Just when the clamor over "traditional" marriage couldn’t get any louder, along comes this groundbreaking book to ask, "What tradition?" In Marriage, a History, historian and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz takes readers from the marital intrigues of ancient Babylon to the torments of Victorian lovers to demonstrate how recent the idea of marrying for love is—and how absurd it would have seemed to most of our ancestors. It was when marriage moved into the emotional sphere in the nineteenth century, she argues, that it suffered as an institution just as it began to thrive as a personal relationship. This enlightening and hugely entertaining book brings intelligence, perspective, and wit to today’s marital debate.
When considered in the light of history, "traditional marriage" the purportedly time-honored institution some argue is in crisis thanks to rising rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, not to mention gay marriage is not so traditional at all. Indeed, Coontz (The Way We Never Were) argues, marriage has always been in flux, and "almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before." Based on extensive research (hers and others'), Coontz's fascinating study places current concepts of marriage in broad historical context, revealing that there is much more to "I do" than meets the eye. In ancient Rome, no distinction was made between cohabitation and marriage; during the Middle Ages, marriage was regarded less as a bond of love than as a " 'career' decision"; in the Victorian era, the increasingly important idea of true love "undermined the gender hierarchy of the home" (in the past, men rulers of the household were encouraged to punish insufficiently obedient wives). Coontz explains marriage as a way of ensuring a domestic labor force, as a political tool and as a flexible reflection of changing social standards and desires. She presents her arguments clearly, offering an excellent balance between the scholarly and the readable in this timely, important book.