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Inside the American CoupleNew Thinking, New Challenges
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
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IntroductionLaura L. Carstensen and Marilyn Yalom
One of the most fundamental urges of human existence is to form a pair. Something in us calls for another-friend, lover, companion, spouse. Or perhaps it is something not in us, some lack, some deficit, that hungers for completion. In the Symposium, Plato fancifully expressed this craving by having Aristophanes contend that the first humans were unseparated twins who, once they were split apart, pined away for the missing half.
Sociobiologists assume that the search for a mate is propelled by an animal instinct to copulate. Human attachment theorists locate the source of adult pairing in the child-mother bond. Anthropologists look to the central importance of kinship systems in human cultures as an explanation for the universality of marriage. Political scientists understand marriage as an institutional means of assuring societal stability. Existentialists see the desire to merge with another as a way of attenuating a basic sense of isolation. Jews and Christians traditionally believe that marriage is ordained by God. Whether primacy is accorded to sexual, psychological, anthropological, political, existential, or religious factors, there is broad agreement that coupledom provides a viable answer to a basic human longing.
Here we are at the dawn of a new millennium still cherishing the belief that being part of a couple represents some central part of being human. Individuals, despite gender and sexual orientation, continue to search for soul mates, to move in together, to vow to love each other, and, when legally allowed, to enter into marriages. Despite myriad modern tendencies that could render long-term couplehood obsolete (such as casual sex, cohabitation, and increase in divorce and single parenting), more than 90 percent of Americans marry at some time during their lives. However anxious we may be as a society in the face of dissolving marriages and dysfunctional families, individuals continue to place their hopes in the marital bond. They exchange public promises to remain together-for better, for worse, for a lifetime. And among those who do not marry, partnering is still very widespread; few people live through adulthood without at least one lengthy, intimate relationship.
Our aim in this volume is to draw attention to issues that question the unspoken traditional practices underlying coupling in America. To accomplish this aim, we turned to feminist scholars who consider the couple in their work and the dramatic changes couples have experienced during the past fifty years, such as the proliferation of divorce, the increase in ethnically mixed relationships, the preponderance of older couples, and the new visibility of same-sex unions. By focusing on some of these changes, we hope to contribute to scholarly and public dialogue about a fundamental unit in human societies.
Gender has been at the core of the traditional image of the couple in America, an image generalized from an idealized middle-class marriage in which husbands have provided (or were expected to provide) financial support for wives and children and wives have carried responsibility for housekeeping and child rearing. Even though this image has never been reflected in working-class couples, the image itself has been held up as the (often unmet) standard of the typical marriage. In cases where the wife was employed, her work was often viewed as supplemental to the husband's work, even if she earned more than her husband. Yet, in the second half of the twentieth century a significant sea change took place. Women began to enter the workforce in record numbers, and the separation of domestic and public spheres began to blur. Not only did women work, as many always had, they also developed identities as paid workers outside the home and pursued long-term careers. Although it occurred less frequently, men began to enter the domestic sphere and share more in household and child-care responsibilities. This overlap of professional and personal boundaries, much feared by nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans raised with an ideology of separate spheres for men and women, became reality in the late twentieth century.
By many measures, the age-old education gap between men and women is rapidly narrowing. Females now receive educations comparable to those of males-women in the United States earn the majority of associate bachelor's and master's degrees and an increasingly greater share of advanced degrees. Women expect to be able to support themselves, and most women in America do work outside the home (Folbre and Nelson 2000). Few think in terms of Marriage as a Trade, the title of a well-known Edwardian book that exposed the compulsory economic nature of marriage for women. Because many women now earn income independently of their husbands (albeit usually less income) and share similar educational and work histories, they have many more relationship options than their female predecessors. They can choose not to marry or, conversely, to marry in the expectation of an egalitarian union. Although women's increased educational and professional opportunities presumably lead to greater compatibility in marriage, the reality is that the more education a wife has, the more likely she will be to divorce her husband. Not only are women today more easily able to say "no" to a prospective marital partner, they are-like men-able to say "no" later on, if the marriage turns sour.
In the past four decades, divorce has skyrocketed, and marriage rates have shown a decrease. Roughly 40 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine are today unmarried. The average age of first marriages has moved upward from twenty for women and twenty-three years for men in 1960 to twenty-five and twenty-seven, respectively, in 1998. Delays in marriage are particularly striking among African Americans; indeed, many African American women are delaying marriage so long that "delaying" may prove to be avoiding the institution altogether. It is conceivable that rising divorce rates have weakened the long-term investment both husbands and wives previously put into marriage. When a couple faces statistical odds of divorcing that are as high as the odds that they will stay together, the commitment to a marriage may be undermined from the start. Economically, too, educated women who enter into a marriage contract today recognize that they are unlikely to benefit financially in the way that their mates will if the marriage fails. One year after a divorce, husbands are fairing better than wives. Ironically, one might argue that even the thirty-year increase in average life expectancy that occurred during the twentieth century may have put a damper on marriage. With longer life expectancy the urgency to marry has lessened. The prospect of lifelong marriage may have seemed more appealing and more viable when couples expected to live together for twenty or thirty years rather than fifty or sixty.
