The brief history of traditional marriage

December 5, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More

In the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Kate Bolick reviews the history of marriage, finding that “traditional marriage” is not so traditional. She reports that Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at Evergreen State College in Washington was

struck by how everyone believed in some mythical Golden Age of Marriage and saw mounting divorce rates as evidence of the dissolution of this halcyon past. She decided to write a book discrediting the notion and proving that the ways in which we think about and construct the legal union between a man and a woman have always been in flux.

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What Coontz found was even more interesting than she’d originally expected. In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, she surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She’d long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and ’60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn’t understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.

Bolick amply supports her well-written article with statistics such as these:

[W]e keep putting marriage off. In 1960, the median age of first marriage in the U.S. was 23 for men and 20 for women; today it is 28 and 26. Today, a smaller proportion of American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since the 1950s, if not earlier. We’re also marrying less—with a significant degree of change taking place in just the past decade and a half. In 1997, 29 percent of my Gen X cohort was married; among today’s Millennials that figure has dropped to 22 percent. (Compare that with 1960, when more than half of those ages 18 to 29 had already tied the knot.) These numbers reflect major attitudinal shifts. According to the Pew Research Center, a full 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete.

One of the most sobering themes of this article is that the economic decline of males has been bad news for marriage; women “as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men–those who are better educated and earn more than they do.”


Category: Culture, Friendships/relationships

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    In pre-industrial cultures, marriage was not a joining between a man and a woman, but a contractual joining of families. With few exceptions, the families were united through the union of a man and woman, but in some societies, a woman who was unable to bear children could be wed to a widow with children.

    in some societies, marriage was formalized to the point that the bride and groom need not attend the wedding. Lisa Halaby, (a.k.a. Queen Noor of Jordan) in her autobiography described her wedding to the King of Jordan as a contract negotiation.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    “Barely half of Americans over the age 18 are married, according to a new report from the Pew Research Institute. The number of couples married in 2010 dropped a startling 5 percent from the previous year, and the overall number of married couples has declined by more than 20 percentage points since 1960.

    The report, released Wednesday, showed that Americans are not only getting married less frequently, they’re doing so later in life.”

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