[Marxism] Stephanie Coontz on marriage

Louis Proyect 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
Op-Ed Contributor
Too Close for Comfort

Olympia, Wash.

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 we’ve 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 didn’t 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 Adams’s 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 other’s 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 individual’s 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 husband’s boss or our parents.”

And women’s 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, it’s 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 we’ll 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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