Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

by Stephanie Coontz


$16.23 $18.00 Save 10% Current price is $16.23, Original price is $18. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Want it by Wednesday, November 21 Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143036678
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/2006
Edition description: ANN
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 210,964
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.39(h) x 0.93(d)
Age Range: 18 - 17 Years

About the Author

Stephanie Coontz is the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history and family studies at The Evergeen State College in Olympia, Washington. She divides her time between Makaha, Hawaii, and Washington. The author of the award-winning The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, she writes about marriage and family issues in many national journals including The Washington Post, Harper’s, Chicago Tribune, and Vogue. Her work has been translated into Japanese, German, French, and Spanish.

On the web:

Read an Excerpt

Marriage, a History

From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage
By Stephanie Coontz

Viking Adult

ISBN: 0-670-03407-X

Chapter One

George Bernard Shaw described marriage as an institution that brings together two people "under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part."

Shaw's comment was amusing when he wrote it at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it still makes us smile today, because it pokes fun at the unrealistic expectations that spring from a dearly held cultural ideal that marriage should be based on intense, profound love and a couple should maintain their ardor until death do them part. But for thousands of years the joke would have fallen flat.

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply.

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

In some cultures and times, true love was actually thought to be incompatible with marriage. Plato believed love was a wonderful emotion that led men to behave honorably. But the Greek philosopher was referring not to the love of women, "such as the meaner men feel," but to the love of one man for another.

Other societies considered it good if love developed after marriage or thought love should be factored in along with the more serious considerations involved in choosing a mate. But even when past societies did welcome or encourage married love, they kept it on a short leash. Couples were not to put their feelings for each other above more important commitments, such as their ties to parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, or God.

In ancient India, falling in love before marriage was seen as a disruptive, almost antisocial act. The Greeks thought lovesickness was a type of insanity, a view that was adopted by medieval commentators in Europe. In the Middle Ages the French defined love as a "derangement of the mind" that could be cured by sexual intercourse, either with the loved one or with a different partner. This cure assumed, as Oscar Wilde once put it, that the quickest way to conquer yearning and temptation was to yield immediately and move on to more important matters.

In China, excessive love between husband and wife was seen as a threat to the solidarity of the extended family. Parents could force a son to divorce his wife if her behavior or work habits didn't please them, whether or not he loved her. They could also require him take a concubine if his wife did not produce a son. If a son's romantic attachment to his wife rivaled his parents' claims on the couple's time and labor, the parents might even send her back to her parents. In the Chinese language the term love did not traditionally apply to feelings between husband and wife. It was used to describe an illicit, socially disapproved relationship. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals invented a new word for love between spouses because they thought such a radical new idea required its own special label.

In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy. According to the Countess of Champagne, it was impossible for true love to "exert its powers between two people who are married to each other."

In twelfth-century France, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote a treatise on the principles of courtly love. The first rule was that "marriage is no real excuse for not loving." But he meant loving someone outside the marriage. As late as the eighteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him.

Courtly love probably loomed larger in literature than in real life. But for centuries, noblemen and kings fell in love with courtesans rather than the wives they married for political reasons. Queens and noblewomen had to be more discreet than their husbands, but they too looked beyond marriage for love and intimacy.

This sharp distinction between love and marriage was common among the lower and middle classes as well. Many of the songs and stories popular among peasants in medieval Europe mocked married love.

The most famous love affair of the Middle Ages was that of Peter Abelard, a well-known theologian in France, and Heloise, the brilliant niece of a fellow churchman at Notre Dame. The two eloped without marrying, and she bore him a child. In an attempt to save his career but still placate Heloise's furious uncle, Abelard proposed they marry in secret. This would mean that Heloise would not be living in sin, while Abelard could still pursue his church ambitions. But Heloise resisted the idea, arguing that marriage would not only harm his career but also undermine their love.

"Nothing Is More Impure Than to Love One's Wife as if She Were a Mistress"

Even in societies that esteemed married love, couples were expected to keep it under strict control. In many cultures, public displays of love between husband and wife were considered unseemly. A Roman was expelled from the Senate because he had kissed his wife in front of his daughter. Plutarch conceded that the punishment was somewhat extreme but pointed out that everyone knew that it was "disgraceful" to kiss one's wife in front of others.