Similarly, the demographics of children enter into the decrease in marriage rates and the rising incidence of divorce. At the beginning of the century, the average number of children per Caucasian, American-born mother was 3.5, with immigrant and African American women bearing more (this was down from 7 children per mother in 1800). Even in 1960, despite fluctuations during the century, American women were, on average, bearing 3.5 children. Today, the American mother, like her counterparts in other developed nations, bears roughly two children. While women in the nineteenth century spent most of their adult lives raising children, motherhood per se now takes up a relatively shorter part of the life span. If a woman waits until her late twenties to have children, as many do, and lives until she is eighty, she will have spent only a third of her life in the active phase of mothering young children. Such a life pattern may afford new perspectives on the later years. Whereas, in the past, life may have been winding down by the time the children had been raised, women today can anticipate additional decades after middle age. If the marriage has been frankly unhappy or merely unsatisfying, a wife may choose to leave her husband, especially if she has the financial means to survive on her own. Unfortunately, for many older women who had lower (or no) earning capacity earlier in their lives, this decision usually entails serious economic consequences. Importantly, despite the fact that young women today will be more likely to come to old age with incomes and pensions of their own, other societal changes (such as increased likelihood of divorce) ensure that they will face just as great a risk of poverty as older women do today (Smeeding 1999).
Yet these statistics and practices do not suggest that people are giving up on marriage. A different sort of change is in the air. Some scholars believe that we have entered an era of serial marriage, with multiple marriages and remarriages becoming the norm. Most people who divorce do remarry within a few years. Perhaps lifelong commitment will cease to be a common goal. Perhaps procreation will occur increasingly outside of marriage; already more than 40 percent of first births in the United States occur out-of-wedlock. It is even possible that heterosexual marriage will lose its privileged place among other forms of couples. But it is unlikely that marriage itself will disappear.
As we enter the twenty-first century, the essential ingredients in marriage are love and shared material resources-the primary bases for unions during the last two centuries. Together they contribute to a powerful bond between spouses. However, without the dependence of one (the wife) on the other (the husband) for economic support, love alone bears the burden of holding the couple together, and love is often not enough. A combination of factors-respect, commitment, shared values, and mutual interests, as well as love and money-make for a considerably more solid marital foundation. In cases where love holds strong, even on the part of only one partner, marriages can and do survive. But if love turns sour for both parties and it is economically feasible to separate, there is little motivation to remain together, especially when there are no children.
Another dramatic change in coupledom concerns the increased visibility of same-sex unions. Today, in many parts of America, lesbian and gay couples not only live together openly but also enjoy commitment ceremonies blessed in churches, and many are claiming the right to legal marriages. Following the pattern of the Netherlands and several other northern European nations, we expect to see legislation in this country that will grant full privileges to same-sex couples sometime in this century. In fact, we believe that someday Americans will look back upon the interdiction on same-sex marriage the same way that we now view antimiscegenation laws forbidding marriage across races.
The authors of the essays in this book focus on the ties between two people who commit to a long-term union, primarily, but not exclusively, within marriage. The authors come from various disciplines (anthropology, economics, education, history, law, literature, psychology, and sociology) and are interested in the couple as an enduring paradigm for human relationships, despite the changes in ideology and practice that couples have experienced over time.
The authors of the first three chapters deal with the historical roots of modern marriage: those found in Judeo-Christian scripture, in early colonial America, and in nineteenth-century capitalism. Yalom compares marital proscriptions and prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and traces some ongoing effects of these beliefs within Western civilization. Gelles portrays the union of Abigail and John Adams as a larger-than-life example of eighteenth-century companionate marriage. Washington examines the nineteenth-century British public debate that compared marriage for money with prostitution: Each institution was purportedly characterized by an exchange of male financial support for female sexual services.
In the next two chapters, the authors address lesbian and homosexual unions. Rothblum asks how sex, or the lack of it, defines the lesbian couple, while Lewin describes the recent phenomenon of lesbian and gay commitment ceremonies. Both of these essays raise questions that are central not only to gay and lesbian couples but to all couples. Rothblum asks the fundamental question of whether genital sexual activity is the core condition for lesbian couplehood; she suggests that contemporary society has fixated upon sex as the defining characteristic of lesbians, whereas other feelings and behaviors, such as attachment, friendship, love, and companionship, tend to be overlooked. If we define couples by genital sexual activity, many couples-both heterosexual and same-sex-are no longer couples by this standard.
Lewin's essay reminds us that public validation of private unions is at least as important to gay and lesbian couples as it is to heterosexuals. Humans seem to need rituals of public affirmation that involve the community. In a country marked by few mandatory rites of passage, the wedding becomes one rite in which it is now possible for both heterosexual and homosexual couples to proclaim publicly their joint identity and enlist family and friends for ongoing support. Not only do couples need societal affirmation but societies benefit from couples. The economic and emotional stability of couples benefits society at large in innumerable ways (Wald 1999; Waite 1995).
In chapters 6 and 7, Noddings and Felstiner consider the physical realities within and surrounding the couple. Noddings explores the home as a place of refuge and a workplace, with different meanings for men and women. Felstiner focuses on the human body when one partner is chronically sick. Both authors raise questions about caregiving, a traditionally female responsibility, that is now, in the wake of feminist pressure, demanding greater participation from men. In chapter 8, Fuchs Epstein examines marriages when they cross the boundaries of home and work by describing the complex issues that arise when couples who are both lawyers share legal practices.
Skolnick's work in chapter 9 examines psychological and sociological research, including her own, that tries to understand similarities in good marriages as well as the stresses that turn a happy marriage into an unhappy one. She articulates a good/bad marriage model, drawing from Jesse Bernard's notion that every marriage contains two marriages, the husband's and the wife's, and from the work of John Gottman and Robert Levenson, who found that marital success could be predicted by a high ratio of positive to negative emotion expressed to one another within the couple's relationship.
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