Remember when marriage was an institution?

02.24.2013, 10:31 AM

At The American Conservative, discussing John Huntsman’s endorsement of gay marriage, Dreher posts a coment from a young reader:

I’ll give you my perspective as a young person (24) who supports gay marriage. I think there’s a fundamental disconnect between the older generation and this one, and perhaps this might help you to understand it (although I think you already do, to some extent).

Your conception of marriage, the traditional one, is that a man and a woman get married for the purpose of procreation. Marriage isn’t really about romantic love in this conception, but rather a framework for the rearing of children. If we take for granted that this is what marriage is, then I don’t think it’s bigoted at all to not have gay marriage, so long as the coupling is respected.

The problem for people my age is this: your definition of marriage was displaced prior to our lifetime. I have no memory of when that definition was true. Virtually everyone under the age of 30 has lived their entire lives under a culture that believes marriage is an expression of romantic love between two people.

So for a young person with a conservative disposition, the battle against gay marriage isn’t the same as it is for you. You’re trying to conserve something that existed in your lifetime and has since been destroyed. For a young person, there’s nothing to conserve. If the only world they know is one where marriage is an expression of romantic love, any effort to bar a group of people from that doesn’t feel like the conservation of anything, just discrimination.

I have heard this from many younger people.  If, 50 years from now, marriage is basically down the tubes, except as a status symbol for the upscale, and curious historians look back and ask “why?” and “when was the turning point?”,  I don’t think very many people will answer, “because in the 2010s they adopted gay marriage.”  But I do think many people are likely to answer, “because starting in the 1970s they stopped believing that marriage was a social institution.”

Want an example of what “marriage as a social institution” means?   In the 1960s, if you asked Americans, “Do you think a troubled marriage should stay together for the sake of the children?”, most Americans said “yes.”  Today, most say “no.”   

Want another?  In the 1940s, while in a German prison awaiting his excecution by the Nazis, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to an engaged couple on their wedding day: “From this day on, it won’t be your love that keeps your marriage alive, it will be your marriage that keeps your love alive.”  In a society in which marriage is a social institution, young couples hear those words and say, “I think I understand.”  In society in which marriage is not social institution, young couples hear those words and say,”I have no idea what he’s talking about.”


50 Responses to “Remember when marriage was an institution?”

  1. Tristian says:

    I would add one thing to this, which is that the understanding of marriage embraced by the younger generation is also the one that informs contemporary understanding of marriage laws. This is why denying marriage to gay couples now looks unjust and discriminatory.

  2. zztstenglish says:

    @Tristian – The laws do not discriminate. Gays can marry anyone of the opposite gender just like everyone else. They are not being denied access to marriage. One rule has been applied to all.

  3. La Lubu says:

    I think it extends far past the age of 30; I think this view is roughly consonant with the generation of people who grew up after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

    In the 1960s, if you asked Americans, “Do you think a troubled marriage should stay together for the sake of the children?”, most Americans said “yes.” Today, most say “no.”

    Maybe that has something to do with growing up in a dysfunctional household and spending time in therapy and/or self-help groups as an adult trying to decompress.

    It isn’t that marriage is no longer a social institution, it’s that the purposes of this social institution are changing to accommodate the changing needs of people. It isn’t one thing anymore, but many. Bluntly, marriage is changing because it’s becoming less patriarchal.

  4. Diane M says:

    Exactly right:

    “If, 50 years from now, marriage is basically down the tubes, except as a status symbol for the upscale, and curious historians look back and ask “why?” and “when was the turning point?”, I don’t think very many people will answer, “because in the 2010s they adopted gay marriage.” But I do think many people are likely to answer, “because starting in the 1970s they stopped believing that marriage was a social institution.””

    I would agree with Tristian that the idea that marriage is about love has been around for a while. It is not something that started with the younger generation. My grandmothers would have said that they married for love.

    What changed was ideas about divorce and what children need. It wasn’t that people didn’t care about their children, they just believed that divorce didn’t hurt children. Sometimes people even argued that staying together is bad for the children and divorce would be better.

    At the same time, men and women were in conflict over how marriage should work in terms of decision-making, wage-earning, and chores.

  5. Kevin says:

    “Traditional” marriage, that is, marriage as it existed and was perceived of, say, 50 and more years ago, has become less relevant. So much about traditional marriage dependent on a reduced status for women, in law and as human beings. Even the origins of the words, “woman” and “female” demonstrate the perception (at least by speakers of English!) women are merely some variation of a dominant masculine theme. Or maybe men are just scaled down versions of women, but that seems less likely given how things have played out!

    The recent notion that women are the equals of men, and deserve equal status, makes traditional notions of marriage of difficult to execute. It’s such a huge deal in human affairs, to consider women and men equals. It would be interesting to see what great thinkers of their day had to say about the repercussions of treating men and women as equals. It seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to anticipate the logical follow through of this extraordinary new landscape.

