Any serious discussion of the future of marriage requires a clear understanding of how marriage evolved over the ages, along with the causes of its most recent transformations. Many people who hope to “re-institutionalize” marriage misunderstand the reasons that marriage was once more stable and played a stronger role in regulating social life.
For most of history, marriage was more about getting the right in-laws than picking the right partner to love and live with. In the small-scale, band-level societies of our distant ancestors, marriage alliances turned strangers into relatives, creating interdependencies among groups that might otherwise meet as enemies. But as large wealth and status differentials developed in the ancient world, marriage became more exclusionary and coercive. People maneuvered to orchestrate advantageous marriage connections with some families and avoid incurring obligations to others. Marriage became the main way that the upper classes consolidated wealth, forged military coalitions, finalized peace treaties, and bolstered claims to social status or political authority. Getting “well-connected” in-laws was a preoccupation of the middle classes as well, while the dowry a man received at marriage was often the biggest economic stake he would acquire before his parents died. Peasants, farmers, and craftsmen acquired new workers for the family enterprise and forged cooperative bonds with neighbors through their marriages.
Because of marriage’s vital economic and political functions, few societies in history believed that individuals should freely choose their own marriage partners, especially on such fragile grounds as love. Indeed, for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission. In Anglo-American law, a child born outside an approved marriage was a “fillius nullius” – a child of no one, entitled to nothing. In fact, through most of history, the precondition for maintaining a strong institution of marriage was the existence of an equally strong institution of illegitimacy, which denied such children any claim on their families.
Even legally recognized wives and children received few of the protections we now associate with marriage. Until the late 19th century, European and American husbands had the right to physically restrain, imprison, or “punish” their wives and children. Marriage gave husbands sole ownership over all property a wife brought to the marriage and any income she earned afterward. Parents put their children to work to accumulate resources for their own old age, enforcing obedience by periodic beatings.
Many people managed to develop loving families over the ages despite these laws and customs, but until very recently, this was not the main point of entering or staying in a union. It was just 250 years ago, when the Enlightenment challenged the right of the older generation and the state to dictate to the young, that free choice based on love and compatibility emerged as the social ideal for mate selection. Only in the early 19th century did the success of a marriage begin to be defined by how well it cared for its members, both adults and children.
These new marital ideals appalled many social conservatives of the day. “How will we get the right people to marry each other, if they can refuse on such trivial grounds as lack of love?” they asked. “Just as important, how will we prevent the wrong ones, such as paupers and servants, from marrying?” What would compel people to stay in marriages where love had died? What would prevent wives from challenging their husbands’ authority?
They were right to worry. In the late 18th century, new ideas about the “pursuit of happiness” led many countries to make divorce more accessible, and some even repealed the penalties for homosexual love. The French revolutionaries abolished the legal category of illegitimacy, according a “love child” equal rights with a “legal” one. In the mid-19th century, women challenged husbands’ sole ownership of wives’ property, earnings, and behavior. Moralists predicted that such female economic independence would “destroy domestic tranquility,” producing “infidelity in the marriage bed, a high rate of divorce, and increased female criminality.” And in some regards, they seemed correct. Divorce rates rose so steadily that in 1891 a Cornell University professor predicted, with stunning accuracy, that if divorce continued rising at its current rate, more marriages would end in divorce than death by the 1980s.
But until the late 1960s, most of the destabilizing aspects of the love revolution were held in check by several forces that prevented people from building successful lives outside marriage: the continued legal subordination of women to men; the ability of local elites to penalize employees and other community members for then-stigmatized behaviors such as remaining single, cohabiting, or getting a divorce; the unreliability of birth control, combined with the harsh treatment of illegitimate children; and above all, the dependence of women upon men’s wage earning.
In the 1970s, however, these constraints were swept away or seriously eroded. The result has been to create a paradox with which many Americans have yet to come to terms. Today, when a marriage works, it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before. A good marriage is fairer and more fulfilling for both men and women than couples of the past could ever have imagined. Domestic violence and sexual coercion have fallen sharply. More couples share decisionmaking and housework than ever before. Parents devote unprecedented time and resources to their children. And men in stable marriages are far less likely to cheat on their wives than in the past.
But the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation. They have also made marriage seem less bearable when it doesn’t live up to its potential. The forces that have strengthened marriage as a personal relationship between freely consenting adults have weakened marriage as a regulatory social institution.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the collapse of the conditions that had forced most people to get and stay married led to dramatic — and often traumatic — upheavals in marriage. This was exacerbated by an economic climate that made the 1950s ideal of the male breadwinner unattainable for many families. Divorce rates soared. Unwed teen motherhood shot up. Since then, some of these destabilizing trends have leveled off or receded. The divorce rate has fallen, especially for college-educated couples, over the past 20 years. When divorce does occur, more couples work to resolve it amicably, and fewer men walk away from contact with their children. Although there was a small uptick in teen births last year, they are still almost 30 percent lower than in 1991.
Still, there is no chance that we can restore marriage to its former supremacy in coordinating social and interpersonal relationships. Even as the divorce rate has dropped, the incidence of cohabitation, delayed marriage and non-marriage has risen steadily. With half of all Americans aged 25-29 unmarried, marriage no longer organizes the transition into regular sexual activity or long-term partnerships the way it used to. Although teen births are lower than a decade ago, births to unwed mothers aged 25 and older continue to climb. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. And gay and lesbian families are permanently out of the closet.
