Nostalgia & Marriage

Author: Stephanie Coontz, Basic Books
Thursday, March 31, 2016  1:32 PM
Selective memory leads grown-ups to try to re-create a past that never existed.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the updated edition of The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz (Basic Books, 2016):

There is a tendency for many Americans to view present-day family and gender relations through the foggy lens of nostalgia for a mostly mythical past.

Nostalgia is a very human trait. When school children returning from summer vacation are asked to name good and bad things about their summer, the lists tend to be equally long. As the year goes on, however, if the exercise is repeated, the good list grows longer and the bad list gets shorter, until by the end of the year the children are describing not their actual vacations but their idealized image of “vacation.”

So it is with our collective “memory” of family life. As time passes, the actual complexity of our history—even of our own personal experience—gets buried under the weight of the ideal image.

Selective memory is not a bad thing when it leads children to forget the arguments in the back seat of the car and to look forward to their next vacation. But it’s a serious problem when it leads grown-ups to try to re-create a past that either never existed at all or whose seemingly attractive features were inextricably linked to injustices and restrictions on liberty that few Americans would tolerate today.

One example of how discussions of family life are still distorted by myths about the past is the question of how marriage has evolved historically. Both sides in the Supreme Court decision extending marriage rights to same-sex couples demonstrated confusion on this issue. In his dissent from the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “For all . . . millennia, across all . . . civilizations, ‘marriage’ referred to only one relationship: the union of a man and a woman.” Its primordial purpose, Roberts asserted, was to make sure that all children would be raised “in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”

These assertions are simply not true. The most culturally preferred form of marriage in the historical record—indeed, the type of marriage referred to most often in the first five books of the Old Testament—was actually of one man to several women. Some societies also practiced polyandry, where one woman married several men, and some even sanctioned ghost marriages, where parents married off a son or daughter to the deceased child of another family with whom they wished to establish closer connections.

The most common purpose of marriage in history was not to ensure children had access to both their mother and father but to acquire advantageous in-laws and expand the family labor force. The wishes of the young people being matched up and the well-being of their offspring were frequently subordinated to those goals. That subordination was enforced through the institution of illegitimacy, which functioned to deny parental support to children born of a relationship not approved by the kin of one or both parents or by society’s rulers. In Anglo-American common law, a child born out of wedlock was a filius nullius, a child of nobody, entitled to nothing. Until the early 1970s, several American states denied such children the right to inherit from their biological father even if he had publicly acknowledged them or they were living with him.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, meanwhile, wrote an eloquent majority opinion in support of marriage equality. Labeling marriage a “union unlike any other in its importance” to two committed persons, Kennedy argued that gays and lesbians deserved to marry because lifelong unions have “always . . . promised nobility and dignity to all persons” and “marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

These claims are also at odds with historical reality. For thousands of years, marriage conferred nobility and dignity almost exclusively on the husband, who had a legal right to appropriate the property and earnings of his wife and children and forcibly impose his will upon them. As late as the 1970s, most states had “head and master” laws, giving special decision-making rights to husbands, while the law explicitly defined rape as a man’s forcible intercourse with a woman other than his wife.

Today, a marriage based on mutual respect and commitment is a wonderful thing for both partners and for any children they have. But a bad marriage is often worse than singlehood for the health and well-being of most family members. Insisting, as Justice Kennedy does, that marriage is essential to fulfill “our most profound hopes” makes it difficult for society to respond to the needs—or recognize the contributions—of the growing number of singles and unmarried couples in America. It may also encourage people to expect too great a transformation in their well-being from getting married, while frightening or stigmatizing those who have good reason to divorce.

Marriage has not always been the primary route to achieving meaning in people’s lives. Early Christian theologians, for example, valued unwed celibacy much higher than the wedded state, explaining that marriage distracted men and women from their duties to God and to the larger Christian community. Recent research offers some secular justification for such concerns: Married individuals are less likely than their unmarried counterparts to provide time and assistance to aging relatives, neighbors, and friends.

The flip side of exaggerating the historical benefits of marriage has been a persistent tendency to blame poverty and other social ills on divorce and unwed motherhood, even though poverty and material hardship were more widespread in the marriage-centric 1950s than they are today. People forget that women and children bore the brunt of poverty within many “traditional” two-parent families just as surely as they do in modern female-headed households. Researchers across the world often find two different standards of living in the same married-couple household, with the wife and children doing without in order to give the husband first call on the family’s economic resources.

Unwed childbearing is not the primary cause of poverty, economic insecurity, and inequality. Recent research bears out my argument. A 2015 study concluded that overall, between 1979 and 2013, income inequality was more than four times as important as family structure in explaining the growth of poverty. Another recent study concludes that since 1995, the role of single parenthood in contributing to economic inequality has diminished even more. Instead, the authors emphasize, we have seen a “broadly-based increase in income insecurity that is concentrated neither among low-skill workers nor single-parent families.”

Yet politicians and pundits continue to recycle the myth that poverty and inequality are the result of marital arrangements rather than larger socioeconomic forces. A 2012 report for the Heritage Foundation by Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” insists, even after the Great Recession plunged so many married families into poverty, that “the principal cause [of child poverty] is the absence of married fathers in the home.” (You will find Rector saying exactly the same thing in 1989.) And a 2014 publication of the U.S. House Budget Committee, “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” totally misrepresents the accomplishments of the War on Poverty, before joining the chorus with the claim that “the single most important determinant of poverty is family structure.”

In fact, however, poverty and inequality are more often cause than effect of unwed childbearing and unstable relationships in the United States, which is why we see such a stunning class divide in rates of marriage, non-marital childbearing, and divorce. In an election year where we are finally beginning to discuss the havoc wreaked by deregulation, wage inequality, job insecurity, and growing income volatility, it is inexcusable for politicians to claim that we would not need to invest in living-wage jobs, affordable education, and a stronger social safety net if only everyone would marry. Fewer than 6 percent of children in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden and just 7 to 9 percent of children in Austria and the Netherlands are poor. Yet all these countries have higher birthrates to unmarried women than the United States, where child poverty is over 20 percent. One major difference? Political leaders in those countries try to deal with present-day realities instead of blaming their citizens for abandoning a largely mythical Gold Age of family life.

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