  6. Brian says:

    The greatest change is the availability of more options for women since the 1960′s. It may well be true in the 60s that most people responded so stay in a “troubled” marriage, but for many women when their choices expanded they voted with their feet. The increase of opportunities in the labor market, the expansion of welfare rights (quite miserly, but still allowing some possibility of independence) and the reduction in stigma for single mothers, all allowed women more choices rather then staying in bad marriages. Although many in the “pro-marriage” movement don’t seem willing to come out and admit it, but I think La Lubu is correct the only possibility for their vision of marriage to be implemented is by the restoration of more patriarchy and the restriction of choices for women.

  7. Diane M says:

    To get back to the reader’s comment:

    “Marriage isn’t really about romantic love in this conception, but rather a framework for the rearing of children.”

    I like to think that marriage could be both things – something based on romantic love that makes it possible to rear children together.

    However, I also see a distinction between why a couple gets married and the purpose of a social institution. I got married to make a commitment and celebrate my love, really not because I was thinking about children. However, society may want to encourage us to stay together because we have children.

  8. Kevin says:

    “My grandmothers would have said that they married for love.”

    They probably did, but in the context of knowing that they HAD to get married, for social and practical reasons.

    I don’t think women feel as compelled to get married these days, although most men and women still do get married at some point. They just get married for different reasons, or under different circumstances.

    If marriage is considered useful only if it is interpreted to be what it was 50 or mores years ago (that is, “traditional”), then I think marriage might, like the horse and buggy, die out. But if marriage evolves with the times, with updated rules and expectations, then it could be useful in the modern era.

    That’s another reason for people who want to see the notion of a couple join forces for life, under the rubric of marriage, to object to anti-gay marriage people referring to opposition to same-sex marriage as support for “traditional” marriage. The term “traditional marriage” carries a lot of negative weight for some people, even though it sounds warm and fuzzy to others.

  9. Diane M says:

    I don’t buy this, or at least I don’t think it tells the whole story.

    “The greatest change is the availability of more options for women since the 1960′s. It may well be true in the 60s that most people responded so stay in a “troubled” marriage, but for many women when their choices expanded they voted with their feet.”

    For one thing, when the men had all the money-earning power to leave, they didn’t just dump their wives, at least not before the 1970s.

    And if you look at modern divorce rates, the women who are least likely to divorce their husbands are college-educated women. They have the most economic power. The consequences for their children are not as bad if they divorce, but they don’t.

    Welfare for single mothers has generally been shrinking for a long time. Nevertheless, divorce and having children outside of marriage keeps going up.

    But the biggest problem with this theory for me is this:

    The divorce rate is 40%. I just do not believe that 40% of marriages are bad. It’s like saying well, women leave because 40% of men are either abusive or addicted or cheating or oppressive.

    And since the divorce rate is so much higher for some groups than others, it would be like saying well, most working-class men are just incapable of treating women well.

    I think studies bear this out – most people don’t say they are divorcing because of abuse or cheating, etc.

  10. Diane M says:

    @Kevin – re: my grandmothers getting married for love: “They probably did, but in the context of knowing that they HAD to get married, for social and practical reasons.”

    Actually, I think they were part of a generation where women were enjoying the fact that they could vote, get educated, and support themselves. They didn’t have to get married the way an earlier generation might have. Neither of them needed to get married.

    What was different was that if they wanted to have children, they had to get married.

    As you know, I’m not big on stigmatizing people, but I think as a society we should have the idea that if you are planning to have children, you should get married first.

  11. In the older understanding, it’s not that people don’t marry for love or want love; it’s that people view the marriage as the best chance of gaining and sustaining the love. The young person Dreher quotes was trying to get it right, but doesn’t. He basically says, “the old idea is that marriage is for having children, the new idea is that marriage is an expression of love.” But that’s not right, about the old idea. The old idea was that both love and children came under the rubric and discipline of marriage as an institution. The old idea was that the couple does not make vow as much as the vow makes the couple. But again, what strikes me as so sad and revealing is that to so many people words and concepts like these aren’t much more than gibberish … it’s like trying to listen to someone speaking in a language you’ve never heard and don’t understand.

  12. Mont D. Law says:

    (but for many women when their choices expanded they voted with their feet.)

    People don’t want to talk about this, but kids voted with their feet too. All those middle class kids came out of these supposedly idyllic stable families with one near universal thought. However I raise my kids, it’s not going to be like that. Which is your problem really. And why retro solutions won’t word. As soon as social and political sanctions were eased women and children voted with their feet. Putting the sanctions back isn’t going to change that.

  13. mythago says:

    Actually, I think they were part of a generation where women were enjoying the fact that they could vote, get educated, and support themselves. They didn’t have to get married the way an earlier generation might have. Neither of them needed to get married.

