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July 10, 2007

"Traditional Marriage" Never Was

Matt Yglesias says I've been too hard on David Brooks, who, after all, has correctly observed that today's young adults are marrying later. Matt writes, "This is a real and meaningful change from the recent past, that, like any significant, change, is going to have some downsides. Downsides that people are going to notice and talk about."

They key word there is "recent." Sure, it's amusing to poke fun at a middle-aged square's attempts to be hip to pop music. But let's be frank: Conservatives' nostalgia for "traditional marriage" is delusional. I am not anti-marriage. Despite being one of those children of divorce that Brooks so pities, I believe that a life-long, egalitarian partnership is a wonderful way (though not the only wonderful way) to find happiness and support and to raise children. But early monogamous marriage between sexually inexperienced peers carries not only a higher risk of divorce (about double the risk for couples under 25), but is also a historical aberration, not a timeless, values-driven institution.

If you're interested in shifting marriage ideologies over time, Stephanie Coontz's Marriage: A History, is a great place to start. Throughout most of human history, marriage for the great majority of people was a matter of spending the night. You had sex, you were married. You separated and had sex with someone else, the marriage was over. The rich and powerful married formally to create ties that would increase influence and decrease the likelihood of violence between families. Monogamy and sexual fidelity were not expectations.

Over time, the dominance of agriculture and private property brought marriage to the masses. Hunting and gathering had been a community affair, but the back-breaking work of planting, harvesting, spinning, and cooking on a discrete plot of land was easier to accomplish in teams of adults. But these marriages weren't based on love either. Parents wanted to make sure their children had a life partner who was strong, hard working, and genetically desirable. The goal was to produce healthy children who could in turn take to the fields.

It was Christian sexual prudery and capitalism that ultimately combined to create the traditional marriage ideology we know today. A working husband with a supposedly idle wife at home was the ideal "producer" whose female counterpart filled the role of "consumer." But this was a myth. Until the post-war era, only a tiny minority of families could survive on a single income. The boom of the 1950s brought this luxury to the Western middle class for the first time in human history. It was a short-lived experiment, soon brought to a close by both women's desires to lead full lives and increasing economic instability for both sexes.

The bottom line is that today, people marry later because it's a better idea to do so. Both partners get a chance to pursue education, financial stability, and sexual confidence -- all things that improve one's chances of entering into a stable marriage for life. And isn't that what Brooks and his ilk would like to see more of us doing? Pink and Avril Lavigne and Carrie Underwood and Lily Allen may be angry at men, but it's not because they don't believe in marriage. Their lyrics express the fears of many young women that no matter how much progress we've made, our society still very much us pulls us toward settling for less than we deserve. What's at stake for conservatives aren't marriages that raise happy children, but a fear of sex and women's liberation, especially in combination.


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I don't think you were too hard on him. I mean, so what if he did have one good sentence? Brooks is still as weird as apples with teeth.

I also think you were dead right to knock him for the implicit directions he would have women go back in -- to marrying early and/or subsuming themselves in the "uplift" of their otherwise uncivilizable male partners.

And finally yeah, as Coontz points out in her book, that women would marry at an *average* age of 19, as they did in America and much of Europe in the 1950s, was almost completely unprecedented.


Oh, one point about "single women under 30 who don't know what the rules are." In our astonishingly youth-oriented culture we tend to overlook one obvious source: divorced and widowed women who are either childless or who's children are grown. With them as an untapped resource there's definitely no need for younger women to consult David Brookes on The Thing To Be Done.

Take care, Dana,


Dana: You're nuts. You say: It was Christian sexual prudery and capitalism that ultimately combined to create the traditional marriage ideology we know today. . . ." Then you indicate, obliquely, that this happened only after WWII.

You seem to leave out a great majority of the people involved in the traditional marriages. The Jews, the Muslims, the Hindu, the Buddhists, etc. all seemed to somehow have traditional marriages a long time before the prudery of Christianity imposed it on them.

You take such a narrow American view and extrapolate it to the world. You should do some traveling and get away from the computer.

So, Llyonnoc, enlighten us: at what age do these traditional Jews, Muslims, Hindu, and Buddhist women traditionally marry? And what do their traditional marriages look like? Do they look like the marriages Brooks suggests in his column?

How did Christianity build up traditional marriage? Well, mostly, by calling an end to casual sex=marriage arrangements and polygamy, which both died a long slow death, even well after the formerly pagan Europeans formally converted.

