Inside the American Couple: New Thinking, New Challenges

Article excerpt

Inside the American Couple: New Thinking, New Challenges. Marilyn Yalom & Laura L. Carstensen (Eds.); Estelle Freedman & Barbara Gelpi (Consulting Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press. 2002. 266 pp. ISBN 0-520-22957-6. $19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-5854-1975-2. $50.00 (cloth).

This anthology is an interesting and highly readable celebration of the contemporary couple. The essays emanate from the assumption of the necessity of the dyad, with the search for an intimate other seen as the drive to fulfill a basic human need. They comprise a potpourri of topics brought together by the common theme of the pairing phenomenon and attesting to the staying power of couples. The authors span a variety of disciplines including psychology, sociology, history, anthropology, education, and law.

Three chapters provide historical glimpses of Biblical, Colonial, and 19th-century British couples. It should be noted that of these three, only one delivers what the book's title promises, that is, a description of the American couple. Granted, the Judeo-Christian Bible and the British legal system are integral to the cultural foundations of the United States, but I had some reservations when reading this first section as to whether it truly represented the American couple. All three chapters, however, were interesting and thought provoking. Biblical injunctions, despite their questionable relevance to modern life, are an interesting baseline. The case of John and Abigail Adams' companionate marriage, at a time when most couples are believed to have been eking out a subsistence living united by material needs rather than sentiment, points to the value of studying elite behavior as the vanguard of subsequent mainstream trends. The British public debates about marriage as prostitution, quaint as they seem now, delve into difficult questions about love and money that have yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Two essays cover alternative couples, one on the sexual aspects of lesbian relationships and the other on gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. These are valuable in revealing inside details for readers who are not part of these subcultures. The centrality, or lack, of sexuality in a relationship is relevant to heterosexual couples also and forces us to rethink the meaning and purpose of intimate dyadic partnerships. The importance of the ceremony for nontraditional couples reminds us of its enormous symbolic power for all members of society.

Next, three essays touch on the work-home nexus and work performed by members of a couple, both paid and unpaid. The cultural significance of the home as a joint creation and expression of a union is analyzed. …