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Episode 39: The Myth of Marriage (2/2)

In this week’s conversation with Stephanie Coontz, we discuss the history of marriage, its social and political significance, and the 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 and same-sex couples. 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
One of the big ironies of the adoption of no-fault divorce, in any country and a state that has done it so far, is that initially leads to a big increase in divorce. But then, it also leads at the same time, to a decrease in domestic violence, in wife’s suicides. And in the long run, especially, well I think almost exclusively in countries where women have economic and educational independence, and this is began to grow over time. We also see another big interesting curvilinear thing. The divorce rate initially goes up, because women are wanting change in traditional marriage, and men are resisting it. But as men accept it more, and as women get more options, not even to enter a marriage that doesn’t look like it will be satisfying, the divorce rate tends to go down. So here in the United States, the divorce rate has been falling since the 1980s.

So, divorce certainly isn’t going to go away. And in fact, the divorce rate for couples in their fifties and sixties has actually gone up, because people are no longer willing to stay in an empty shell marriage, if that’s what happens. But it’s certainly having easy divorce, has lots and lots of benefits and it doesn’t have to be a threat to a marriage if in fact, people are aware, that they need to do marriage in a different way. Now that people have options outside marriage. And especially now that women are equal. Because a lot of the dynamics of marital discussions used to be based upon women hinting around, trying to get the men to understand what was going on, or just accommodating, accommodating, accommodating until they couldn’t bear it anymore. And that doesn’t work anymore.

Sasza
I’d also heard that statistic about the baby boomer age, the divorce rates going up later on in life. But then younger couples, the divorce rate going down, and that seems to have a lot to do with the egalitarian marriages you mentioned earlier on. And since the 1990s, how those had transformed themselves into being the most satisfactory marriages. After a long period of struggle in which this satisfaction was related to being the opposite of, and more of those stereotypical roles. And then after a certain point, shifted into that becoming now the more successful and fulfilling model.

Stephanie
Yes. I don’t think though we can take it for granted. Actually, demographers debate and sociologists debate about this older divorces among older couples. And some of them think it will completely die down because these are couples that have probably been married couple of times, many of them. And they come from that earlier divorce prone baby boom age. But I think that our standards of marriage are so much higher than they used to be. That it’s really important to understand that, for example, in during the childbearing stages where it is increasingly kind of a joint effort that’s going to keep you together. But if you don’t work on not just your relationship, but your ability to have an interesting life together, afterwards. I think that people may find that, once the kids are gone, if they continue to slide by. Or even while the kids are there, and they don’t live up to the new expectations of equality, that resentments or discontents may build up that come later. So marriage is something that, in a way, it never was before. That you have to renew. So, I don’t think anybody has gone along with what you mentioned earlier, it expires and you have to physically renew it at the license bureau. But I think we all have to remember that we have to renew it, in terms of making sure that our relationship grows as we grow.

Sasza
Right. And one of the most important things as some experts say, but also people who are close to me have mentioned, one of the most important parts of their partnership is just continuing to choose that person. Continuing to work on things, or seek out new ways to be happy, or explore, or learn together. Just continuing to choose that, especially now, in this day and age when it is a choice.

Stephanie
Yes. Well, there’s a couple of different ways to do that though. For example, you can choose to stay home with your partner, or go out on date nights and stare into each other’s eyes soulfully after and try to think of new things to say. But the research suggests that one of the best way to continue to choose your partner is to continue to choose others as well. Not in the sexual sense, that I mean. But 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 because that’s what keeps the marriage alive, or the relationship. It’s true for cohabitating relationships too.

Sasza
And I always comment, well, people think it’s so important and focus on exploring, or having fun in the bedroom, how trying new things, whether it’s in the kitchen, or in the gym, or on a trip. It’s kind of that same, it’s that attitude and doing those things elsewhere, also lends itself to deeper connection, inside the bedroom. Or it builds a foundation, and it builds a curiosity, and overcoming obstacles, and unfamiliar territory and trying things you might not be good at. But learning and improving and it’s all kind of tied together. And it’s so much more than putting on an outfit or one date night.

Stephanie
I agree completely.

Sasza
So, you have touched on this in your research, but also in our interview thus far, this kind of political influence. And so that’s going back in history to Cleopatra and using marriage as a political tool, and power and all of that. But then, all the way up through rather than politics being, as the consequence of, it’s the cause of shaping this institution, shaping our relationships from media campaigns, political campaigns. That, stereotype gender roles in the 50s and stuff like that. So, I’d love for, I know this is a huge topic, but I’d love to kind of dive a bit deeper into helping people understand the political, socioeconomic, and media influence on both ends, the giving and receiving end of our relationships and marriage.

