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Marriage A History [Hardcover]

Stephanie Coontz


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Book Description

May 24 2005
Marriage today is held up as a blissful haven of love and friendship, sex and stability. We long for the gold standard, the traditional marriage but marriage turns out to have a checkered past-the "traditional marriage" was evanescent. This real look at what people think of as "traditional" finally explains why so many married people are so unsatisfied.

In this groundbreaking book, award-winning historian Stephanie Coontz takes us on an eye- opening journey from the marital intrigues of ancient Babylon to the sexual torments of Victorian lovers to the current debates over the meaning and future of marriage. She provides the definitive story of marriage’s evolution from the arranged unions common since the dawn of civilization into the intimate, sexually fulfilling but volatile relationships of today.

For most of our history, marriage was not a relationship based on mutual love between a breadwinning husband and an at-home wife, but an institution devoted to acquiring wealth, power, and property. Picking a mate on the basis of something as irrational as love would have been considered absurd. Only in the nineteenth century did marriage move to the center of people’s emotional lives, when the wife became the "angel of the home" and the husband the "provider." Yet these Victorian ideals contain the seeds of today’s marriage crisis. As people began to expect romance and intimacy in their marriages, their unions became more fragile. The postwar era of the 1950s ushered in a brief "Golden Age" of marriage-the Ozzie and Harriet years-but the same advances in birth control, increased individual autonomy, and women’s equality that made marriage more satisfying than it had been in the past also undermined its stability.

Marriage has changed more in the last thirty years than in the previous five thousand, and few of the old "rules" for marriage still apply. In the courts, the op-ed pieces, and at the dinner table, battles rage over what marriage means, why people do it, and who can do it. Marriage, a History is the one book you need to understand not only the vicissitudes of modern marriage but also gay marriage, "living together" and divorce. Stephanie Coontz shatters dozens of myths about the past and future of married life and shows us why marriage, though more fragile today, can be more rewarding than ever before.


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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. When considered in the light of history, "traditional marriage"—the purportedly time-honored institution some argue is in crisis thanks to rising rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, not to mention gay marriage—is not so traditional at all. Indeed, Coontz (The Way We Never Were) argues, marriage has always been in flux, and "almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before." Based on extensive research (hers and others'), Coontz's fascinating study places current concepts of marriage in broad historical context, revealing that there is much more to "I do" than meets the eye. In ancient Rome, no distinction was made between cohabitation and marriage; during the Middle Ages, marriage was regarded less as a bond of love than as a " 'career' decision"; in the Victorian era, the increasingly important idea of true love "undermined the gender hierarchy of the home" (in the past, men—rulers of the household—were encouraged to punish insufficiently obedient wives). Coontz explains marriage as a way of ensuring a domestic labor force, as a political tool and as a flexible reflection of changing social standards and desires. She presents her arguments clearly, offering an excellent balance between the scholarly and the readable in this timely, important book. Agent, Susan Rabiner. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Coontz explores how marriage has evolved, from the introduction of romantic love through modern-day attempts to balance changing sex roles. As society separated marriage from economics, it also made marriage more fragile and subject to the vagaries of emotions. Coontz notes that all of the permutations of marriage that we now consider new and radical have been seen before and that generations throughout history have always looked back in nostalgia at their parents' and grandparents' generations with idealized notions of marriage. Part 1 focuses on the evolution of the idea of marriage for love; part 2 examines the politics of marriage from ancient history through the modern age; part 3 explores how marriage has evolved from the Victorian era to the 1950s Ozzie-and-Harriet model; part 4 looks at the forces that have led to rising divorce rates and challenges to the very definition of marriage. Coontz offers a fascinating and incredible breadth of cultural and historical viewpoints on an institution that is perpetually considered to be in a state of crisis. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  59 reviews
141 of 152 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perpetually relevant, crucial study of how marriages have been formed throughout history April 24 2006
By Robert Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Stephanie Coontz has devoted her career to waging war on ahistorical understandings of the family. She first came to national notice with her now classic book THE WAY WE NEVER WERE: AMERICAN FAMILIES AND THE NOSTALGIA TRAP, which attacked naive attempts to make what she termed the Ozzie and Harriett marriage as somehow normative, a family in which the father worked, the mother stayed at home, both stayed married for a lifetime, and their two lovely children completed an ideal, caring unit. Though massive sifting of historical and statistical materials she was able to show that this picture of the family--a picture that determines even today a vast amount of political debate about "family values"--was even in the fifties largely a myth. Nostalgia, a phenomenon that has long driven right-wing movements, is by its very nature ahistorical, referring to a past that never existed and would be undesirable today even if possible.