    You must be very young. I’m a GenXer, and my mother still had to struggle with a society that thought it was appropriate (and, in most cases, was legal) for a woman to leave or be fired from her job when she became married – or if not then, when she became a mother – to pay women less because a man “needed that job to support a family”, and to otherwise assume that a woman’s education and ability to pay her own way were less important than her relying on a man to do those things.

    Like La Lubu I think the premise of the OP is nonsense. There’s a reason that feminists once said things like “I don’t breed in captivity”, and it wasn’t because they had never heard of stability or romantic love.

    I really wish ‘traditionalists’ would stop pandering and would flat-out admit they want to go back to the days when women were their husband’s charge. Brad Wilcox, at least, seems pretty open about this.

  14. Brian says:

    “The divorce rate is 40%. I just do not believe that 40% of marriages are bad. It’s like saying well, women leave because 40% of men are either abusive or addicted or cheating or oppressive.”

    Diane, Even if you correct and the vast majority of divorces do not involve abuse, addiction, cheating what follows from that? As for “oppressive”who decides?

    Let’s assume that the vast majority of divorces are due to a person deciding she is not happy in her life and she would be happier not being married, with or without kids. Are you saying that such divorce should be prohibited unless it meets someone else’s definition a marriage bad enough to justify divorce? I am not being sarcastic but I truly don’t understand what policies you are proposing.

  15. Tristian says:

    It seems to me the general drift of the OP is right. I would tell the story like this:

    Once upon a time in the popular imagination there was a natural and proper order to things that we all learned. As we grew up we would fall in love (boys with girls and girls with boys), and then we’d get married, and then we’d start having sex, and then we’d have and start raising children. Goodness knows exceptions to all this of one sort or another were always very common and acknowledged. But this was the norm, and in this world gay marriage makes no sense.

    Well, suffice to say by now these four things–love, marriage, sex, and childrearing–have become thoroughly unstuck in the popular imagination. That and how they are combined in one life is largely a matter of personal choice. In this world gay marriage makes perfect sense, and so here we are.

    What is also clear is that gay marriage is just one node in a wide constellation of interlocking social changes. I’ll leave it to historians and sociologists to puzzle out what is cause and what is effect, but it was always naive to think the drive for gay marriage could be considered apart from changing laws and attitudes about divorce, the rapid acceptance of pre-marital sex and co-habitation, changes in gender roles, easily available contraception, and so on.

  16. JHW says:

    Maybe this cultural change has occurred. But I don’t agree with Rod Dreher or his interlocutor that it explains the same-sex marriage movement or its success. I don’t really think the two are connected. The “traditional” conception of marriage excluded same-sex couples not because it held that every marriage must be between people capable of natural procreation (it didn’t), or because it emphasized the primacy of marital commitment over romantic love conceived of as a sensation (which can just as well apply to same-sex couples), but because it was structurally gendered, with set roles for men and women in marriage. Feminism badly damaged that conception of marriage, and the development of equal protection doctrine resulting from feminism abolished the legal remnants of that conception. The logical corollary of that development is same-sex marriage.

  17. Kevin says:

    Diane, I’m of an age (let’s leave it at “trailing edge baby boomer”, shall we?) where my grandmother didn’t have the opportunities, nor the obligations, to earn a living, as my grandfather did. Money means independence.

    If not marriage and then children, what was the “next big thing” for a girl after high school, when the boys were starting out on careers, however modest? What other opportunity was there for a female to express a sense of being a productive and useful member of society?

    We might be talking about different specific time periods and even different socio-economic circumstances though.

  18. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Are you saying that such divorce should be prohibited unless it meets someone else’s definition a marriage bad enough to justify divorce?

    How about, instead of making legal changes, imposing more social opprobrium against people who get divorced and remarried for poor reasons? You may have the legal right to do something, but you should not expect that society won’t disapprove of your choice.

    Re: The “traditional” conception of marriage excluded same-sex couples not because it held that every marriage must be between people capable of natural procreation (it didn’t), or because it emphasized the primacy of marital commitment over romantic love conceived of as a sensation (which can just as well apply to same-sex couples), but because it was structurally gendered, with set roles for men and women in marriage. Feminism badly damaged that conception of marriage, and the development of equal protection doctrine resulting from feminism abolished the legal remnants of that conception.

    Well, childless couples were traditionally stigmatized, and the ideal of marriage common to most Christian churches, up until mid-century, referred to childrearing as the primary good of marriage. At least in the religious and social sphere (not neccessarily the legal one), I think procreation used to be considered more central to marriage than it is today. I think you’re also right that the demise of gender complementarianism has helped make gay marriage seem more sensible to people. And I think the type of feminists who say things like ‘gender is a social construction’ bear a heavy share of the blame for the decline of marriage in the West.

