Last month, I read Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz. Spiffy title, eh? The book’s even better!
I will not attempt to summarize this book. For one thing, it’s over 400 pages long, and them pages is dense. (Not like those 20 large-print-words-per-page Harry Potter books.) Additionally, there are a lot of things I should be doing right now, and none of them involve describing how marriage came to be, when marrying to obtain useful in-laws or tame your enemies gave way to sentimental marriages, or how that arrangement gave way to modern, sexual marriages. I will not waste time suggesting that, if you ever become a peasant, you choose a spouse whose land lies near yours and whom has already proven his/her fertility by bearing an illegitimate baby or two. Even if I understood why Victorians found sex too foul for one’s pure, virtuous wife to participate in regularly, I couldn’t begin to tell you why Victorians found masturbation more sinful than frequenting prostitutes. A head-scratcher, that one.
I WILL take a moment to discourage you from becoming royalty, as this greatly increases your chance of being murdered by your spouse, children, in-laws, or possibly even your own parents. You deserve better than that.If you insist on becoming royalty, at least promise me you won’t marry King Henry VIII.
I will also postpone my work long enough to quote a few pithy tidbits. Get comfy, this may take awhile:
Wait, what good old days?
“…for thousands of years, people have been proclaiming a crisis in marriage and pointing backward to better days. The ancient Greeks complained bitterly about the declining morals of wives. The Romans bemoaned their high divorce rates, which they contrasted with an earlier era of family stability. The European settlers in America began lamenting the decline of the family and the disobedience of women and children almost as soon as they stepped off the boats.
“Worrying about the decay of marriage isn’t just a Western habit. In the 1990s, sociologist Amy Kaler, conducting interviews in a region of southern Africa where divorce has long been common, was surprised to hear people say that marital strife and instability were new to their generation. So Kaler went back and looked at oral histories collected fifty years earlier. She found that the grandparents and great-grandparents of the people she was interviewing in the 1990s had also described their own marital relations as much worse than the marriages of their parents’ and grandparents’ day. “The invention of a past filled with good marriages,” Kaler concluded, is one way people express discontent about other aspects of contemporary life. ” (p. 1-2)
“For years, historians and public-policy makers have debated why lifelong marriage and male breadwinner families began to unravel in the 1970s. The real question, I now believe, is not why things fell apart in the 1970s. The but why they didn’t fall apart in the 1790s, or in the next crisis of the 1890s, or in the turmoil of the 1920s, when practically every contemporary observer worried that marriage was ‘on the rocks.’ And the answer is not that people were better partners in the past or better able to balance the search for individual self-fulfillment and the need for stability. The reason is that for the most part they could not yet afford to act on their aspirations for love and personal fulfillment.” (p. 8-9)
Note to self: don’t be a woman in ancient Rome
“The ancient Romans had no problem with homosexuality, and they did not think that heterosexual marriage was sacred. The reason they found male-male marriage repugnant was that no real man would ever agree to play the subordinate role demanded of a Roman wife. Today, by contrast, many heterosexual couples aspire to achieve the loyal, egalitarian relationships that Greek and Roman philosophers believed could exist only in a friendship between two men.” (p. 11)
Wait, how does he know so much about this slimy glue?
“In the Middle Ages, women were thought to be the lustier sex, and in their campaign against clerical marriage, the Gregorian reformers were vitriolic in their denunciations of how women entangled men in ‘the slimy glue’ of their sexuality. In the mid-eleventh century, a prominent reformer wrote that women were ‘bitches, sows, screech-owls, night-owls, she-wolves, blood-suckers’ who seduced clerical men with the ‘appetizing flesh of the devil.’ He thundered: ‘Hear me, harlots, with your lascivious kisses, your wallowing places for fat pigs.’ Leave your clerical husbands and lovers or face enslavement. (p. 120-121. Doesn’t it seem like the closing quotation mark should come after the word “enslavement”?)
This also summarizes my experiences as a Mormon
“One reason people didn’t find fault with the 1950’s model of marriage and gender roles was that it was still so new that they weren’t sure they were doing it right. Millions of people in Europe and American were looking for a crash course on how to attain the modern marriage. Confident that ‘science’ could solve their problems, couples turned not just to popular culture and the mass media but also to marriage experts and advice columnists for help. If the advice didn’t work, they blamed their own inadequacy.” (p. 235)
“A 1950’s family that looked well functioning to the outside world could hide terrible secrets. Both movie star Sandra Dee and Miss America of 1958, Marilyn Van Durbur, kept silent about their fathers’ incestuous abuse until many years had passed. If they had gone public in the 1950s or early 1960s, they might not even have been believed. Family ‘experts’ of the day described incest as a ‘one-in-a-millon occurrence,’ and many psychiatrists claimed that women who reported were simply expressing their own oedipal fantasies.
“In many states and countries a nonvirgin could not bring a charge of rape, and everywhere the idea that a man could rape his own wife was still considered absurd. Wife beating was hardly ever treated seriously. The trivialization of family violence was epitomized in a 1954 report of a Scotland Yard commander that ‘there are only about twenty murders a year in London and not all are serious— some are just husbands killing their wives.'” (p. 241)
Leave It To Beaver: the eye of the storm
“This unprecedented marriage system was the climax of almost two hundred years of continuous tinkering with the male protector love-based marital model invented in the late eighteenth century. That process culminated in the 1950s in the short-lived pattern that people have since come to think of as traditional marriage. So in the 1970s, when the inherent instability of the love-based marriage reasserted itself, millions of people were taken completely by surprise. Having lost any collective memory of the convulsions that occurred when the love match was first introduced and the crisis that followed its modernization in the 1920s, they could not understand why this kind of marriage, which they thought had prevailed for thousands of years, was being abandoned by the younger generation.” (p. 228)
Clearly, I found this book engrossing and well worth my time. I wholeheartedly recommend it to those interested in marriage, social history, or reading and reviewing long books to avoid their more pressing responsibilities.