The World Historical Transformation of Marriage

By Coontz, Stephanie | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2004 | Go to article overview

The World Historical Transformation of Marriage


Coontz, Stephanie, Journal of Marriage and Family


Key Words: arranged marriage, family change, history of marriage, love.

For the past several years, I have had the disconcerting but exhilarating privilege of ranging back and forth over a time span of 5,000 years in my readings on marriage and family life. In the book I am just finishing on the history of marriage, I have pushed my studies further back into the past than I have ever ventured before. But as the national cochair and press liaison for the Council on Contemporary Families, it was also my job to stay on top of the exciting new research that appears in journals such as this one. Being able to combine these two projects has helped me gain a better perspective on both the historical trends in marriage and the contemporary debates about its future.

I have spent much of my career as a historian explaining to people that many things that seem new in family life are actually quite traditional. Two-provider families, for example, were the norm through most of history. Stepfamilies were more numerous in much of history than they are today. There have been several times and places when cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, or nonmarital sex were more widespread than they are today. Divorce was higher in Malaysia during the 1940s and 1950s than it is today in the United States. Even same-sex marriage, though comparatively rare, has been accepted in some cultures under certain conditions.

Similarly, many societies have had a very casual attitude toward what deserves recognition as a marriage. The "tradition" that marriage has to be licensed by the state or sanctified by the church is more recent than most people assume. In ancient Rome, for example, the difference between cohabitation and legal marriage was entirely subjective. It depended solely upon the partners' intent. And I am more than a little bemused when people talk about the traditional sanctity of the Christian wedding ceremony. For more than a thousand years, the Catholic church took the position that if a man and woman claimed that they had exchanged words of consent, whether in the kitchen or out by the haystack, then they were married.

In the process of writing this book, however, I have shifted my focus. I still believe that when it comes to any particular practice or variation on marriage, there is really nothing new under the sun. But when we look at the larger picture, it is clear that the social role and mutual relationship of marriage, divorce, and singlehood in the contemporary world is qualitatively different from anything to be found in the past. Almost any separate way of organizing caregiving, childrearing, residential arrangements, sexual interactions, or interpersonal redistribution of resources has been tried by some society at some point in time. But the coexistence in one society of so many alternative ways of doing all of these different things-and the comparative legitimacy accorded to many of them-has never been seen before.

The contemporary revolution in marriage and family life is what historians sometimes call an overdetermined phenomenon-something that has so many separate causes and aspects that getting rid of one, two, or even several elements of the change would not reverse it. Divorce and single parenthood have both been common in many societies in the past, but they almost never coexisted with the right of women to initiate the divorce, or the ability of so many single women to actually support themselves and their children. The extraordinary increase in the economic independence and legal equality of women has reshaped the social landscape of family life. It has put a new spin on almost every contemporary aspect of marriage (and of nonmarriage), even if some of our contemporary features superficially resemble something in the past. The rise of new forms and patterns of cohabitation has had similar far-reaching effects, as many contributors to this issue point out. And the legal gains for unmarried heterosexual and same-sex partners have challenged the ways that marriage traditionally organized people's rights and responsibilities on the basis of biology and gender.

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