other people. That is, I think, so important to establishing yourself as an individual. And this is why people who think that when they meet the partner, they will be fulfilled, are going for a big disappointment very shortly after the honeymoon wears off. Because unless you’re finding meaningful fulfillment in your own activities, and interactions with the world, not just with your navel, you’re not going to go very far.

And I think part of that though is figuring out, what it is that brings you joy, or what your passions are? That sometimes requires or is helped by taking time on your own. So sometimes not everybody knows that. And so it’s taking that time to discover those things. And then exactly as you mentioned, being able to lean into them more and yeah, focusing on becoming an ‘I’ before you try and become a ‘we’. And realize that when you’re not using those resources and having those important value driving behaviors, and experiences on your own, that another person can’t necessarily give you all of that either.

And then I think, this happiness research that you’ve obviously been talking about with other people, suggest that when you’re actually focused on pursuing happiness, you’re less happy, than when you focus on pursuing meaning, and doing something that makes you feel that you’re contributing. The people who give something away, get much more satisfaction out of that, than people who go and spend it on themselves. There’s actually a selfish reason to be unselfish.

I think it’s interesting, because as you said focusing on being happy, and immediately I was like, yes, because what does that even mean? What is the meaning of happiness? And then I remembered from the research it is finding purpose, and just doing things that you feel connected to and connecting with other people.

And bringing back to marriage, it’s increasingly clear that it is the people who have that kind of purpose on their own, who would do best as singles. Who actually, also, do best if and when they decide to partner. So, a lot of times, in marriages you get a lot of people who want to promote marriage, they think it will be the solution to poverty, loneliness. I think that at all levels, they are misusing social data in a really, really bad way. But one of the things that is really, really clear is that most of the good effects of marriage or what we call the selection effects. Healthier people tend to get married. People who have good relationships with themselves and with the world, tend to have better relationships with other people. And so when people say to you, Oh, you’ll be so better off if you’re married. They’re usually comparing a sample of some people who are single because they want to be single, but they’re not selecting them out. They’re lumping them in with people who are unhappily single and would be unhappily married. And with people who are divorced, or usually less happy, than people who never married at all. So, I don’t think anybody should be bullied in thinking that the marriage is going to solve their problems, or fooled into thinking that it will be. But once it’s entered into, marriage today, can be a really rewarding experience. Precisely, because it’s no longer a mandatory experience and you can live quite well without it. That’s the interesting fun paradox.

 And for some reason, what popped into my mind when you said isn’t mandatory. It’s interesting now too, divorce wasn’t even legal in a lot of places until somewhat very recently, let alone socially acceptable. At least, in places like the U.S. now, where it’s almost joked about, or more commonplace. It almost seems not only is getting married not mandatory but staying married almost isn’t mandatory. And I’d be curious what your thoughts are in terms of people going into or considering going into the institution of marriage. I guess what kind of outlook you think is more beneficial?

Well, this is a very complicated thing. Let me just step back and show you a pattern that’s emerging globally. And that is that as women begin to get education, economic independence, and more freedom, the divorce rate tends to rise. But as they start to consolidate those, and as men start to accept it, which we’ve found happening in many of the Western European countries and increasingly in America, the divorce rate actually starts to decrease even though it gets easier to get a divorce. And I think a couple of things are at work here. First of all, you can’t just pretend you don’t have the ability to leave the marriage, you do now. So, you have to, when you’re entering a marriage, you have to be realistic about the fact that divorce is a possibility. Which means that you have to think through whether you would want to go through that, and what you would do to avoid it.

I think the most important thing, is that people are now being more selective in who they marry, and when they marry. Now there’s an increasing rise in the age of marriage. Increasingly people are saying, well, I want to get my education. I want to get rid of my debts before I get married. All these things are good signs that a marriage will last. And then, once you enter that marriage, it is no longer, what used to keep marriages together, was the fact that women had no options, no longer keeps marriages together. So the dynamics of how you handle disagreements and stuff changed too. It used to be that a woman, we women would just keep quiet, because we didn’t want to rock the boat. We didn’t want him to leave us. We would be helpless without it or we would just adjust to it.

Or occasionally we’d get so mad that we’d asked for a divorce, and he’d be blindsided by it. A lot of therapists say that this is what happened to their older couples. Because the man didn’t even realize how unhappy she was and was just not attuned to it. In today’s modern couples, we have to be really clear. (a) That we admire and respect the other person. Because if you’re constantly asking for change, then maybe you shouldn’t have started this in the first place. but (b) that you have the right to ask for change, and to ask directly. And that this is something that should be discussed between you. And as that happened, I think we will get more marriages that as we have been. The divorce rate in the United States has been falling since the end of the 1970s. And particularly for educated couples, we’re finding that men are less threatened by women. It used to be that it raises the risk of divorce if a woman had more education or earn more money than a man. And even today, you would get these self-help people telling you, Oh, if you earn more money, be quiet about it. The man be threatened. Well, if you’re going to be threatened, you better off leaving him right now. But in general, most men are now able to accept that, and it is no longer a risk factor for divorce.

