[Marxism] Stephanie Coontz on marriage
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 7 07:58:29 MST 2006
(Stephanie Coontz is a former member of the American SWP)
NY Times, November 7, 2006
Too Close for Comfort
By STEPHANIE COONTZ
EVER since the Census Bureau released figures
last month showing that married-couple households
are now a minority, my phone has been ringing off
the hook with calls from people asking: How can
we save marriage? How can we make Americans
understand that marriage is the most significant
emotional connection they will ever make, the one
place to find social support and personal fulfillment?
I think these are the wrong questions indeed,
such questions would have been almost
unimaginable through most of history. It has only
been in the last century that Americans have put
all their emotional eggs in the basket of coupled
love. Because of this change, many of us have
found joys in marriage our
great-great-grandparents never did. But we have
also neglected our other relationships, placing
too many burdens on a fragile institution and
making social life poorer in the process.
A study released this year showed just how
dependent weve become on marriage. Three
sociologists at the University of Arizona and
Duke University found that from 1985 to 2004
Americans reported a marked decline in the number
of people with whom they discussed meaningful
matters. People reported fewer close
relationships with co-workers, extended family
members, neighbors and friends. The only close
relationship where more people said they
discussed important matters in 2004 than in 1985 was marriage.
In fact, the number of people who depended
totally on a spouse for important conversations,
with no other person to turn to, almost doubled,
to 9.4 percent from 5 percent. Not surprisingly,
the number of people saying they didnt have
anyone in whom they confided nearly tripled.
The solution to this isolation is not to ramp up
our emotional dependence on marriage. Until 100
years ago, most societies agreed that it was
dangerously antisocial, even pathologically
self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and
nuclear-family ties above commitments to
neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion.
St. Paul complained that married men were more
concerned with pleasing their wives than pleasing
God. In John Adamss view, a passion for the
public good was superior to all private
passions. In both England and America, moralists
bewailed excessive married love, which
encouraged men and women to be always taken up with each other.
From medieval days until the early 19th century,
diaries and letters more often used the word love
to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church
members than to spouses. When honeymoons first
gained favor in the 19th century, couples often
took along relatives or friends for company.
Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate
about brother-sister relationships and same-sex
friendships as about marital ties.
The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong
sexual desires among respectable men and women
gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions,
including physical touch, than we see today. Men
wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with
a male roommate, and in each others arms did
friendship sink peacefully to sleep. Upright
Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking
their husbands out of bed when a female friend
came to visit. They spent the night kissing,
hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.
By the early 20th century, though, the sea change
in the culture wrought by the industrial economy
had loosened social obligations to neighbors and
kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals
could meet their deepest needs only through
romantic love, culminating in marriage. Under the
influence of Freudianism, society began to view
intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people
were urged to reject the emotional claims of
friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.
The insistence that marriage and parenthood could
satisfy all an individuals needs reached a peak
in the cult of togetherness among middle-class
suburban Americans in the 1950s. Women were told
that marriage and motherhood offered them
complete fulfillment. Men were encouraged to let
their wives take care of their social lives.
But many men and women found these prescriptions
stifling. Women who entered the work force in the
1960s joyfully rediscovered social contacts and friendships outside the home.
It was so stimulating to have real conversations
with other people, a woman who lived through
this period told me, to go out after work with
friends from the office or to have people over
other than my husbands boss or our parents.
And womens lead in overturning the cult of 1950s
marriage inspired many men to rediscover what
earlier generations of men had taken for granted
that men need deep emotional connections with
other men, not just their wives. Researchers soon
found that men and women with confidants beyond
the nuclear family were mentally and physically
healthier than people who relied on just one
other individual for emotional intimacy and support.
So why do we seem to be slipping back in this
regard? It is not because most people have
voluntarily embraced nuclear-family isolation.
Indeed, the spread of virtual communities on
the Internet speaks to a deep hunger to reach out to others.
Instead, its the expansion of the
post-industrial economy that seems to be driving
us back to a new dependence on marriage.
According to the researchers Kathleen Gerson and
Jerry Jacobs, 60 percent of American married
couples have both partners in the work force, up
from 36 percent in 1970, and the average
two-earner couple now works 82 hours a week.
This is probably why the time Americans spend
socializing with others off the job has declined
by almost 25 percent since 1965. Their free hours
are spent with spouses, and as a study by Suzanne
Bianchi of the University of Maryland released
last month showed, with their children mothers
and fathers today spend even more time with their
youngsters than parents did 40 years ago.
As Americans lose the wider face-to-face ties
that build social trust, they become more
dependent on romantic relationships for intimacy
and deep communication, and more vulnerable to
isolation if a relationship breaks down. In some
cases we even cause the breakdown by loading the
relationship with too many expectations. Marriage
is generally based on more equality and deeper
friendship than in the past, but even so, it is
hard for it to compensate for the way that work
has devoured time once spent cultivating friendships.
The solution is not to revive the failed marital
experiment of the 1950s, as so many commentators
noting the decline in married-couple households
seem to want. Nor is it to lower our expectations
that well find fulfillment and friendship in marriage.
Instead, we should raise our expectations for,
and commitment to, other relationships,
especially since so many people now live so much
of their lives outside marriage. Paradoxically,
we can strengthen our marriages the most by not
expecting them to be our sole refuge from the
pressures of the modern work force. Instead we
need to restructure both work and social life so
we can reach out and build ties with others,
including people who are single or divorced. That
indeed would be a return to marital tradition
not the 1950s model, but the pre-20th-century
model that has a much more enduring pedigree.
Stephanie Coontz, a history professor at
Evergreen State College, is the author of
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.
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