I didn't mean to imply that Christianity suddenly around WWII created this ideology. It was an ideal for a long time, but only during a short time was it actually "achieved" by any large number of people.

I absolutely agree (and all scientific evidence supports) that it is much better that young people are getting married later. But also think that Matt is absolutely right to urge an analysis beyond that simple fact that it's better.

I also think it's incorrect to casually associate David Brooks (who, among other things, has called conservative opposition to gay marriage "scandalous") with the crazy traditionalist right. Just as you go out of your way to say that you are not opposed to marriage simply because you are critical of its unseemly history, I don't think that Brooks was arguing that getting married later is bad (or even that it's worse than before).

My impression from the column was the same as Matt's: With this change noted, is there something more intelligent we can say about the realities that young people confront today (COMPARED to to 40 years ago) in their 20s other then "it's better in the long run" or, alternately, the right's "what's with all these sluts these days?" (as Matt charactarizes it).

In other words, just because it's better doesn't mean it's easy.

But yes, I agree that pop songs are are an awkward vehicle for David Brooks to convey that message.

Plus, many "traditional" forms of marriage aren't based on romance at all, but are primarily economic arrangements (hence making youth and sexual inexperience less central to the stability of the marriage, although not necessarily to the happiness of the partners.) I remember Margaret Talbot once wrote a good piece about this, but it's not clear how these models are relevant to marriage as it's likely to exists most often in the United States.

Coontz's book, sadly, is not a history but a conjectural fantasy. There are no written records of Neolithic life, so we have absolutely no idea of whether our Stone-Age ancestors (those you cite as the majority throughout the history of marriage) mated overnight or for life. It could well be that when matriarchy (tracing descent through female lineage) was the rule, that you are at least somewhat correct. We just don't know, and archaelogy can't tell us. But when the discovery of bronze and the taming of the horse led to patriarchial tribal life, we know for certain that marriage became a lifelong bond--with two important caveats. many, perhaps most, women, died early in their childbearing years (few saw 40), and polygamy was the norm, at least among the powerful. We know this from the most ancient records of Egypt and babylon, as well as the testimony of works like the early Old Testament. But at some point during the early iron age, two radical new ideas took root. The first was Monotheism, the idea of a single Creator-God, and the second--by no coincidence, IMHO--was that of a committed monogamy. This is the model that has evolved and persisted into the 21st century even in Marxist societies. And it was only in the 20th century that divorce became common or even in most places legal at all. That lesbian and gay couples now wish to enjoy this sacrosanct bond is perfectly understandable and commendable, since it is the noblest ideal that life can offer any of us. So why cheapen their aspirations by pretending that it has always been a sham?

I’m Afraid "the idealized marriage I remember from the precise moment when I was a kid must be the optimal form of family relations" line of non-reasoning is about the most empirical, studied, and confirmed consensus we have on the considerable data.

Far from being solipsism and nostalgia , traditional family forms are the undisputed gold standard for healthy children, relationships, and society.

If one is looking for “unjust or irrational social institutions”, one need go no further than the very time period when the social left launched its sexual revolution and America "lost its innocence"

Rather than erect a ridiculous straw man of - “fear of sex and women's liberation, especially in combination." ; perhaps such formulations are really a not-so-clever attempt to shift accountability

Stephanie Coontz basic approach is fundamentally flawed. In her book (Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage) she collapses thousands of years of human history into 448 pages of agenda driven obfuscation. It is standard operating procedure for scholars in the contemporary academy to elevate the particular over the universal. By examining the institution of marriage through this lens, Coontz distorts its core meaning and value.

Of coarse marriage has always served a variety of social functions; this or that culture or class has sought to harness its power for this or that end. At this particular time, it is the agenda of gay & feminist activists to harness its power to normalize homosexuality, promote androgyny, and (in many cases) weaken marriages normative power.

None of this says anything about marriages essential purpose. She continually ignores its primary function of bringing men & women together in stable households for the successful rearing and education of their children. By focusing instead on the particulars of everything from the 16th century aspirations of romantic love, to feudal landed aristocracy’s ambitions of greater wealth and power, Coontz is able to distract the reader away from these universal timeless truths. In much the same way Coontz previous book (The Way Never Were: American Families and the nostalgia Trap) was able to use the straw man of 1950,s Ward & June Clever imagery to convince her audience that marriages essential features are a fanciful shibboleth of mere nostalgia.
Feminists assertions to the contrary, marriage has never failed to promote this core normative function.