    If we want to strengthen marriage, love and romance in our society, we should start by bringing back the concept of distinct gender roles in relationships. One of Dreher’s commenters put it wonderfully in a comment on the blog some time ago.

    “Maybe the real problem is the whole development of the “romantic love” idea of marriage and the idea of marriage as a companionship of equals. Greek ideas of “love”, whether heterosexual or homosexual, presuppose inequality: there is a lover and a beloved, a pursuer and a pursued. When marriage was mainly about children and property and inheritance, people seemed less likely to have the sort of existential angst that we have about it.”

  19. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: and to otherwise assume that a woman’s education and ability to pay her own way were less important than her relying on a man to do those things

    Education and ability to have a career are good and everything, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that today, many women put too much priority on those things, and not enough on developing healthy relationships at a younger age, when they’re more fertile and better able to have children. (Women with graduate degrees, for example, end up having, on average, fewer children than they would like).Too little attention was paid to women’s educational and job opportunities in the past, but now we’ve gone too far to the opposite extreme.

  20. La Lubu says:

    The divorce rate is 40%. I just do not believe that 40% of marriages are bad. It’s like saying well, women leave because 40% of men are either abusive or addicted or cheating or oppressive.

    And then there’s that Oklahoma survey of divorcing couples wherein 40% of the divorcing women said that domestic violence was a problem in their marriage (as opposed to something like 4% of the men—interesting discrepancy, no?).

    How about this—would you find it easier to believe that 40% of marriages are non-egalitarian? I do. What I dealt with in my divorce, and what I see as a common problem in my demographic is a wide discrepancy between men and women as to expectations in marriage—women expect an egalitarian marriage, and considerably more men expect a certain level of patriarchy. This isn’t really resolvable, except by discouraging such mismatched couples from getting married in the first place. We don’t do this, because every problem is presented as being resolvable, and it isn’t. There is such a thing as irreconcilable differences.

    College-educated couples have a leg up because there is a match between their internal expectations of an egalitarian marriage and their external reinforcement of the same, plus external reinforcement through educational achievement, employment, and social status of their individual self-worth. People in my demographic are still dealing with residual patriarchy—most women have rejected it, but a certain number of men are hanging on to it because it offers them self-esteem that they can no longer receive from other sources (jobs, family, community).

    And that’s what I mean by “musical chairs”—the number of women looking for egalitarian-minded men in my demographic is significantly larger than the number of egalitarian-minded men actually available. Meanwhile, the so-called supporters of marriage aren’t advocating for nor affirming egalitarian relationships, but are instead offering advice like “suck it up”—all from the cheap seats, of course.

  21. Anna Cook says:

    mythago writes:

    You [Diane M.] must be very young. I’m a GenXer, and my mother still had to struggle with a society that thought it was appropriate (and, in most cases, was legal) for a woman to leave or be fired from her job when she became married

    David writes:

    But that’s not right, about the old idea. The old idea was that both love and children came under the rubric and discipline of marriage as an institution. The old idea was that the couple does not make vow as much as the vow makes the couple.

    I think that the assumption throughout much of this discussion that doesn’t match up with historical evidence is that beliefs and practices around marriage and women’s roles are on some linear path from “traditional” to (depending on your political stance) “liberated” or “disgraced” (or your terms of choice). The parents of the GenX generation grew up in a period of intense post-war natalism and pro-marriage / pro-gender-complimentarian views. That view, which today we think of as “traditional” in the conservative sense was actually a break from prior trends, and something which was created in part by an aggressive campaign against working women that accompanied the return of soldiers at the conclusion of WWII and an intensive anti-communist nativism that pitched America’s “family” values against those of the enemy (part of the reason why queer folks were driven out of government jobs during this period — sexual “deviance” was successfully linked, rhetorically speaking, to communism and “anti-American” activity).

    So my point is that people in their forties, fifties, and sixties, may well have grandparents whose lives seem relatively modern when compared to those of their parents. For example, my mother’s grandmother married and had two children, but when her husband abandoned them during the Great Depression she became a secretary, eventually a fairly well-paid one, bought a house and a summer cottage, paid off all her husband’s abandoned debts, traveled the globe, and never remarried. Instead, she was a single working mother with a circle of supportive women friends.

    In contrast, her daughter (my grandmother) married straight out of high school and under pressure from my grandfather (an engineer in the automotive industry) never pursued her ambitions to be either an author or librarian. While the narrative she tells of her life is a positive one (“at least my husband didn’t leave me like my father left us!”) she continues to express passive-aggressive sadness over the constraints of a life spent focused on my grandfather’s priorities.

    I simply offer these as examples to demonstrate that history isn’t progression from point A to point B with no squiggly turns, side-paths, loopings-back to earlier paradigms.

