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Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “traditional marriage”?  For me, being a fiercely liberal woman in the era of Proposition 8, I imagine with derision the various arguments against gay marriage, false nostalgia and the ever increasing money to be made by marketing “a perfect wedding.”*  Perhaps because of my skepticism the mention of that phrase, I was well suited to read Stephanie Coonz’s Marriage: A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.

Never in the book does Coonz regress to the point of my obvious (and stated) bias.  However, she does provide an in-depth chronicle of marriage from pre-history to current day that turns on its head many popular assumptions about the nature of marriage and marital love.  For instance, according to Coonz, it wasn’t until just before the Victorians that marriage began to be about love at all.  Prior to that, marriage was more about the acquisition and maintenance of resources, including not just physical materials, but livestock and in-laws as well.  In fact, by looking at the one people group in written history with no history of marriage, the only unique purpose that marriage provides is the acquisition of in-laws!  This also contradicts the idea that marriage is about the relationship between two people.  Historically, at bare minimum, marriage has been about two people groups with competing interests and things to potentially gain and lose with the partnership.

Within that historical context, marriage in America and Westernized countries in general is at a linchpin.  This change point, Coonz asserts, is not due to the question of gay marriage or the high rate of divorce or the quickening changes in family structures.  It is due to that fact, that presently, marriage is constructed as being about a relationship between two people, as opposed to two people groups.  We are truly living in a historically unprecedented time and the capacity for marital failure is at its highest.  The same reasons that have made the bonds of marriage more tenuous, however, have also allowed space for more marital satisfaction than anyone ever dreamed possible.  Coonz’s conclusion is that it is not only not possible, but not worth, going back to any mystical “golden age” of marriage.  That being said, where will we go from here?

*For a book I really enjoyed about the wedding industry, I highly recommend Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day: The Commercialization of the American Wedding

Coonz, S. (2005) Marriage, a history: how love conquered marriage. Penguin Books: New York, NY

May 2020