In MARRIAGE, A HISTORY: FROM OBEDIENCE TO INTIMACY OR HOW LOVE CONQUERED MARRIAGE Coontz fights nostalgia further by a fascinating and far-ranging study of the history of marriage in Western civilization. What is shocking is learning that so far from being a static, traditional relationship with a fundamental shape and form, marriage is instead a constantly evolving institution that has altered numerous times in the past thousand or so years in response to various social needs or pressures. Changing societal values, alterations in the material conditions at a particular point in time, or even changing ideas about romance have all exerted enormous influence on the understanding and practice of marriage at any particular time. Her discussion essentially renders virtually all right wing rhetoric about the need to protect "family values" or "marriage" utter nonsense. One almost needs to ask, "Of what decade?" The changes wrought in our understanding of marriage over the course of the past two hundred years alone are simply stunning. And the Ozzie and Harriett or male breadwinner marriage alluded to above really only thrived during the economic boom following WW II until its demise in the 1960s. Unless one is willing to ignore completely the lessons of history, any rational, sane individual is going to have to concede that any narrow understanding of what form marriage "must" take is inevitably going to be mistaken.

An enumeration of the interesting bits and pieces found in this book could fill several reviews the length of this one. The book always radiates a mastery of a vast range of facts but never ceases to be thoroughly insightful and even entertaining. This book isn't merely informative: it is fun.

The book also raises some disturbing questions. The book largely refutes the passion for nostalgia and a misguided frenzy to defend "traditional" marriage, but neither does the book revel in the alternatives. In fact, frequently Coontz notes features of modern marriage that makes one wonder if we aren't putting pressure on the institution that it should never have been asked to support. As she points out, while people in recent centuries married for reasons other than love, a marriage was a practical arrangement that met certain very specific needs for people. One discerns a certain reasonableness in their expectations. One sought a coworker, a person to help make a household successful economically, a companion, and a sexual partner for producing children. But today a marriage partner is expected to meet virtually impossible expectations. A wife or husband is supposed to be gorgeous, a best friend, a superb financial contributor to the relationship, sexy, and a marvelous parent. The marriage partnership is viewed as the single most important relationship a modern individual can experience. At no other point in history, as Coontz points out, has a marriage been expected to meet such extraordinary expectations. In the end, one is left wondering if the intense pressures of modern marriage might not lead to some new variant more realistic than the Disney version currently in place.

I'd place this in a short list of the "must read" books of 2005. Because marriage is at the heart of almost every human institution, this book is relevant to virtually every subject. And though it should prove relevant in future decades as well, it is especially important reading in the present, where all kind of cant is being spewed about what marriage "really means." No one should attempt to say what marriage really is or has been without reading this exceptional book.
55 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well researched and provocative June 26 2007
By Anne Rice - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an extremely well researched investigation of the institution of marriage from earliest times to the present. It may prove shocking to some readers to discover how recent our concept of "traditional marriage" may be. But information such as this book provides is essential for those concerned about marital values. History provides us with immensely important lessons regarding the attitudes and feelings of human beings over the centuries; and we must not shrink from the observations made here as we seek to understand the social and economic and even religious crises of our times. The scope of the book is incredibly ambitious yet it is clearly and at times entertainingly written, and always inviting. It can point the way for further research in many areas. On all counts, a fine and important book.
53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating! Nov. 5 2006
By Leda Locke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I can't add much more to the customer review above, except to note that one should keep an open mind while reading...I made the mistake of reading aloud a few passages on the early Christian views of marriage to a Christian friend, and she was very, very insulted and angry, snapping that the author was clearly wrong, as THIS is the way that passage in the Bible should be interpreted, and how dare she write something so blasphemous. I didn't press the matter.