Some Greek and Roman philosophers even said that a man who loved his wife with "excessive" ardor was "an adulterer." Many centuries later Catholic and Protestant theologians argued that husbands and wives who loved each other too much were committing the sin of idolatry. Theologians chided wives who used endearing nicknames for their husbands, because such familiarity on a wife's part undermined the husband's authority and the awe that his wife should feel for him. Although medieval Muslim thinkers were more approving of sexual passion between husband and wife than were Christian theologians, they also insisted that too much intimacy between husband and wife weakened a believer's devotion to God. And, like their European counterparts, secular writers in the Islamic world believed that love thrived best outside marriage.

Many cultures still frown on placing love at the center of marriage. In Africa, the Fulbe people of northern Cameroon do not see love as a legitimate emotion, especially within marriage. One observer reports that in conversations with their neighbors, Fulbe women "vehemently deny emotional attachment to a husband." In many peasant and working-class communities, too much love between husband and wife is seen as disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work.

As a result, men and women often relate to each other in public, even after marriage, through the conventions of a war between the sexes, disguising the fondness they may really feel. They describe their marital behavior, no matter how exemplary it may actually be, in terms of convenience, compulsion, or self-interest rather than love or sentiment. In Cockney rhyming slang, the term for wife is trouble and strife.

Whether it is valued or not, love is rarely seen as the main ingredient for marital success. Among the Taita of Kenya, recognition and approval of married love are widespread. An eighty-year-old man recalled that his fourth wife "was the wife of my heart.... I could look at her and no words would pass, just a smile." In this society, where men often take several wives, women speak wistfully about how wonderful it is to be a "love wife." But only a small percentage of Taita women experience this luxury, because a Taita man normally marries a love wife only after he has accumulated a few more practical wives.

In many cultures, love has been seen as a desirable outcome of marriage but not as a good reason for getting married in the first place. The Hindu tradition celebrates love and sexuality in marriage, but love and sexual attraction are not considered valid reasons for marriage. "First we marry, then we'll fall in love" is the formula. As recently as 1975, a survey of college students in the Indian state of Karnataka found that only 18 percent "strongly" approved of marriages made on the basis of love, while 32 percent completely disapproved.

Similarly, in early modern Europe most people believed that love developed after marriage. Moralists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries argued that if a husband and wife each had a good character, they would probably come to love each other. But they insisted that youths be guided by their families in choosing spouses who were worth learning to love. It was up to parents and other relatives to make sure that the woman had a dowry or the man had a good yearly income. Such capital, it was thought, would certainly help love flower.

"[I]t Made Me Really Sick, Just as I Have Formerly Been When in Love with My Wife"

I don't believe that people of the past had more control over their hearts than we do today or that they were incapable of the deep love so many individuals now hope to achieve in marriage. But love in marriage was seen as a bonus, not as a necessity. The great Roman statesman Cicero exchanged many loving letters with his wife, Terentia, during their thirty-year marriage. But that didn't stop him from divorcing her when she was no longer able to support him in the style to which he had become accustomed.

Sometimes people didn't have to make such hard choices. In seventeenth-century America, Anne Bradstreet was the favorite child of an indulgent father who gave her the kind of education usually reserved for elite boys. He later arranged her marriage to a cherished childhood friend who eventually became the governor of Massachusetts. Combining love, duty, material security, and marriage was not the strain for her that it was for many men and women of that era. Anne wrote love poems to her husband that completely ignored the injunction of Puritan ministers not to place one's spouse too high in one's affections. "If ever two were one," she wrote him, "then surely we; if ever man were loved by wife, then thee.... I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold, or all the riches that the East doth hold; my love is such that rivers cannot quench, nor ought but love from thee, give recompense."

The famous seventeenth-century English diarist Samuel Pepys chose to marry for love rather than profit. But he was not as lucky as Anne. After hearing a particularly stirring piece of music, Pepys recorded that it "did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife." Pepys would later disinherit a nephew for marrying under the influence of so strong yet transient an emotion.

There were always youngsters who resisted the pressures of parents, kin, and neighbors to marry for practical reasons rather than love, but most accepted or even welcomed the interference of parents and others in arranging their marriages. A common saying in early modern Europe was "He who marries for love has good nights and bad days." Nowadays a bitter wife or husband might ask, "Whatever possessed me to think I loved you enough to marry you?" Through most of the past, he or she was more likely to have asked, "Whatever possessed me to marry you just because I loved you?"