Okay. All right. So yes, I had asked you the tall question, about politics and the way they shape our relationships from, in history, it being one of the purposes of marriage was, political gain. To later for example, in the 50s, it becoming something that actually influenced the way we view them, and acted. For example, with gender stereotyped advertisements. So, the ways in which socioeconomics, but politics and the media mostly, have shaped our relationships.

Stephanie
Marriage has been used politically, for thousands of years. It was used very directly to control. There were political battles over who could marry whom. They were political maneuvering in order to get the best marriages, because marriage was so important in terms of gaining political and economic power. Over the last couple of hundred years, politics and marriage had changed in a different way. And I think the thing that has most influenced us, comes from about the 19th century. And that is, that two things coincided there that changed our definitions of marriage and our definitions of marital roles. One was the triumph of the love match. The idea that young people should be able to choose who they wanted. That scared the heck out of traditionalist. They said, how are you going to get people to marry the right people? How are you going to prevent them from saying that they should divorce if the love goes away?

So, they were casting around for a way to think about how to make sure that men and women knew that they needed each other and, needed to stay married. And that intersected with other changes in the way that we produce goods, with the development of wage labor, and very, very undeveloped market. So, you needed somebody to go out to work, to earn money to buy the raw materials that used to be made at home or exchanged in the community. But you also needed someone at home to process them. So you got a division of labor which helped create the ideal of the male breadwinner family. Which, as I said earlier, had not been an ideal. Through most of history men and women were considered co-providers, yolk mates, teammates, whatever they wanted to call them. But now, you’ve got this idea that men go out, and they are the ones who represent the family to the outside world. Who deal with the down and dirty business of the market, and the politics. And women stay home and take care of the child and take care of the communal values, and kinship values, that used to be shared more widely in the community and between men and women.

And the result was, a new idea of love as a marriage of opposites. This was not true in a lot of the past. The idea was that men and women had completely different spheres, and skills, and natures, and desires, and that’s not used to be true. It used to be true that women were sort of considered having about the same ideas as men, but they just had to be subordinate, because that’s the way it was. In fact, women were not considered more virtuous to the extent that their men were considered superior. They were considered more virtuous and more superior, and women more prey to religious era and sexual era. Although this reverses in the 19th century, and you get this idea that marriage is no longer based supposedly on hierarchy. It’s based on the union of opposites. And women would have to be under the protection of men.

Men are the ones who do all the things outside, women the inside. And the only way you get access to the skills, emotions, and resources of the other is by getting married. And of course, staying married. So this new ideal of marriage as a union of opposites helped stabilize marriage. It helped explain the differences and different legal rights of men and women, in a world that was somewhat more democratic than the past. It also created all sorts of barriers between men and women, so that women and men were kind of strangers. It really deformed, I think, our ideas of erotic attraction. Whereas, women began to confuse anxiety with attraction, when we had to fall in love with these dangerous characters who knew all these things we didn’t. And who could actually, were so powerful that they could hurt us, unless we won them over to our side. And convince them that we were so feminine, that we need to be protected, and cherished and not dealt with in the brutal way that these male breadwinners dealt with the rest of the world.

And that’s been the theme of romance novels. Most romance novels ever since. Men for their part, learned that manhood was protecting and providing, sometimes that took a nice form of chivalry. Other times it took the form of fury when a woman refused protection. But all of these things, these stereotypes were established then in the 19th century. They were slightly sexualized in the 20th century, but still maintained. And in the 50s, this idea of this gender, family, male breadwinner family also got conflated with the new celebration of a market economy. And it was [inaudible 44:59] was what separated us from Russia. That we had suburban kitchens where our women could cook in their own little kitchen. And the men went off to work, at home and there were these suburbs that we lived in, and that was the American way. And so, in the last 40 years, we have been challenging that organization of work.

We’ve been challenging those ideas about gender. But we have all this leftover, and we have politicians who of course, manipulate the old symbols. Oh, if you would just go back to these 1950s families, everything would be fine. If women would just, know their place or at least regain their place once they got married and had kids, everything would be fine. We wouldn’t have poverty. If there was no divorce and no non-marriage. All of these things that, in fact, nonsense, when you look at the sociological statistics behind them. Had become a political weapon for making people feel guilty, or trying to convince people to ignore social and economic changes that we should making. But they also get internalized, even for those of us who see ourselves as real pioneers of new relationships. They’re still hard to overcome. All these tapes are playing in our head.

