- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What’s love got to do with the erosion of marriage in the Western world? Everything, says historian Stephanie Coontz.

Over the decades, marriage shifted from strict, family arranged, economic or political unions to “love matches” in which spouses choose each other based on personal affection and companionship, Mrs. Coontz says in her new book, “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage.”

Loving marriages are, of course, wonderful as long as they last, she said. However, a devastating byproduct of the personal love match is divorce, because, as millions of couples have discovered, once love flees, marriages end.

In America, the love-oriented marriage culture also has given rise to premarital sex, cohabiting, multiple remarriages, single parenting and same-sex “marriage,” says Mrs. Coontz, who teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Her advice: Recognize that these cultural changes in family formation are here to stay. Stop trying to impose lifelong, monogamous marriage as “the path” for everyone and start adjusting social support systems to accept alternative family forms.

Of course, she said, the culture should help people get married and stay married. “I am absolutely in favor of that,” Mrs. Coontz said. But the culture should stop saying that marriage is “the only way” couples can have social respectability. “I think that’s just shooting ourselves in the foot.”

These are fighting words to those who want to see a revival of a lifelong-marriage culture.

Mrs. Coontz’s premise that fickle “love matches” are sinking marriage as an institution is based on a false definition of love, said Greg Williams, director of Heritage of Kentucky, a character-based abstinence education program.

Most modern cultural messages say that “love is sex or love is an emotion,” he said. But love is far more. “Love is a commitment, an act of the will. … If we would really get back to teaching this, we would see much healthier individuals … [and] healthier relationships,” Mr. Williams said.

Scott M. Stanley, co-author of a new book, “The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love,” says modern couples have a too-narrow concept of marriage.

“A big part of the problem is that people have come to define marriage solely in terms of ‘how happy can you make me?’” said Mr. Stanley, who co-directs the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

“We have a consumer mind-set,” he said. “If we treat our mate as a consumable and a product to be disposed of or returned once it’s not longer ‘making me happy,’ no marriage is going to survive that belief system.”

Mr. Stanley’s solution is to develop a “fuller model” of marriage — one that incorporates love as a commitment and strengthens social support for marriage.

Mrs. Coontz said she started her book on the history of marriage with several premises, but changed her approach when she realized that the current “rearrangement” of married and single life was, “in fact, without historical precedent.”

For centuries, she found, marriage was the premier way, worldwide, to increase wealth, gain useful in-laws, forge political alliances, attain social respectability and achieve other practical goals, such as deciding which children were legitimate heirs.

But love rarely played a role in marriage. “Love matches” were so unusual that “in some cultures and times, true love was actually thought to be incompatible with marriage,” she wrote.

Then, in the 1700s, she said, the novel idea that marriage should be centered on the love and companionship between a man and a woman caught on in the West.

This change from “yoke mates to soul mates” was revolutionary and even successful — many couples had happy and contented marriages, at least for a while, she wrote.

But this change also opened a Pandora’s box because it gave rise to extraordinarily high expectations about marriage.

Today, it’s unthinkable that a couple would marry unless they are deeply in love. They also expect to live “happily ever after,” which means they should make each other their top priority, be each other’s best friend and satisfy virtually all of each other’s psychological, social and physical needs. All the things that once mattered most in marriage — parents and children, extended family, economics, religion, public service, social respectability — now take a back seat to happiness in marriage.

Marriage for love also set up the scenario for divorce, Mrs. Coontz wrote. After all, when loving feelings falter, as they inevitably do, especially when life expectancies are so long, she said, “why shouldn’t a couple be allowed to go their separate ways?”

This has left the institution of marriage in “uncharted territory,” said Mrs. Coontz, who is director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a group that studies family changes.

Marriage may be in flux, but Americans still covet it — especially the long-lasting, loving, faithful, companionate kind of marriage, said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

“We are a marrying people … and there’s no evidence that people’s aspiration for marriage has diminished in the least,” said Mrs. Whitehead, who has written extensively on marriage and divorce issues.

What’s different today, she said, is that many Americans, married and single, are worried about the stability of marriage and are “pretty intent” on doing whatever they can to secure it.

There’s a new consciousness that the quality of a marriage matters and that spouses have to continuously invest in the relationship to make it work, she said. There’s also “a great appetite for learning more about marriage,” including how to find a suitable mate and acquiring certain relationship skills.

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