Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Update your browser
Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy (detail)

Marriage: A History

Issue One / 2012

Lisa Lickona

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin Books, 2005).

The author's noble cause is to disabuse us once and for all of the notion that the 1950s Ozzie-and-Harriet, nuclear, male-breadwinner family was the pinnacle of family life. Through an exhaustive history that begins with prehistoric man and ends in the present day, Coontz convincingly argues that the companionate marriage, the marriage for love, traces its origins not to a decadent 1960s, but rather to the eighteenth century, when unprecedented changes in society occurred that made young people more independent of their families and communities. Before that, marriage was all about in-laws - that is, the economic and political connections that were made through the union - and therefore far too important to be left up to the whims of two inexperienced young people. Even when, in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church made consent the definitive factor for the validity of a marriage, the engaged persons were hardly "free" in any modern sense to choose a spouse; engagements were closely overseen by parents, clergy, and feudal lords.

Despite the fact that the shift in the purpose of marriage has led to marriage becoming "optional and more brittle" (306) in recent decades, Coontz believes that it is boon for women. In her conclusion, she quotes the anguished journal entries of women from the pre-love era who beg God to give them the grace to be faithful in the face of abusive or unkind husbands. Persevering when the spouse is boring, lazy, unproductive, annoying, lacking direction, dirty, rude, temperamental, unpredictable, nasty, prone to emotional swings - for Coontz, this is the essence of what we have escaped in the modern companionate marriage. But this raises more questions than it answers. Isn't the woman (or man) who perseveres in the face of a difficult marriage also living a marriage "for love?" And who do these men and women stick it out for, if not for the children whom they love? It is disappointing that a history of marriage says so little about children as a reason for marrying at any point in human history.

Indeed, Coontz rarely mentions the ends of marriage that lie beyond the self and its desire for greater returns through marriage - be they economic, political, or affectionate. And, as if she knows she might be pressed on this point, she tells us that returning to the era before love conquered marriage would be as impossible as returning to the handcrafted life of the pre-industrial era. But what Coontz misses is that morality, unlike material progress, is played out anew in the history of each human person (cf. Pope Benedict's Spe Salvi, n. 24). And a sense of marriage as grounded in self-giving love that has the form of a lifelong vow has both historical precedent and modern defenders.

Recommended Reading

Jasna Bell, "Irises and Peonies"

Bearers of Communion: Reality Remembered in the Home

Erik van Versendaal

The vase on the dining table keeps a bouquet of irises and peonies cut from the garden in full bloom, for a brief time to touch the room with congenial fragrance and pigment. While still at their most vivid, these flowers can embellish, and in embellishing really symbolize, the life of the household. For the bouquet’s reality carries remembrance of the patient nurturing of the plants whence it comes, of the care to adorn the home pleasantly that moved the gardener to prefer these stems, of the love for spouse and children expressed in hands that arranged the ensemble...

Read Full Article
Thomas Cole, "The Course of Empire"

What Does It Take To Be "A People"?

Augustine of Hippo

The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 left a once-proud and powerful empire reeling. How could “the Eternal City” fall to barbarian invaders, ransacking her ancient streets, plundering her priceless treasures? Some Romans blamed Christianity: had Rome not abandoned her ancestral gods, she would have been spared. St. Augustine of Hippo argued otherwise. In The City of God (426), he mounts a spirited defense of Christianity and its salutary effects on Rome.

Read Full Article
L'Osservatore Romano, Second Vatican Council

Properly Seeing the Past in Order to Imagine a Better Future

Conor Dugan

A common theme of many postliberal thinkers is that we are too often hemmed in by the boundaries and limits of contemporary thinking. As David Schindler, D.C. Schindler, Michael Hanby, Patrick Deneen, and others have been arguing, new political and social forms are not possible without imagination. By limiting ourselves to liberalism’s categories, we necessarily limit what may come next. But we cannot expand our imaginations without viewing history properly.

Read Full Article
Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
620 Michigan Ave. N.E. (McGivney Hall)
Washington, DC 20064