    I’d argue, for example, that your “old” idea, David, that practice (vows) leads to belief (love) is still one part of our many-stranded cultural discourse around marriage and relationships. While my wife and I would have articulated love and commitment to one another prior to exchanging marriage vows, we also would not have chosen to marry if we didn’t feel that the exchange of those vows were, so to speak, a leap of faith: an expression of intent from which we devoutly hope (and believe) reality will follow. Love sometimes leads to marriage at the same time that marriage can lead to new ways of loving. The two ideas are not incompatible, and one does not necessarily replace the other.

  22. nona says:

    I think Brian has it right when he says that traditional marriage cannot be restored without the restoration of “more patriarchy and the restriction of choices for women.”

    I think it’s another, related example of what David Blankenhorn described as goods in conflict in an earlier posting.

    Old-fashioned, patriarchal marriage is best for children because it is the most likely to keep the parents together and this creates the best outcomes for childen. But it best keeps the parents together by placing a woman under male authority and restricting her choices. Two very good things (stable marriage for the sake of children, increased status and autonomy for women) which cancel each other out.

    This is borne out by the fact that the divorce revolution has been driven by women. As women’s choices increased and their status rose, the divorce rate went up. It is women who file some 70 to 80% of the divorces in this country, the majority of which do not involve claims of abuse. Because women have higher expectations for marriage than men, they are the ones more likely initiate the breakup of an “adequate” marriage in search of greener pastures. Most studies bear this out.

    This leads to a truly terrible question: Is a stable society bought only at the cost of women’s oppression?

  23. JHW says:

    Hector: I was very careful and very narrow in noting one particular account of the relationship between marriage and procreation that the “traditional” view did not embrace. I did not suggest (and would not suggest) that, e.g., contraception and more broadly the choice not to have children have always enjoyed the level of acceptance they have today. But that still has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.

    The primary way traditional gender roles “strengthened” marriage was by disempowering women. That is not a world I want to go back to.

  24. kisarita says:

    great post
    i may add that childbearing itself is less of an institution than it once was, for botmen and women. its no longer the automatic next stage of life. it wasmt an if but a when. just like marriage was not an if but a with whp and when. howevwr tje youthful proppnents who view marriage as simply an expression of rantic love, well why dont they see state involvement altogether as anachronism?

  25. ki sarita says:

    (I disagree though that the reproductive, institutional aspect is as passee as some people make it out to be, whats happening is that people are holding multiple contradictory views, as society changes.)

  26. Diane M says:

    @mythago – I think you missed what I was saying about my grandmothers. My point was not that it they could marry and have careers. It was that they did not need to get married.

    I was responding to Kevin’s statement “They probably did, but in the context of knowing that they HAD to get married, for social and practical reasons.”

    They were both free to never marry, if they did not find someone they loved.

    The difference, as I said, is that they did not believe it was right to have children without being married.

    mythago:

    “You must be very young. I’m a GenXer, and my mother still had to struggle with a society that thought it was appropriate (and, in most cases, was legal) for a woman to leave or be fired from her job when she became married – or if not then, when she became a mother – to pay women less because a man “needed that job to support a family”, and to otherwise assume that a woman’s education and ability to pay her own way were less important than her relying on a man to do those things.

    Anyhow, while I would love to believe that I am young, I am older than GenXers.

    I just believe that people in our culture have been marrying for love for a long time. This is mostly based on having talked to women born at the beginning of the 20th century about their lives. It’s not a study, but I think their voices have to be considered.

  27. Diane M says:

    @Brian: Fair question.

    “Let’s assume that the vast majority of divorces are due to a person deciding she is not happy in her life and she would be happier not being married, with or without kids. Are you saying that such divorce should be prohibited unless it meets someone else’s definition a marriage bad enough to justify divorce? I am not being sarcastic but I truly don’t understand what policies you are proposing.”

    I would not propose a policy prohibiting divorce.

    I would support policies that slow down no-fault divorce and make people take classes or go to counseling or something along those lines. However, I don’t think those are enough or would really be the most important changes to make.

    I would also support policies that make it harder to get married.

    I would support providing free or low-cost counseling, marriage education (mostly conflict resolution, I suspect), and support to couples.

    I also think that some of it can’t be done by government policies. A big piece of it is just people changing their ideas about what is good for kids. People in the past believed that you should stay married for the kids and that was probably a big reason that some people stayed married.

    I think we also need to change some of our ideas about how love works and how commitment matters.

  28. Kevin says:

    @Nona:

    “Because women have higher expectations for marriage than men…”

    Not sure if you mean higher as in “higher standards” or higher as in “more explicit, and possibly unrealistic, expectations, because I’ve been dreaming of getting married since I was a little girl”?

    Women typically have much more specific expectations of dating and marriage, and have spent a lot of time thinking about it in their lives, typically. I have yet to meet a man who admitted to dreaming about getting married as a youth. I gotta believe this disparity in experience alone could account for quite a few unhappy marriages.