"Happily Ever After"

Through most of the past, individuals hoped to find love, or at least "tranquil affection," in marriage. But nowhere did they have the same recipe for marital happiness that prevails in most contemporary Western countries. Today there is general agreement on what it takes for a couple to live "happily ever after." First, they must love each other deeply and choose each other unswayed by outside pressure. From then on, each must make the partner the top priority in life, putting that relationship above any and all competing ties. A husband and wife, we believe, owe their highest obligations and deepest loyalties to each other and the children they raise. Parents and in-laws should not be allowed to interfere in the marriage. Married couples should be best friends, sharing their most intimate feelings and secrets. They should express affection openly but also talk candidly about problems. And of course they should be sexually faithful to each other.

This package of expectations about love, marriage, and sex, however, is extremely rare. When we look at the historical record around the world, the customs of modern America and Western Europe appear exotic and exceptional.

Leo Tolstoy once remarked that all happy families are alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But the more I study the history of marriage, the more I think the opposite is true. Most unhappy marriages in history share common patterns, leaving their tear-stained-and sometimes bloodstained-records across the ages. But each happy, successful marriage seems to be happy in its own way. And for most of human history, successful marriages have not been happy in our way.

A woman in ancient China might bring one or more of her sisters to her husband's home as backup wives. Eskimo couples often had cospousal arrangements, in which each partner had sexual relations with the other's spouse. In Tibet and parts of India, Kashmir, and Nepal, a woman may be married to two or more brothers, all of whom share sexual access to her.

In modern America, such practices are the stuff of trash TV: "I caught my sister in bed with my husband"; "My parents brought their lovers into our home"; "My wife slept with my brother"; "It broke my heart to share my husband with another woman." In other cultures, individuals often find such practices normal and comforting. The children of Eskimo cospouses felt that they shared a special bond, and society viewed them as siblings. Among Tibetan brothers who share the same wife, sexual jealousy is rare.

In some cultures, cowives see one another as allies rather than rivals. In Botswana, women add an interesting wrinkle to the old European saying "Woman's work is never done." There they say: "Without cowives, a woman's work is never done." A researcher who worked with the Cheyenne Indians of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s told of a chief who tried to get rid of two of his three wives. All three women defied him, saying that if he sent two of them away, he would have to give away the third as well.

Even when societies celebrated the love between husband and wife as a pleasant by-product of marriage, people rarely had a high regard for marital intimacy.


Excerpted from Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part One: In Search of Traditional Marriage

Chapter 1: The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love
Chapter 2: The Many Meanings of Marriage
Chapter 3: The Invention of Marriage

Part Two: The Era of Political Marriage

Chapter 4: Soap Operas of the Ancient World
Chapter 5: Something Borrowed: The Marital Legacy of the Classical World and Early Christianity
Chapter 6: Playing the Bishop, Capturing the Queen: Aristocratic Marriages in Early Medieval Europe
Chapter 7: How the Other 95 Percent Wed: Marriage Among the Common Folk of the Middle Ages
Chapter 8: Something Old, Something New: Western European Marriage at the Dawn of the Modern Age

Part Three: The Love Revolution

Chapter 9: From Yoke Mates to Soul Mates: Emergence of the Love Match and the Male Provider Marriage
Chapter 10: "Two Birds Within One Nest": Sentimental Marriage in Nineteenth-Century Europe and North America
Chapter 11: "A Heaving Volcano": Beneath the Surface of Victorian Marriage
Chapter 12: "The Time When Mountains Move Has Come": From Sentimental to Sexual Marriage
Chapter 13: Making Do, Then Making Babies: Marriage in the Great Depression and World War II
Chapter 14: The Era of Ozzie and Harriet: The Long Decade of "Traditional" Marriage

Part Four: Courting Disaster? The Collapse of Universal and Lifelong Marriage

Chapter 15: Winds of Change: Marriage in the 1960s and 1970s
Chapter 16: The Perfect Storm: The Transformation of Marriage at the End of the Twentieth Century
Chapter 17: Uncharted Territory: How the Transformation of Marriage Is Changing Our Lives