In this week’s episode we talk with Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at The Evergreen State College, the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and a celebrated author of five books on gender, family and history.  In our conversation, we focus on the social and political significance of marriage throughout history and its changing paradigm in the modern world. We also discuss the importance of centering our partnerships around a mutuality of service, the lessons we can learn from same-sex couples and the dire need to foster community and loose connections in a chronically disconnected society. 

All About the In-Laws

Forget about love and romance. Stephanie explains how the concept of marriage was originally created as a way to broaden your familial network and social power. As an example, she references an old Anglo-Saxon custom of marrying off a woman to an enemy tribe in order to keep the peace between two groups. And in stratified societies, marriage has always been a vehicle of social mobility

You Heard That Right…Ghost Marriages Exist

The desire to secure social status through marriage is so extreme, it has led to the practice of “ghost marriages.” Records of ghost marriages date back to the Han dynasty in 200 AD, with the most common arrangement being two families marrying off their dead children in order to unite the families and officially become in-laws. In other cases, financially independent women would choose to marry a deceased man in order to maintain her autonomy, while simultaneously appeasing her family and gaining the respectable title of “wife.” Spunky or spooky? You decide. 

There are so many illusions about what a traditional marriage is.

Focus On Friends

Again on again, our guests on the show state the importance of cultivating meaningful friendships, as well asinformal interactions with strangers, in order to increase your level of happiness. Asking your romantic partner to fill all your social needs is an incredibly tall (read: impossible) order, and will most likely lead to frustration and restlessness within the relationship. So take that girls/guys night out. 

Ironically, focusing on strengthening your relationship with other people actually will strengthen the relationship with your partner. 

Gendered Division of Labor in Marriages

Most societies have had some gendered division of labor, originally born out of practicality. Stephanie references hunter-gatherer societies, where women were largely tasked with gathering — an activity that enabled women to watch over the children, as opposed to hunting. Many of these same societies accepted same-sex marriages if one of the partners wanted to take on the tasks of the opposite gender role. But as Judeo-Christian beliefs became more widespread, marriage began to be viewed as a means to procreation, and same-sex marriages slowly became taboo.

Marriage: An Association of Equals

Back in 1992, studies found that couples who had very traditional ideas of gender roles and division of labor reported the highest levels of marital and sexual satisfaction, surpassing couples who had more egalitarian views on labor division. But since 1992, the opposite has been found to be true. Couples who share tasks and view one another as equals report the highest levels of marital and sexual satisfaction. 

We have all these old tapes in our heads that tell us that men have to do this and women are better at that, and of course it’s baked into all of our institutions…so it’s very difficult for us to break out of these patterns that stand in the way of what seems to make most couples happier.

A Note on Selection Effects

Selection effects, or selection bias, is an experimental error that happens when the participant pool of a study is not representative of the target population. For example — studies may claim that marriage makes you happier or that marriage makes you healthier, when in reality healthier and happier people tend to get married. This is called reverse causality

The Benefits of No-Fault Divorce

In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the first no-fault divorce statute into law, and since then, all U.S. states have followed suit. No-fault divorce is a divorce where no proof of wrongdoing needs to be shown by either party. Statistics in the U.S. and abroad — as more countries enact similar legislation — show that the adoption of no-fault divorce initially leads to an increase in divorce rates. However, over time, the divorce rate tends to go down, as do the rates of domestic violence and wife suicide.

Marriage: A Continuous Choice 

Marriage is a daily choice — a choice to stay committed to the growth and evolution of your partner as an individual and your partnership as a whole. Stephanie emphasizes the importance of fostering relationships and seeking out experiences outside of the actual partnership in order to keep a romantic relationship alive. Again and again, studies have proven that the happiest couples are those who have robust and meaningful social networks.

One of the best ways to continue to choose your partner is to continue to choose others as well, in the sense that you choose to socialize with other people, to have new experiences, to learn new things, to bring home new things to each other. 

The Triumph — and Fear — of the Love Match

In the 19th century, the definition of marriage was drastically impacted by the idea of the “love match,” or the idea that young people could choose whom they wanted to marry. Traditionalists feared that this would disrupt the social (hierarchical) order as they no longer had the social control to dictate family structures. 

What We Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples

One of the things that same-sex couples do much better than heterosexual couples is dividing the household workmore fairly and evenly, basing the division of work on the individual’s strengths and preferences instead of falling back on superficial gender stereotypes. Same-sex couples find it much easier to discuss and tackle these issues compared to heterosexual couples. 

A Note on Recognizing — and Unlearning — Our Own Social Conditioning

I personally find that knowing the history and the social context of issues I’ve had with my husband often helps me step back from it and de-personalize it. It makes it something we can discuss as a symptom of larger things that are happening to everyone.

Stephanie’s Recommended Research

About the Expert

Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz

Director of Research & Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families

Stephanie Coontz is the Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families and emeritus faculty of History and Family Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She currently serves as an advisor to MTV for its anti-bias campaign.  She has written books on family, gender, and history including Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which was cited in the US Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

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