Meeting Mr. Wrong (Book)

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, but I’ve delayed writing about it as a Sunday’s Good Book post. The trouble was, although Coontz wrote an interesting book, it wasn’t the book I was looking for on the history of marriage.

When Coontz charts marriage’s evolution, she does so primarily through the lens of economic and social pressures. She takes a long-distance, outsider view of these shifts explaining that

“In England between 1500 and 1700 the median age of first marriage for women was twenty-six, which is higher than the median age of marriage for American women at any point during the twentieth century.”

was due to the fact that persons entering into a marriage at that time in England were expected to be economically self-sufficient, so both partners had to work for a long time to be stable enough to marry. This genealogy of this prerequisite had already been addressed earlier in the book: when couples didn’t found a new household, separate from their parents, family ties were closer and clanlike, threatening the power of civil authorities, so laws changed to incentivize independence.

This was good to know, but I still felt like I was reading the wrong book. I wanted a history of the rhetoric of marriage. Even if these changes were driven by economic concerns, how did people of the time rationalize them? Did they recognize the shifts as significant while they were occurring? What arguments were mustered on either side? (Another disappointment, particular to this blog, there was little to no discussion of the theology of marriage. Christianity dropped out of the history early).

So, ultimately, this wasn’t the book I was looking for. If any of you have spotted histories of the rhetoric and/or theology of marriage, suggestions are very much appreciated. Since this book didn’t give me something to riff on, I’m throwing up a few quotes (and one methodology nitpick) below.

“Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that in states that adopted unilateral divorce, this was followed, on average, by a 20 percent reduction in the number of married women committing suicide, as well as an average drop in domestic violence for both men and women.”

Ok, here comes the nitpick. I was gearing up to be teed off about the methodology of the study in the last quote, since, as Coontz describes it, the researchers found a lower rate of spousal murder as well as a decrease in the number of married women committed suicide after states allowed no-fault divorce. The trouble is, those are the wrong variables to track. How could you tell whether the drop was the result of fewer women being driven to suicide or suicidal women taking the new option to divorce and falling out of your sampling frame?

Luckily, I was able to find the Stevenson and Wolfers paper and it turns out Coontz misrepresented their methodology. They did track suicides in the entire female population and found a significant decrease, so these data aren’t just an artifact of women moving between categories. The paper is interesting and might give pause to some opponents of no-fault divorce (though, in an even nittier pick, I wish this had been a difference in difference analysis, instead of regression). Hurrah for researchers who take advantage of natural experiments!

Ok, the other two quotes are presented without commentary.

“To prepare female students for their future as wives and mothers, the head of marriage and family life courses at the University of Illinois in 1947 exempted them from doing a term paper if they did six hours of babysitting during the term.”

“A man in a bad marriage still gets some health benefits compared with single men, because even a miserable wife tends to feed her husband more vegetables, schedule his medical checkups, and shoulder much of the housework and the emotional work that makes life function smoothly.”

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  • Anonymous

    Hi, Some time ago you commented about a possible ongoing discussion with Stacy, a blogger, that mentioned that she couldn't go to the park with her kids because lgbt were imposing their morality on her. I wonder if you did have a productive email exchanges and whether you can comment here. I know this is off topic of this post but I wanted to ask.Cheers,M

  • I would recommend reading the section called "What Has Changed" from this PDF –'s a teaser:"It is important to note that the key reason the family has lost so many practical functions is that the government and the market do themmuch, much more efficiently. The genius of market capitalism is that it allows biological strangers to pool their economic energies in ways that unleash a flood of human creativity, ingenuity, and productivity."The section goes from pages 4-9.

  • Thanks for the link, Lukas. I was interested by the point that now that jobs are open to anyone, not handed down within families, the community doesn't have an urgent stake in any particular person's love life and reproduction. This point, though, seemed like bunk:As families become smaller, the relative value of any individual child to the parents also increases—making the older tradition of family enforcement of social stigmas against sexual misbehavior far too expensive to enforce. Who can afford to lose their only daughter, just because she has sex, or even a child, outside of marriage? The natural protectiveness of parents becomes directed toward protecting their children from the consequences of social codes, rather than supporting them.There's no citation, so I assume the idea that willingness to shun increases with total number of kids is just a shot in the dark.P.S. Anonymous, I'll try to get to that this week. Sorry for the delay.

  • Joe

    LeahYou might want to check out this book by Regine Pernoud. Chapter VI deals with marriage. I haven't read it but I have read other books by her and she's great and was a very respected historian in her own day

  • Joe

    Oh well its called "Women in the Days of the Cathedrals"

  • I wrote a review some time ago. Below, with bits redacted.[Page numbers and references refer to the hardcover edition.] At first glance, _Marriage, A History_ from its very title promises to be an exciting, revelatory description of marriage through the ages, and a reader would not be unreasonable to suppose that Coontz proposes to clear up the current debate about marriage to put the grand issues at work, finally, to rest. This is not what this book accomplishes. Instead of picking the relevant historical data from the large bushel which exists, she instead dumps the whole of it into consideration, rarely arranging each datum into patterns or qualities — a far more useful approach, given the themes of the debate (p. 12) — more often using simple chronological incidence. As a result, the utility of this book is clouded by an excess of often irrelevant information. For example, few of the arguments in the debate which to her credit she faithfully recreates are addressed honestly, that is to say within the context of the arguments — if you believe marriage is "a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners," which is in any case a simplistic parody of the definition actually put forth by the defenders of marriage, expect Coontz to play dirty pool. This standard is critically undermined, she says, but not by any precedent from the ideals of Christendom or even simple Western Civilization. Rather, she draws from the Sudanese and Chinese custom of spirit marriages. (p. 27) If that is the counterclaim, then Coontz does not write any practical response to the local marital crisis, to which she claims her book is applicable (p. 12). (She notes the worldwide marital crisis, but not with any emphasis evident then or at any other point throughout the book.) Beginning at the introduction and ending only when she focuses on Christian feudal peasants, Coontz concerns herself with historical data irrelevant to anyone who is willing to reasonably limit their scope to a Western ideal arriving in the centuries after Christ. This minor caveat undermines the whole utility of her exception, leaving the book useful only when defending oneself from the fearsome straw man. …To the author's credit, she writes with senstitivity and care, noting when a particular morsel of information deserves a grain of salt — see p. 110 for an aside about the mythical primae noctis — and I saw no points obviously taken from context but there does seem to be a lack of understanding about the difference between practice and theory, the real and the ideal. At periods when the highest authorities of the Western Church wholly denounced certain practices, such as divorce or marriage to a close relative, Coontz seems to imply that the blind eye of a parish priest on such matters meant tacit approval of the Magesterium rather than grave disobedience of the parish priest. Does practice undermine an ideal? We're left hanging. …In the current debate, _Marriage, a History_ plays not the role of persuader or advocate but rather the role of encyclopedia, and then a bad one as it provides only of excessive and often pancultural context. It is about marriage, and it is a history, but dig any deeper … and you'll find the book crumble apart. In the age of the Internet, _Marriage, a History_ shares many of the same problems — information overload. It's interesting, but it's trivia. Far more dangerously, this is knowledge, but useless knowledge. Rather than solely clear up the common misconceptions around historical marriages, this book only serves to further muddy the waters.