Coontz has dismissed intellectual integrity and moral vision by using her work to foment an evolutionist paradigm that views progress as whatever happens next. She is merely another apologist for contemporary family breakdown. Coontz attempts to shift attention from the grave problems of modern society in its struggle to bring men and women together in lifelong monogamy; for the good of themselves, for the good of their children, and for the good of all society.

I'm not going to defend Coontz, as I didn't really like her book.

However, calling "traditional family forms" the "gold standard" is going much too far. While I don't have time to discuss all the arguments against this position, I will point out that the American Association of Anthropologists have recently stated that a variety of family forms can contribute to societal stability, not just the heterosexual nuclear family.

Mabye lifelong monogamy and children are the apotheosis for many, but that's hardly the only fulfilling option. Common sense dictates that people vary enormously, and have greatly different goals, aspirations, and vocations. The best way to help people and society is to allow people to follow their calling, whether that is traditional marriage with/without children, gay marriage, unmarried partnership, or singlehood.

I still don't understand how this has anything other than indirect relevance to the David Brooks column, which argued that a social change (people marrying later) may, even if it's better on balance, have created some challenges for young women that didn't exist before.

This may be so regardless of whether marriage is an artificially constructed dogma or a reflection of our deepest needs. I don't see how exploring the history of marriage reveals much about young people today compared to 40 years ago. Just as married life has changed, so has unmarried life.

Yes, I’m aware of the AAA recent foray into the field, (3 points are worthy of note)
#1. The AAA is an organization; its press releases don’t reflect its membership, but rather the views of its board. (like the APA, or the Barr Association)
#2. This particular statement regarding marriage was issued as a direct rebuke after President George Bush commented on marriage in support of the FMA.
#3. The entire field of Anthropology is predicated and historically rooted in Kinship networks. That is, the study of ancestral ties among related groups. Predicated, in other words- on the natural family.

As I said...only 1 example. For the rest you'd have to read more of Coontz, or try Kay Trimberger or Bella DePaulo. But you don't like Coontz and since you read The National Review I doubt you would like the other two either. Which is fair enough, since I don't like The National Review and other conservative publications.

Interesting how liberals and conservatives operate in different spheres...

It was Christian sexual prudery and capitalism that ultimately combined to create the traditional marriage ideology we know today. A working husband with a supposedly idle wife at home was the ideal "producer" whose female counterpart filled the role of "consumer."

Even more specifically, it was an ideal created by the Victorians as the Industrial Revolution came into full swing and both Europe and the United States changed from being primarily rural to primarily urban.

It's not the Puritans we can't shake off, it's the goddamned Victorians.

"But when the discovery of bronze and the taming of the horse led to patriarchial tribal life, we know for certain that marriage became a lifelong bond ..."

I guess you've never heard of wife-selling**, which was very popular in England since at least the 1700s and continued until the 1850s. Not to mention the extremely lax annulment laws of the Middle Ages that were pretty much guaranteed to find that a husband and wife who couldn't get along were too closely related for the marriage to continue.

Anyone who pretends that divorce and separation didn't exist before the 1950s is either frighteningly ignorant of history or lying outright.

(Link to wife-selling in English history:

If you read Brooks regularly (which I confess is like owning up to a root canal fetish) you would know in fact that he is an advocate of early marriage, that he has rather Victorian views of women's sexuality, that he is shockingly old for his chronological age, and draws insipid and uninformed conclusions from popular culture all the time. If you want a brilliant capsule treatment of his "thought" check out Tom Tomorrow's Mr. McBobo cartoons.

The trend that Brooks is pointing out is simply not a new one. I am 47 and the phenomenon that that Brooks describes is one that has been evident for at least the last 30 years or so. And again, as for angry and sexually liberated female musicians, I suggest he listen to the Pretenders, Marianne Faithfull, Liz Phair, and any number of artists who have been around since before Avil Levine was born.

I don't have any stats to point to, but my impression is that during the 1800s and before, when our economy was still mostly agricultural, it was common for older men to marry younger women. So while the average age of the man might have been late twenties to early forties, the average age of the woman might be closer to twenty. Isn't this the case in Jane Eyre and Little Women?


I would like to contest the sentence:
Stephanie Coontz's Marriage: A History, is a great place to start.

As other posters have stated, it is too new a work and is seems far from the consensus view on empirical marriage patterns throughout history.

Not saying you shouldn't read it. But, I'd have some other more foundational texts under my belt first.


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