I, however, being rather agnostic, enjoyed it immensely, and learned QUITE a lot! The various views on family structure and what defined a marriage over the centuries was illuminating, and I found myself quoting it to anyone in reach (hence my problem above). It's tilted toward Western culture in the last part of the book, being focused on the American history of marriage, but it's still an excellent read for anyone wanting to see how marriage was looked at in the past.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Has love undermined marriage? Aug. 5 2008
By J. Grattan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
After reading this book, it is abundantly clear that for almost the entire history of mankind, marriages have not been based on love, let alone equality. Marriage was basically a necessity, serving both political and economic purposes, in contrast to the many choices for living arrangments that have appeared in the last fifty years or so. In addition, marriage in the past was all about male domination, a wife having no legal standing whatsoever. Divorce in most settings was nearly impossible. But the introduction of love into forming marriages has been transforming in many ways.

In the absence of formal legal rules and governments, powerful families or tribes generally ruled over territories. Marriages were used to forge alliances among rulers. In the lower classes marriage was an economic necessity - a solitary individual found it almost impossible to survive. Marriages were not formally sanctioned, though the Church in the Middle Ages attempted to impose some control. Fundamentally, the intent of two consenting adults established a marriage. With the rise of constitutional governments and individual rights, women gained some ability to withstand forced marriages, but were still seen as subservient to husbands - not equals. Women because of their "differences" were seen as being suited to the domestic sphere only, but many women chafed at that arrangement.

There is no doubt that the twentieth century saw more changes in marriages and other living arrangements among adults than in all previous eras combined. The changes were uneven, often depending on the state of the economy. The changes of the 1920s, in which potential partners followed their feelings, somewhat regressed during the Great Depression of the 30s. Also, the long decade of the 1950s was somewhat of an anomaly, as the "male breadwinner" marriage predominated featuring the happy housewife surrounded by all her appliances. But that was short-lived.

The 1960s was a time of social unrest and the assertion of rights, and the institution of marriage was not spared examination. The author points to the huge increase of economic opportunity and the entry of women into the workforce and the development of reliable birth control as the primary factors in altering the acceptance of traditional marriage and its limitations and compromises, opening up the possibilities of finding true capatibility and love. However, that idealization of marriage certainly fueled a rise in the divorce rate.

The book because of its breadth, can seem to be a bit jumbled as snippets of information and incidents from many different times, not necessarily strictly chronological, are included. On the other hand, the subtle differences of various eras are quite interesting including the exceptions to women's subservience. Also, in modern times developments in marriage, divorce, workforce participation, etc have been very uneven, which makes for ambiguous statistics and explanations. Despite huge changes in perceptions of marriage, older notions still endure in no small way.

The author is not anti-marriage, claiming that, at its best, it still represents the best living arrangement for two people. But it is evident, that more options exist for those dissatisfied with marriage, which by a large majority are women. The book is a very useful look at the history of marriage, but is hardly the last word on the evolution of marriage, alternatives, relationships, etc.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Want to learn about marriage and relationships? Read this book! June 27 2005
By Dorothy Marcic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Stephanie Coontz has once again written a thoughful, informative and thoroughly readable book. After devouring her THE WAY WE NEVER WERE, I didn't think it could get any better. Oh, was I wrong. Marriage, A History, is so interesting, so captivating, that you will not want to put it down, you will be telling all your friends about it. And, if you are smart, you'll get a book club together to discuss this important piece of work.

As an author and academic myself, I know how much work goes into writing a book. Coontz has done one difficult piece of investigative research--and she makes it interesting, even compelling. Coontz documents the changes marriage has gone through from times past when women were socialized to obey the man, when no one even expected to marry for love. Back then, marriage was for economic and social reasons and the web or family and society kept a couple together. Now we expect to marry for love, but as Coontz shows, love is the most fragile part of the equation. Thus, it has meant a change in how we see marriage, a change in behaviors. Not only do we expect emotional intimacy, but women (in Western societies, anyway) are more equal than before. And so marriage continues to evolve. Coontz also shows how robust the institution of marriage is: try to think of many other institutions that have survived for thousands of years. She also gives honest--and personal--insights into the difficulties of sustaining a happy marriage, as well as the rewards. Consider that married couples in Western countries are generally better off emotionally, economically and are healthier than couples living in other types of arrangements.

So, click on the button and buy this book. You will be thankful you did.

Dr. Dorothy Marcic

Vanderbilt University

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