  29. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: women expect an egalitarian marriage, and considerably more men expect a certain level of patriarchy.

    Do you have any actual evidence that most women prefer egalitarian marriages? That would rather surprise me.

    Re: Meanwhile, the so-called supporters of marriage aren’t advocating for nor affirming egalitarian relationships, but are instead offering advice like “suck it up”—all from the cheap seats, of course.

    If we don’t think the feminist model of marriage and relationships is a good or healthy one, I fail to see why we should advocate egalitarian, feminist relationships.

  30. zztstenglish says:

    Those who think procreation is not part (if not the central aspect) of marriage are woefully misinformed.

  31. ki sarita says:

    Evidence Hector? Uhhh almost any woman you talk to?
    This is true in my own very traditional, conservative society too. Women, like men, are not interested in being controlled by another person.

    And who is the Royal “We” you speak of who has found egalitarian relationships to be unhealthy?

  32. Diane M says:

    @Kevin – “If not marriage and then children, what was the “next big thing” for a girl after high school, when the boys were starting out on careers, however modest? What other opportunity was there for a female to express a sense of being a productive and useful member of society?”

    Teaching. I don’t want to say that women faced no discrimination. It’s more that they didn’t need to get married.

    And I do think that for a young woman at the beginning of the century, there would have been a sense of new possibilities.

    But my main point is that they married for love, not because they had to. If you talked to them about how they met their husbands, it was clear that they saw it as being about love.

    Even women who were housewives in the 1950s talked about the romance and courtship that led to their marriages. (And didn’t always think they had been oppressed and stuck, either.)

    History is often more complicated than the generalizations we usually make about what happened.

  33. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – “What I dealt with in my divorce, and what I see as a common problem in my demographic is a wide discrepancy between men and women as to expectations in marriage—women expect an egalitarian marriage, and considerably more men expect a certain level of patriarchy.”

    I think what you are saying here is very significant and maybe, just maybe, hopeful for the future.

    A question for clarification for discussion – when you talk about egalitarian versus non-egalitarian, are you talking about men who think they should be in charge or men who don’t want to do chores?

    In any case, I think that part (but not all) of the surge in divorce in the 1970s was due to women wanting change faster than men did.

    The problem is we still have high divorce rates. So one question is how much of that is due to other, new factors? How much is due to children of divorce having a harder time staying married? And how much could be due to a lag in changing roles in certain groups?

    Anyhow, the reason I say it could be a reason for hope is that if it is so, getting men to be more egalitarian might be doable.

  34. Diane M says:

    @nona – “This leads to a truly terrible question: Is a stable society bought only at the cost of women’s oppression?”

    God, I hope not.

    I am optimistic enough to say no. I don’t think the only way to hold marriages together is to oppress women and make them too dependent to leave.

    I really don’t think that in the past most women were wishing they could leave their marriages, but feeling stuck because they were financially dependent on their husbands. As I said before, that’s not how most older women talk/talked about their lives.

    And if you look at which women leave their husbands, it is striking that now the women who clearly could afford to leave, are much, much less likely to do so.

    I know I’ve read that whether or not a woman is at home doesn’t affect the chance that she will divorce. What matters is if she is unhappy either with being at home or with being in the paid labor force. And if she is at home and wants a divorce, she is likely to go out and get a job (sensible move).

    Plus, although women are more likely to start a divorce, men still start plenty of them.

    When you look at people who do divorce, it seems that their attitudes towards each other and how they handle conflict are a pretty good predictor of whether or not they will get divorced.

  35. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Those who think procreation is not part (if not the central aspect) of marriage are woefully misinformed.

    I’d say it is the central aspect of marriage, at least as far as I’m concerned. I don’t really understand why people would get married if they don’t want to have children, it’s always seemed faintly silly to me, but I guess we live in a world in which people do silly things.

  36. La Lubu says:

    A question for clarification for discussion – when you talk about egalitarian versus non-egalitarian, are you talking about men who think they should be in charge or men who don’t want to do chores?

    The being-in-charge part. Being the “Big Boss”. I’ve heard folks of both sexes complain about their partners’ lack of diligence in chores, but haven’t heard much complaint about refusal (and I think that’s a function of age—far fewer men of my generation were raised to expect a strictly gendered division of labor). Regarding the lack of diligence, I think that is slightly gendered, in that certain men’s magazines have a regular round of touting the Pareto Principle (the idea that only 20% of the work is significant while the remaining 80% is filler—so one can get away with doing just 20% most of the time). That starts more than a few arguments about whether or not the housework is really done. *smile*

  37. JHW says:

    Hector: If you’re really curious about the evidence, the later parts of this Stephanie Coontz op-ed are full of such evidence.