Sasza
Yes, I think it’s interesting. There are some ways in which it’s easy to recognize the way the past has influenced the present. But other ways in which it happens more kind of subliminally, almost as we kind of talked about before, the fact that rape was legal in marriages in the U.S. until…

Stephanie
It varied by state. The first state did it in 1976. The last state, I think, did it in about 1993. So, yes.

Sasza
So, when you have these antiquated laws. And, for example, I lived two years in Chile, which is the strongest economy in Latin America. Very modern country in so many ways. And divorce became legal in 2004. So, there are some ways in which it’s obvious that these things affect us. But then other more subtle ways, be it language or policies, especially now, with in our judicial systems, so many things are so difficult to overturn, with same sex marriage. The past continues to shape the present whether we know it or not.

Stephanie
Well it does so in so many different ways. One way of course is the extent to which we took a market economy that worked well, as long as it was involved in some kind of regulation, and some kind of limits. And have turned that into an idea that everything can be commodified. That corporations itself are people, even though they can’t be held to account for crimes that they commit. So that’s one problem that we face. And especially, in countries that don’t have enough social protections for families, in terms of raising their children and taking time off from work. The other one is a more insidious one, and that is that even among people who really want to be egalitarian, we have these leftover ideas that in some ways are very comforting to fall back on, when things get hard to forge a more egalitarian relationship. There’s a side of male protectiveness and even mansplaining, that is understandable. That is an attempt to say, Here, I’d like to help out. Many women really cling to this idea that we have better knowledge, and better skills, and the emotional world. And in the raising of children, or even the housekeeping. I talk a lot of, date keeping is often referred to when a woman says, I want you to help with the child or [inaudible 49:06] but then says, I want you to do it my way. You can be my unskilled assistant. And my husband caught me a couple of years ago, reloading the dishwasher after he’d loaded it. And he said, well, what motivation do I have to load the dishwasher if you’re going to treat me as though I do it wrong? And I went, you’re right you know.

So, all of these things, in addition to the really bad ones, that most of us agree we’d like to root out, even if we don’t always know how to do it. There are these ones that are softer, but in many ways very destructive because they give us the excuse to fall back on these easy gender roles. That in fact, in the long run, are not easy and that extract a cost on mothers, fathers and kids. But don’t seem oppressive in the way that the old rules did. So I think that’s something that we all need to struggle with. And really figure out what in our relationship are we sliding by on, that in the long run may come back to bite us.

Sasza
Yes. I remember when we first chatted, how you mentioned that if women want to be viewed as equally capable breadwinners, then they need to try and view men as equally capable home keepers, or child rearers, et cetera. And to kind of flip the coin in that like anti-cliché way to turn things around. I always love, trying to think about things from the other perspective. And how great of a point that is from both sides of the coin.

Stephanie
It’s hard to do, because you can have it as a bit of a have a cake and want it too. I love my husband to do all the unskilled labor in the kitchen. You chop the celery, and the onions, and stuff, but I get to do the creative end part.

Sasza
Yes. Go ahead Bob, compromise. Although I guess that the idea is though, compromise would involve coming to a middle where people both give in on what they want. Versus finding a match that works for both people and benefits both people. And is a choice. Same sex marriage is a benefit or going to be a benefit to a heterosexual marriages, as well. Because one of the things that same sex couples do much better than heterosexual couples is, not only divide the work more fairly or evenly, but also divide it on a more individualized basis.

Stephanie
It’s not that everybody has to do exactly the same thing, or half of everything. But when men and women who are in a heterosexual relationship start talking about who does what. They have so many gender stereotypes to fall back on and so much experience,. I know how to do this kind of cooking, you know how to set mousetraps. It’s just easy to divide it in ways that don’t necessarily fit the kind of growth that we’d like to see in ourselves or our partner. And same sex couples talk about this division a lot more than different sex couples do. And so, that’s something we can learn from them in terms of improving our relationships.

Sasza
I had actually read that it’s not a division of the tasks in any way, but more a sharing of all of them, that lends itself to greater success and satisfaction in those relationships.

Stephanie
I think you can overdo that. You don’t have to share everything 50/50.

Sasza
Right. No, no, no. Just in some way.

Stephanie
But yes, for example what Dan Carlson’s research shows is that the things that make women most unhappy is when the dishes aren’t shared. And I completely see that, because that’s a task that takes place after dinner where the other partner is probably going to be doing relaxing. And it just sounds, it’s just annoying to have to do that all by yourself. If that were traded off, or there were other things, that’s quite a different situation. And the thing that makes men happiest is, when the shopping is shared. That makes them happier than when the wife does it all, or when they do it all. And I think that’s a really good. I suspect that reflects the fact that in really specialized divisions of labor, when women are gatekeepers, they don’t trust the man to do the shopping, to make those kinds of decisions. They’ve got to be in charge. So that shared task probably reflects what we’ve been talking about, the confidence and trust that your partner may make a few different decisions than you do. But is perfectly capable of making good decisions. And you can learn from them, and even if they aren’t the ones you made, it’s going to work.

