Sunday, May 4, 2008

Love and Marriage: Go together like a horse and carriage?


"...This I tell you brother...you can't have one without the other."

-Frank Sinatra

It's interesting that Frank sang of such a combo when he didn't seem to have much luck in with either; marrying and divorcing several times. And this is not only a trend among the stars, it is a crisis seeping into over half the households in the United States. Or has it been "seeping" since the dawn of time? This is just what Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, set out to debunk along with everything else about marriage.

This is, of course, no easy task as Coontz found out once she dove into her research. In her introduction she explains that this idea of the "marriage crisis" has always been present. People have always noted "the decay of marriage" and reflected on some sort of "Golden Age of Marriage" but really it never existed in the first place.(1) This "golden age", Coontz, is merely a retort to our dissatisfaction of the institution itself and the situations which accompany it. And really it all boils down to LOVE. Once we started marrying for love alone marriage no longer made sense. Ultimately, love fades and marriages end.


Chapter 1: The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love

Coontz delves into "love and marriage" more here by going over the history of many culture's rules and expectations of marriage. Surprisingly, marrying for love was often mocked, especially in medieval Europe, because love was considered a highly irrational emotion.(17-18) Coontz points out the differences between many cultural conceptions of marriage. Today, we often look at marriage as a great bond between two people, best friends and lovers but it has not always been this way. And monogamy was not always a common practice and consequently non-monogamy was accepted and practiced regularly. It was not uncommon for either spouse, primarily the man, to go elsewhere for sex. In some cultures keeping the birth family together was more important than getting married. As a Kiowa Indian woman said "a woman can always get another husband, but she has only one brother."(21) This highlights the extreme differences between one culture and the next.



Chapter 2: The Many Meanings of Marriage


In this chapter Coontz addresses the many definitions that have been given to marriage and then explains how they cannot apply to marriage. This was most interesting because I thought most anthropologists that defined marriage were generalizing and I don't see how a single definition could ever work. Every country has a different notion of what entails marriage. Of course Coontz was able to debunk each proposed definition of marriage. It's more complex than we would ever have thought. What is marriage? A institution involving a man and a woman, living together, having sex, cooperating economically? (26) Or is it a union of a man and a woman which bores a child and that child is legitimate? (27) I felt that the legitimacy of the child was the most shocking and upsetting aspect. The fact that some children were "illegitimate" or "bastards" because there parents we married or socially accepted. Why are we punishing children for something completely out of their control? I think it's nonsense and really appreciate what the Naskapi man said to the Frenchmen:

"You French people love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe."

It was also interesting to see how in-laws were cherished in many cultures. This is especially funny in comparison to even our pop culture where "the in-laws" are often horrific and unbearable. Many people have told me that if you are thinking about marrying someone you should try living with his family first because that will tell you whether or not it will work out. This does make sense to me but it also makes me kind of sad. Some cultures really cherish the connections and friendships they make through marriages but our society often loathes these bonds. (at least that's what I have seen.)



Chapter 3: The invention of Marriage

Where did marriage come from? That is a good question. Coontz digs really deep in this chapter beginning with the hunter-gatherers. She posits whether or not marriage was started to protect women or to oppress women. She finds that early on it was not one of the other. "The male-female pair w as the fundamental unit of economic survival and cooperation" and one could not fully function without the other.(38) When tools and technologies became more advanced some men "needed" more wives to keep up with their hunting. (43) Coontz then settles, saying that "marriage probably originated as an informal way of organizing sexual companionship, child rearing, and the daily tasks of life." (44) But from this simplified marriage, it became more about property, wealth, and love...(though later on.)

I have been a cynic of marriage for many years. Although I have lightened up a bit, I still feel it is a somewhat nauseating institution particularly in our society. Just look at the two-inch-thick BRIDAL magazines. How much money goes into ONE WEDDING that only lasts for ONE DAY?! It's huge!!! Why not save it for the kids college fund? I could go on about the marriage institution but I will save it for class tomorrow.

37 comments:

Heidi M. said...

Laura,

Thanks for your post. I like your question about whether love in marriage, which modern society seems to demand, is actually part of the cause of the perceived "collapse" of the institution in recent years. I think Coontz argues that marriage is always changing, and always seemingly in a state of collapse. This most recent one is, in fact, largely due to the fact that marriage has become an increasingly personal, romantic pursuit rather than an institution which historically has been linked to political, economic, and familial gains. I appreciated Coontz's observation that modern governments have increasingly taken the pressure off of the political and economic aspects of what has been historically defined as marriage. The individual has much more clout outside the realm of his or her marital status than ever before. Much like Kipnis, however, I would argue that there are still many vestiges of political and economic privileges inherent in marriage--especially in terms of health care, child rearing, social status/social recognition. For non-heterosexual couples, these privileges are much less accessible. Since Coontz explains the changes inherent in marriage as a constantly shifting institution, why not throw off all the rest of these political and economic benefits from under the label of "marriage" and instigate a more fundamental shift of power in our society? After all, Coontz notes, "almost every single function that marriage fulfills in one society has been filled by some mechanism other than marriage in another" (32). I'm playing the devil's advocate here. This could be taken as an argument either for the end of marriage as an institution altogether, or simply for a separation of politics and economics from the more personal realm of love relationships.

-Heidi

the amateur feminist said...

What about our Western society that hasn't yet been commodified? I am personally turned off by marriage when I think of marriage as viewed in America. I honestly don't believe in promise rings, diamond rings, big weddings, etc. These materialistic things do not define my relationship. Although there are somethings about marriage in the Hmong culture that I don't completely agree, I appreciate the depth and meaning it has behind the wedding ceremony. I think it's important to understand that there are other views of marriage and that we don't have to be confined to our individual views.

Kira Price said...

I too am turned off by marriage in America. I think that it is so incredibly limited in the ways in which a couple is supposed to act, communicate, spend time, have children. It seems marriage is more about the image. Having a partner, a house, and children means you fit in... fitting in takes a lot less energy than standing out. Marriage has transformed a lot in the last 100 years, I would like to see it change even more. And I would love for our generation to be the ones who re-construct it.

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Sabrina said...

Laurax, I am really interested to stumble upon your reference to a Naskapi woman's comment to a French man in your blog on the marriage book in 2008. If you would be willing to get in touch and share your source for that reference i would greatly appreciate it. I am doing oral history work with Naskapi youth at the momnet. What was your connection to such a far away from Minnesota nation?! sabrina