  38. zztstenglish says:

    @Hector – And that’s why the state took an interest in marriage to begin with. The state doesn’t award benefits because people are in love. They award it because of the possibility of children.

    The state INVESTS in marriage and the return on that investment are productive participants (ie: the children) in society. Marriage is the best framework in raising them.

  39. JHW says:

    If marriage were a subsidy, if the content of state recognition of marriages was “We send you a check every month to thank you for being married,” the marriage-is-only-recognized-because-of-children argument might make sense. But that’s not how legal marriage works. (It is, on the other hand, basically how the child tax credit works—which, unlike marriage, actually is restricted to people with children.)

    Marriage has legal consequences because the economic and social union of two people appropriately changes how the government treats them. Sometimes it does so in ways that benefit the couple, and sometimes it does so in ways that do not (that’s what talk of a “marriage penalty” is all about).

  40. Kevin says:

    @Diane

    “But my main point is that they married for love, not because they had to.”

    I still have to disagree. I think both men and women more or less had to get married because of economic and social pressures and expectations. Sure, they’d select a specific partner based, hopefully, on positive feelings, let’s call it love. I think you can feel compelled to do something in general (get married, go to college, buy a car) but have inputs into that ultimate unstoppable outcome to make it at least tolerable if not enjoyable (date until you meet someone who really moves you, visit schools until one seems like the right fit, choose a car that has the features and color).

    I can’t imagine a woman living a hundred years ago would actually consider not getting married a viable option, given the limited opportunities to be considered a fully productive human being otherwise, and the social pressures to get married. But I could be wrong.

  41. mythago says:

    I don’t really understand why people would get married if they don’t want to have children

    When you get married you might understand. There are all kinds of legal benefits to being married even if you never have children.

    @DianeM, of course it is not a zero-sum game between love and obligation. People who enjoy their jobs still do them for the paycheck, do they not?

    @Hector, I suspect very few women want coverture to return, regardless of what private arrangements they make with their husbands. Your comments are reminding me of a discussion I had with an acquaintance who insisted that her husband was the head of their household but that if he abused that privilege that he wouldn’t be anymore; I asked her how she thought she would be able to “fire” him if his status was backed up by the force of law. She changed the subject.

  42. zztstenglish says:

    @JHW – Where’s your evidence?

  43. JHW says:

    @zztstenglish: It follows from the legal structure of marriage, which has no resemblance to a straightforward subsidy to encourage people to have kids or to raise them within a marital framework.

    If you look at the important legal features of marriage, they are generally either about recognizing a couple’s economic interdependence (e.g., health insurance coverage, joint income taxation, marital property, support obligations, relevance of spousal income for means tests) or about recognizing the intimate familial relationship between the spouses (e.g., spousal testimonial privilege, immigration sponsorship, hospital visitation and medical decisionmaking). Often enough the legal consequences of marriage are not even “benefits,” let alone “benefits” reasonably understood as investment in the creation of productive citizens.

  44. Diane M says:

    @Kevin – I think that the truth is that most people wanted to get married and still do. So although there were pressures that some people experienced as a bad thing, most people were focused on finding someone because it was what they wanted anyhow. Certainly there were at least some who if you talked to them did not think they were doing it because they had to.

    Kevin: “I still have to disagree. I think both men and women more or less had to get married because of economic and social pressures and expectations.”

    And as Anna Cook said better than me, history is not linear. Women in my grandmother’s day were excited by new opportunities. They believed that there were other ways to be productive human beings. After WWII, women were more into settling down and having babies.

    @mythago – I actually am not quite sure what you are referring to here. (So many discussions going on at once.)

    @DianeM, of course it is not a zero-sum game between love and obligation. People who enjoy their jobs still do them for the paycheck, do they not?

    If you’re suggesting that women in the past who got married were like people who enjoy their jobs but do them for the paycheck, I have to disagree. That just isn’t how the women talked about their lives.

    Falling in love and wanting to stay with someone forever is a profoundly different (and better) experience that getting a fun job. Also more common. :-)

    @JHW – This doesn’t necessarily contradict the idea that the legal recognition of marriage is fundamentally about providing families for children to be raised in:

    “If you look at the important legal features of marriage, they are generally either about recognizing a couple’s economic interdependence (e.g., health insurance coverage, joint income taxation, marital property, support obligations, relevance of spousal income for means tests) or about recognizing the intimate familial relationship between the spouses (e.g., spousal testimonial privilege, immigration sponsorship, hospital visitation and medical decisionmaking).”

    Part of the reason for a couple to be economically interdependent is raising children. Mostly, I think, because one partner will often give up some earning power in order to bear and/or raise children. Investing in children is a social good so it makes sense to encourage the couple to think as an economic unit and work together.

    Benefits like health insurance for your spouse probably evolved from a time when many women didn’t have paid jobs with insurance. (And since not all employers provide insurance this is still an issue.)