Sasza
Going back to how it’s these traditions from the past in one of the articles I read, while I was reading up on you and your research. Discussing weddings and how much of that, from the color of the dress, to giving away the daughter, to having these first dances, and these agreements, or asking permission. All of these things that on paper would seem very antiquated in many ways but are still followed. And so I guess that could be seen as a positive or a negative. But there was this one part that discussed how the reason a wedding became about the woman, and this big day for her. Was, as it says in this article, women’s understanding that marriage required them to subordinate their personhood, to the role of devoted wife. It helps explain why so many women began to think of their wedding day as their last occasion to shine. So what is now this big day in celebration? It actually comes from the fact that it was like, well, you won’t really be a person after this. Cheers to your independence. Hope you look as pretty as you can, and have as much fun as you can, on this last day.

Stephanie
Yes. This was this was a pretty common theme in 19th century women’s diaries and letters. They knew they had to get married so they were often really in a hurry to accept a proposal. But once they had the proposal, they would often really postpone the wedding date. While the men would push, and push, and push for it. Because that was that in between period where they knew they were going to be provided for. But they still had some independence. And, yes, some of the quotes that you read in that article actually came from men who observed friends of theirs marrying, and said, it’s like they’re being buried, one of the guys said. But it’s also important to recognize the lot of the wedding traditions are in fact class status things. For example, white, people think that women wear white because that was a sign of virtue.

Actually, the traditional color for virginity and virtue was blue, not white. White became popular after Queen Victoria wore it at her wedding. And I think a lot of the reason it became popular was white was a real class signifier. For one thing, if you were presented at court, you had to wear a white dress with at least a three-foot train. The other thing is, that in those days with cobblestone streets, no pavement, no cleaning, a white dress was really an extravagance. Up until the twenties and thirties, most women got married in either their best dress or a dress that they bought that they could wear for many, many other occasions. And a white dress was something that even if you wore it again, it was going to take huge amounts of cleaning. And probably you would never wear it again. That train dragging across the ground might never get clean. So it was a huge expression of class status. And one of the few ways that women in a competitive market society that had developed by that time. Where your economic, not your breeding, your wealth, not your breeding was the most important status symbol. It’s the way, the only way that they could compete for that. So when we start doing that same thing in the 21st century, I think we might want to take a closer look. Even though, of course, it feels fun to dress up, but that emphasis on it being the bride’s day is a leftover, from the time when it was in fact, the last day that a bride would shine in her own individual way.

Sasza
It’s interesting how, essentially, the color white also came out of, what would have been then, the Vogue magazine. Looking at these other people or these marketing campaigns. It was a class thing and diamonds also, the engagement ring. And diamonds also came out of essentially, marketing campaigns. So interesting to re-examine the sources of what we consider quote, “traditions”.

Stephanie
And sentiment.

Sasza
Yes, exactly.

Right. Well as we wrap up here, I’d love to just kind of have you give sort of some actionable advice to our listeners. In terms of how you think that they could take what we’ve learned throughout this conversation. And re-examine the way they live their relationships, or perhaps, what they consider these sentiments, or traditions, or stereotypes.

Stephanie
Well, I think that it’s so important for people to, on the one hand, understand how some of the habits that we take for granted are actually reflections of patterns of behavior, that are not good for us as individuals, or for our relationships. Really examine those and see if we can change them. On the other hand, I think it’s also important not to do self-blame, or parent blame, or whatever blame. We have this tendency to think that, Oh gosh, we’ve got to root all this out individually. You can also, at the same time as you’re trying to change, you can let yourself and other people off the hook. By recognizing that some of the conflicts you have in your relationships, the ambivalences you have as a person, are not because you or your partner are bad people, or flawed people, it is because you’ve been getting these messages for these hundreds of years, and particularly strongly for 150 years.

And so it’s understandable to have them. And instead of getting angry about it, or self-blaming about it, why don’t you talk it through? Because I personally find that knowing the history and the social context of issues I’ve had with my husband, or my son, or whatever. Often helps me step back from it and de-pathological, depersonalized it, make it more of something we can discuss as a symptom, of larger things that are happening to everyone.

Sasza
Thank you so much. I have no doubt that will be helpful as people go forward after listening to this. And I look forward to continuing this conversation. And hopefully diving even deeper into some of these subtopics the next time.

Stephanie
Well. Thank you. It was a real pleasure to talk with you.

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

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.