Conclusion: Better or Worse? The Future of Marriage


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
historygirlintexas More than 1 year ago
I bought this book after reading references to it in Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed. Coontz offers an interesting thesis--that marrying for love is a relatively new phenomenon. In an age where conservatives constantly talk about the sanctity of marriage and how gay marriage is a threat to our society, I highly recommend people read this book to gain more perspective on other reasons why people were getting married. Sometimes it was out of necessity-people needed protection, financial or otherwise. In my opinion, the book really got interesting once Coontz reached the Enlightenment period, but I'm biased--I am more interested in modern history than earlier periods. I really enjoyed this cultural history.
keithgatling More than 1 year ago
This book should be required reading for anyone who purports to talk about the "traditional marriage," or how current cultural changes will destroy marriage. I expected Ms Coontz to show that the "Ozzie and Harriet" marriage, that so many of us have come to see as the "traditional" model was a relatively recent development. What I didn't expect to find was that it was just one of many transitional forms marriage has taken over the three centuries since romantic love entered the marriage equation, leading us to where we are now. Ms Coontz show how despite the cries of alarmists both now and in the past, marriage is a very flexible institution, and one that is bound to be with us for many centuries to come. If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is blathering on about "traditional values" and "traditional marriage," I urge you to buy two copies of this book. One for you and one for them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book lifts the veil on the historical, present, and potential future of marriage. In the twenty years I have been married, I have bumped into many of my own assumptions about what 'being married' really meant, and have experienced the necessity of being flexible about my own marriage and those of others close to me. This book is informative, entertaining, and ultimately optimistic about the varied nature of marriage and how marriage might address a multitude of individual needs. I highly recommend it!
collsers on LibraryThing 2 days ago
I had been quite excited to read this book--a fascinating topic, glowing reviews, a promising first chapter. I have to admit that I finished feeling more than a little disappointed. Coontz is tackling an amazingly large idea--the history of marriage--and perhaps one that is too large to pursue to the depth that a reader would want. Though filled with interesting tidbits of trivia, and covering the major societal changes, I was struck more by what was left out than what was included. The text is almost entirely Western-centric, with discussion of Asian, African, and Native American cultures limited mostly to brief mentions in the endnotes. In a text meant to challenge the concept of a "traditional marriage," I expected much more discussion of homosexual relationships throughout history, and was shocked that the topic was scarcely mentioned until the final few chapters. This is not to say that the book is without merit. Coontz has a light, approachable writing style that the non-historian will enjoy reading, and her endnotes are thorough enough for the reader looking for more depth.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MsWhimsy More than 1 year ago
Although the book makes some interesting points, I wound up giving up on it as it became quite repetitive.  I felt like I was reading a thesis  that was not well organized. I thought I would be reading a history of marriage, and although there is history in there, it is so badly organized that it is had to find the 'history'. Very disappointing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
For the baby boomers, fed the idealistic 1950's view of marriage, but without the benefit of prior knowledge of the history of marriage and its status, the 1960's poised them for the greatest brick wall domestic crisis ever when combined with the emerging emphasis upon women's rights, and the opportunity for women to work, but without equivalent value to the social and government aspects of citizenship rights that has always accompanied and been a part of the male identity as citizens. The greatest tragedy is that it fell disproportionately upon single mothers who had the practical responsibilities of men, but the social status of women. No single effect could have damaged women more than the easy no fault divorce process that enabled men to escape the responsibilities of marriage and abandon women (many with children) to fend for themselves, abandoned to their own feeble and meager resources - un-altruistically with the consent of government, and often, encouraged by empty or false promises of safety and security. In this respect, love did not conquer marriage marriage conquered love, and divorce conquered both women and the promise of child welfare in a wholesale plunge into individual domestic irresponsibility, a plight that lingers indefinitely for millions. The alternative to the orphanages of the past is, and shouldn't be single parenthood that justifies bare survival as a sign of a healthy society, twisting the old philosophy of marriage and the new into a contorted monster that threatens everyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What I enjoyed most about this book was the forward and honest way she dispels myths surrounding marriage. The relevance of this history is profound. Given the state of politics today it behooves anyone interested in having an informed debate on marraige related issues to read this. The well researched and documented material makes referencing her sources easy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Marriage is a topic that everybody has an opinion on. Part of what makes this book so interesting is that even if you don't agree with the conclusions the historical facts are impeccably researched and documented. The wide array of cultural perspectives on marriage help sheld light on the debates surrounding marriage and family in the western world. The places where the conclusions of popular debates are accurate and where they are not.