    Support obligations also evolved from a time when the law was for husbands to support wives, which must have had something to do with women being constantly pregnant and raising children.

    There can be huge benefits to a couple in thinking as an economic unit, but I don’t think we would have come up with the idea of making couples be economic units if couples didn’t make children.

    And staying together for life becomes more important to the rest of society if you are making children and becoming part of the family tree. So there are more reasons to do things like allow someone to immigrate or inherit, etc.

    I don’t think this means everyone has to have children or that we can’t have same sex marriage. I do think, however, that from the point of view of why have a society support marriage and protect people in it, the main reason is that people have kids.

  45. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – Well, it would be a lot easier if men were just resisting doing more chores around the house.

    So any thoughts on ways we could encourage young men to understand that being the top dog is not a good way to make a woman want to stay with you?

    And along these lines and previous comments inspired by a quote from Barbara Defoe Whiteheads, I do think that college is a place young men learn about how to treat women. It’s not all good – Tucker Max is about as low as you can go. Still, most people are being exposed to other influences in college and peers who push them to grow up a little. So many young men who go to college may learning to work on conflicts in a more egalitarian way.

  46. mythago says:

    @Diane M: you said that because previous generations of women married for love, it was ‘not because they had to’. That doesn’t follow. If I pick a job I love over a job I hate, does that mean I don’t need the money? Of course not; equally, the fact that our grandmothers loved their husbands doesn’t mean that marriage was as optional or fair as it is today.

    Marriage as an institution is not quite the same as marriage “for the benefit of kids”. Insuring the orderly transfer of women as property, managing inheritance and stabilizing society are not identical purposes to making sure that children have a happy life with their biological mother and father.

  47. JHW says:

    Diane M.: That’s a different argument, I think—not that legal recognition of marriages is a subsidy for marital child-rearing, but rather that the couple dynamics marriage responds to are rooted in the fact of child-rearing.

    I don’t think it’s right either, though. None of the legal features of marriage I noted are hinged on the presence of children. (It would be really easy to make them so!) And the dynamics they are rooted in are present in childless couples too, who are also likely to share property, to abide by principles of mutual care, and to regard each other as family. Further, childless couples, like other couples, are likely to make economic decisions as a couple, so even though child-rearing specifically isn’t relevant to them, one spouse may still make sacrifices for the other.

    Of course it’s true that the legal features of marriage mostly evolved when marriage was characterized by a gendered division of labor, where women were economically dependent on men, and of course socially that had something to do with the status of women as the bearers and usually the predominant caretakers for children. But the legal framework of marriage has always applied to childless couples, and today all its rules are gender-neutral and there are lots of egalitarian marriages (both with and without children.)

    I’m certainly not denying that one important social function of marriage is to help provide for stable environments for child-rearing, or that legal recognition of marriage helps facilitate this. (That’s one reason to legalize same-sex marriage.) And I’m not expressing an opinion on the historical roots of government recognition of marriage, or on counterfactual questions like “Would we still have marriage if we procreated in a radically different way?” I’m just saying that, from the standpoint of marriage today, we don’t need to say anything about children or procreation to justify and make good sense of the legal framework we apply to married couples.

  48. zztstenglish says:

    @JHW – Wrong. http://www.law2.byu.edu/jpl/Vol22.2/Black.pdf

    See page 333 “[Marriage benefits] is, rather, the recognition of the extra costs in MAINTAINING CHILDREN…” See footnote 12 taken from the US Treasury.

    Your assertion is based on your observations rather than actual reasoning behind it. By the way, many of those marriage perks you mentioned can be accomplished without marriage. For example, hospital visitation can be achieved without marriage by getting a Power of Attorney or a Living Will.

  49. maggie gallagher says:

    My father, who was born in 1930, explained to me when I asked him (around 1990) why he decided to get married, –with at first a puzzled look on his face “If you didn’t get married you were a failure.” Men had to persuade some woman to link their lot with his to be successful as a man.

    Not just women, both sexes experienced a “norm” around marriage, not just a “choice.”

  50. fannie says:

    zztstenglish,

    “For example, hospital visitation can be achieved without marriage by getting a Power of Attorney or a Living Will.”

    No, that’s false.

    Granting someone hospital visitation is not the purpose of a power of attorney or a living will. Legally, a power of attorney generally confers someone else with the authority to act on his or her behalf. A living will is an advance directive where a person states his or her wishes regarding treatment preferences in end-of-life situations.

    Hospital visitation rules are a matter of hospital policy, usually informed by regulations and guidance from governmental and outside entities.

    One of the more frustrating aspects of the SSM conversation is when people spread the myth that basically all of the rights (or “perks,” if you will) of marriage can simply be contracted for or created via legal document. In many cases, that’s simply not true.