Forget everything you know about marriage. Forget Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Don and Betty Draper, Ray and Debra Barone. While you may think you know what the “traditional” marriage and family looks like—breadwinning father, apron-donning mother, two point five kids and a white picket fence—history shows a completely different truth.
Marriage, A History is a fascinating three hundred page glimpse into history that you’ll eat up as fervently as a Twighlight novel. Stephanie Coontz shows how marriage has really factored into people’s lives over the past thousand years, and why a sudden “radical” shift in its purpose has made it more fragile than ever.
The word “radical,” which Coontz uses often to describe our current ideals for marriage, seems, well, radical. We believe that people get married because they fall in love. What’s radical about that?
Historically, love has had nothing to do with marriage, says Coontz. Marriage has mostly been about the merging of resources—things like wealth and land. The more resources you had access to in a community, and the more people you were connected to, the more likely you were to survive.
But all that emphasis on survival isn’t as necessary today. We live much cushier lifestyles than our ancestors. Survival isn’t really a question; now, happiness is a question. And marriage is a question of love, not necessity.
Coontz says this love ideal, which is only about fifty years old, has put incredible demands on marriage. The love ideal encourages us to strive to find a partner who satisfies our every emotional, physical and intellectual need. Coontz says this sudden, and unrealistic, expectation of marriage has made it more important and volatile than ever.
Surprisingly, this reality check is refreshing, not depressing; there’s no such thing as the perfect marriage, and history more than amply proves it. Not only is marriage entirely imperfect, but it can also be downright hilarious. The wacky oddities of marriage customs through time—and people’s responses to them—actually made me laugh out loud (and I’m usually bored to tears by history books). And Coontz doesn’t bury the juicy tidbits: Readers of Marriage, A History will be sucked into the first chapter, which takes a look at marriage customs around the world. Who knew that the Eskimos throw key parties? Or that, in an indigenous Central American tribe, the more men a pregnant woman sleeps with, the more “fathers” the baby has—and the greater chance of its survival?
Personally, I wished Coontz would have given us more about marriage around the world, and not just a look at how it’s developed among western white people, but that may have resulted in a book three times the size. Besides, her focus on Europeans and Americans give us plenty of sex, drama and intrigue.
The end of the book is particularly rewarding. Coontz reveals that she lived through the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties—the time that radically changed marriage. She has been a girl who dreamed of the fairytale wedding. She has been a young college woman who hated and feared the limitations of marriage. And she is a scholar who has given marriage a thorough examination, entered into it hesitantly, and found it to be wonderful.
While getting personal, Coontz is sure to not offer advice or suddenly become a self-help guru. She simply reveals that she has lived through marriage’s radical shift—a shift, we now understand, is radical indeed. Although the rest of the book convinces us marriage in general has been pretty weird, too.
–By Tara Cavanaugh