Family Diversity
It's How  We Live


Pivotal role of marriage is an illusion
in American family life

Newsday / May 3, 2005
Commentary by
 Stephanie Coontz, Ph.D.


Thirteen years ago Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the producers of TV sitcom's Murphy Brown for letting her character bear a child out of wedlock, claiming that the show's failure to defend traditional family values was encouraging America's youth to abandon marriage.

His speech kicked off more than a decade of outcries against the "collapse of the family." Today such attacks have given way to a kinder, gentler campaign to promote marriage, with billboards declaring that "Marriage Works" and books making "the case for marriage."

But recent changes in marriage are part of a worldwide upheaval in family life that has transformed the way people conduct their personal lives as thoroughly and permanently as the Industrial Revolution transformed working lives 200 years ago. Marriage is no longer the main way in which societies regulate sexuality and parenting or organize the division of labor between men and women.

And although some people hope to turn back the tide by promoting traditional values, making divorce harder to obtain or outlawing gay marriage, they are having to confront a startling irony: The very factors that have made marriage more satisfying in modern times have also made it more optional.

The origins of modern marital instability lie largely in the triumph of what many people believe to be marriage's traditional role - providing love, intimacy, fidelity and mutual fulfillment. The truth is that for centuries, marriage was stable precisely because it was not expected to provide such benefits. As soon as love became the driving force behind marriage, people began to demand the right to remain single if they had not found love or to divorce if they fell out of love.

The so-called divorce revolution, however, is just one aspect of the worldwide transformation of marriage. In places where divorce and unwed motherhood are severely stigmatized, the retreat from marriage simply takes another form. In Japan and Italy, for example, women are far more likely to remain single than in the United States.

The norms and laws that traditionally penalized unwed mothers and their children have weakened or been overturned, ending centuries of injustice but further reducing marriage's role in determining the course of people's lives.

Additionally, from Turkey to South Africa to Brazil, countries are having to codify the legal rights and obligations of single individuals and unmarried couples raising children, including same-sex couples. Canada and the Netherlands have joined Scandinavia in legalizing same-sex marriage, and such bastions of tradition as Taiwan and Spain are considering following suit.

None of this means that marriage is dead. Indeed, most people have a higher regard for the marital relationship today than when marriage was practically mandatory. Marriage as a private relationship between two individuals is taken more seriously and comes with higher emotional expectations than ever before in history.

But marriage as a public institution exerts less power over people's lives now, and marriage or lack of marriage does not determine people's political and economic rights anymore.

People may revere the value of universal marriage in the abstract, but most have adjusted to a different reality. Although many Americans bemoan the easy accessibility of divorce, few are willing to waive their personal rights.

Nor does a solution lie in preaching the benefits of marriage to impoverished couples or in outlawing unconventional partnerships. Banning same-sex marriage would not undo the existence of alternatives to traditional marriage.

We may personally like or dislike these changes. We may wish to keep some and get rid of others. But there is a certain inevitability to almost all of them.

Marriage is no longer the institution where people are initiated into sex. It no longer determines the work men and women do on the job or at home, regulates who has children and who doesn't, or coordinates care-giving for the ill or the aged. For better or worse, marriage has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life, and it will not regain it short of a Taliban-like counterrevolution.

Forget the fantasy of solving the challenges of modern personal life by reinstitutionalizing marriage. We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married. We cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage.

Stephanie Coontz teaches family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. , and is author of the new book "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage."


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