Massive social changes combine to ensure that a substantial percentage of people will continue to explore alternatives to marriage. These include women’s economic independence, the abolition of legal penalties for illegitimacy, the expansion of consumer products that make single life easier for both men and women, and the steady decline in the state’s coercive power over personal life. Add to this mix the continuing rise in the age of marriage, a trend that increases the stability of marriages once they are contracted but also increases the percentage of unwed adults in the population. Stir in the reproductive revolution, which has made it possible for couples who would once have been condemned to childlessness to have the kids they want, but impossible to prevent single women or gay and lesbian couples from having children. Top it off with changes in gender roles that have increased the payoffs of marriage for educated, financially secure women but increased its risks for low-income women whose potential partners are less likely to hold egalitarian values, earn good wages, or even count on a regular job. Taken together, this is a recipe for a world where the social weight of marriage has been fundamentally and irreversibly reduced.
The decline in marriage’s dominating role in organizing social and personal life is not unique to America. It is occurring across the industrial world, even in countries with less “permissive” values and laws. In predominantly Catholic Ireland, where polls in the 1980s found near-universal disapproval of premarital sex, one child in three today is born outside marriage. China’s divorce rate has soared more than 700 percent since 1980. Until 2005, Chile was the only country in the Western Hemisphere that still prohibited divorce. But in today’s world, prohibiting divorce has very different consequences than in the past, because people no longer feel compelled to marry in the first place. Between 1990 and 2003, the number of marriages in Chile fell from 100,000 to 60,000 a year, and nearly half of all children born in Chile in the early years of the 21st century were born to unmarried couples.
In Italy, Singapore, and Japan, divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births remain low by American standards, but a much larger percentage of women avoid marriage and childbearing altogether. This suggests that we are experiencing a massive historical current that, if blocked in one area, simply flows over traditional paths of family life at a different spot.
The late 20th-century revolution in the role and function of marriage has been as far-reaching — and as wrenching — as the replacement of local craft production and exchange by wage labor and industrialization. Like the Industrial Revolution, the family diversity revolution has undercut old ways of organizing work, leisure, caregiving, and redistribution to dependents. It has liberated some people from restrictive, socially imposed statuses, but stripped others of customary support systems and rules for behavior, without putting clearly defined new ones in place. There have been winners and losers in the marriage revolution, just as there were in the Industrial Revolution. But we will not meet the challenges of this transformation by trying to turn back the clock. Instead we must take two lessons away from these historical changes.
First, marriage is not on the verge of extinction. Most cohabiting couples eventually do get married, either to each other or to someone else. New groups, such as gays and lesbians, are now demanding access to marriage — a demand that many pro-marriage advocates oddly interpret as an attack on the institution. And a well-functioning marriage is still an especially useful and effective method of organizing interpersonal commitments and improving people’s well-being. But in today’s climate of gender equality and personal choice, we must realize that successful marriages require different traits, skills, and behaviors than in the past.
Marriages used to depend upon a clear division of labor and authority, and couples who rejected those rules had less stable marriages than those who abided by them. In the 1950s, a woman’s best bet for a lasting marriage was to marry a man who believed firmly in the male breadwinner ideal. Women who wanted a “Mrs. degree” were often advised to avoid the “bachelor’s” degree, since as late as 1967 men told pollsters they valued a woman’s cooking and housekeeping skills above her intelligence or education. Women who hadn’t married by age 25 were less likely to ever marry than their more traditional counterparts, and studies in the 1960s suggested that if they did marry at an older age than average they were more likely to divorce. When a wife took a job outside the home, this raised the risk of marital dissolution.
All that has changed today. Today, men rank intelligence and education way above cooking and housekeeping as a desirable trait in a partner. A recent study by Paul Amato et al. found that the chance of divorce recedes with each year that a woman postpones marriage, with the least divorce-prone marriages being those where the couples got married at age 35 or higher. Educated and high-earning women are now less likely to divorce than other women. When a wife takes a job today, it works to stabilize the marriage. Couples who share housework and productive work have more stable marriages than couples who do not, according to sociologist Lynn Prince Cooke. And the Amato study found that husbands and wives who hold egalitarian views about gender have higher marital quality and fewer marital problems than couples who cling to more traditional views.
So there is no reason to give up on building successful marriages — but we won’t do it by giving people outdated advice about gender roles. We may be able to bring the divorce rate down a little further — but since one method of doing that is to get more people to delay marriage, this will probably lead to more cohabitation. We may also be able to reverse last year’s uptick in teen births and return to the downward course of the late 1990s and first few years of the 21st century — but not by teaching abstinence-only to young people who, if they do delay marriage, are almost certainly going to have sex beforehand.
The second lesson of history is that the time has passed when we can construct our social policies, work schedules, health insurance systems, sex education programs — or even our moral and ethical beliefs about who owes what to whom — on the assumption that all long-term commitments and care-giving obligations should or can be organized through marriage. Of course we must seek ways to make marriage more possible for couples and to strengthen the marriages they contract. But we must be equally concerned to help couples who don’t marry become better co-parents, to help single parents and cohabiting couples meet their obligations, and to teach divorced parents how to minimize their conflicts and improve their parenting.
The right research and policy question today is not “what kind of family do we wish people lived in?” Instead, we must ask “what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?” Much recent hysteria to the contrary, we know a lot about how to do that. We should devote more of our energies to getting that research out and less to fantasizing about a return to a mythical Golden Age of marriage of the past.
Stephanie Coontz teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families (www.contemporaryfamilies.org). Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.