Shaun Miller's Ideas

Book Review: Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz

I had the joy of reading this book last year and I’ve been meaning to do a review on it.  Well, the time is now.  However, I’m not going to simply spell out the book.  It’s so good that you have to read it for yourself.  However, I’m in school again and so my posts will be rare.  I’ll give a quick structure of what the books about, and then highlight some of the most interesting parts throughout the book that I found enlightening, interesting, and educational.

In short, the book talks about the institution of marriage from the beginning of time until now.  We often think that our times is the worst because morality is on the decline and no one takes marriage seriously.  However, these complaints have been the same all the way back to ancient Greece.  The Romans complained about the high divorce rates, and the European settlers stated that they saw the decline of the family.  It seems that no matter what generation you’re in, everyone is nostalgic for a simpler time when morality about marriage and family was a lot better “from history.”  The point that Coontz makes is that this never happened!  We are all nostalgic for some ideal past that never existed.  Indeed, there were many instances in the past where teenage and out-of-wedlock pregnancies were more common and accepted than that of today.  Stepfamilies were more common in the past too.  Even same-sex marriage has been sanctioned, in some areas, in the past.

Things that most people consider “traditional” are actually recent innovations such as marriage being sanctioned by the church or the state.  The Catholic Church once held that if a man and a woman privately agreed to marry, there were in fact married.  This happened up until the 1100s.

Ideas of marriages and loving relationships are tied up to politics.  In America, many politicians are worried about children being born out-of-wedlock.  But in Japan, their population is dwindling and so they’re trying to encourage more people to have children, regardless of the form of the family the child will be raised in.  So while the United States has the ubiquitous education of abstinence-only, Japan is promoting “love hotels.”  Different countries encourage raising or lowering the marriage age.  The culture contexts also puts the blame on other aspects.

With this, part of Coontz’s thesis is that the idea of marriage has changed so drastically in the past thirty years than it did during the past three thousand years.  Also, she rejects two major theses that has been popular as well: she rejects the idea that marriage was invented by men in order to exploit women, and the idea was invented by men in order to protect women.

Before you read further, I dare you to take this quiz. I could only get two right before I read this book.  Amazingly, times have changed about marriage and relationships, but not in the way we thought.

Let’s start with the idea on marriage.  What is the point?  Well, mainly in our day and age, it’s about love.  And the typical idea is that love and marriage go together instantly.  Not so.  For the first time, the major priority in marriages in the 1800s was for love.  This idea is still held today.  After all, could you imagine someone getting married without love?  The Chinese word for love originally meant some illicit disapproving relationship.  Indeed, most women would bring their sisters to their husbands as backup wives.  In other cultures around China, a woman can be married to two brothers, and they both have access to her sexually.  Ancient Rome considered loving your wife too much as adultery.  In Europe, adultery was the best form of love in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Indeed, many people at that time thought it was impossible for two married people to love each other.  If you look at the poetry during that time, most of them mocked marriage with love.  In Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, husbands and wives who loved each other too much was considered idolatry.  With that loyalty and marriage didn’t come together until relatively late.  Now think about that: sexual loyalty was NOT a high priority in the past.  Anthropologists today have found that out of 109 societies, only 48 frowned on adultery.

Other cultures saw marriage as marrying opposite genders and not opposite sexes.  For example, many Native American groups formed a system where a man who was doing “woman’s work” could marry a man who was doing “man’s work.”  And a woman doing “man’s work” could marry a woman doing “woman’s work.”

Indeed, some cultures today around the world still frown on the idea of love and marriage going together.

The 1950s concept was the husband was the breadwinner while the wife stayed home.  Many people lament that the women are now working and so there’s the nostalgia of going back to what we were.  In reality, the idea of only the husband working was invented in the 1950s.  Along with that, the 1950s saw a new time where everyone should be married and at a younger age.

With that as some surprising facts about marriage, let’s see how it all started:

Invention of Marriage

The Ancient World

Early Christianity

Medieval Europe

The Modern Period

The Eighteenth Century

The Nineteenth Century

The Twentieth Century

If a woman in Western Europe or the USA didn’t get married by her early 20s, chances are she wouldn’t get married at all.  Contrast this to women in 16th and 17th century Europe where they didn’t get married until their 30s or 40s.

The Twenty-First Century


As you can see, I loved this book.  I plan on getting Coontz next book about Friedan.  I hope you enjoy it.