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Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage Hardcover – May 23, 2005

4.4 out of 5 stars 93 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Politics, economics, greed, sex, cars—without them, matrimony wouldn’t have caused the historical revolution ensuing today, concludes social historian Stephanie Coontz, in Marriage, a History. Modern marriage is in crisis; but don’t pine for a return to "the good old days," when men earned money and women kept house. Don’t even assume the crisis is all bad. For as Coontz reveals in this ambitious, multi-century trek through wedlock, marriage has morphed into the highest expression of commitment in Western Europe and North America; and though assumptions no longer exist regarding which partner may say "I do" to work, childcare, or other shared responsibilities, a clear set of rules about saying "I don’t" (to infidelity and irresponsibility) rings loud as church bells.

"This is not the book I thought I was going to write," Coontz admits. She intended to show that marriage was not in crisis; merely changing in expected ways. But her exhaustive research suggested the opposite was true. Tracing matrimony’s path from ancient times (when some cultures lacked a word for "love" and the majority of pairings were attempts to seize land or family names) through present day, she closely examines the many external forces at play in shaping modern marriage. Coontz details how society’s attempts to toughen this institution, have actually made it more fragile. Her rich talent for analyzing events, statistics, and theories from a myriad of sources—and enabling the reader to put them all in perspective—make this provocative history book an essential resource.--Liane Thomas

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. Agent, Susan Rabiner. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (May 19, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067003407X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670034079
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #92,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 24, 2006
Format: Paperback
Stephanie Coontz has devoted her career to waging war on ahistorical understandings of the family. She first came to national notice with her now classic book THE WAY WE NEVER WERE: AMERICAN FAMILIES AND THE NOSTALGIA TRAP, which attacked naive attempts to make what she termed the Ozzie and Harriett marriage as somehow normative, a family in which the father worked, the mother stayed at home, both stayed married for a lifetime, and their two lovely children completed an ideal, caring unit. Though massive sifting of historical and statistical materials she was able to show that this picture of the family--a picture that determines even today a vast amount of political debate about "family values"--was even in the fifties largely a myth. Nostalgia, a phenomenon that has long driven right-wing movements, is by its very nature ahistorical, referring to a past that never existed and would be undesirable today even if possible.

In MARRIAGE, A HISTORY: FROM OBEDIENCE TO INTIMACY OR HOW LOVE CONQUERED MARRIAGE Coontz fights nostalgia further by a fascinating and far-ranging study of the history of marriage in Western civilization. What is shocking is learning that so far from being a static, traditional relationship with a fundamental shape and form, marriage is instead a constantly evolving institution that has altered numerous times in the past thousand or so years in response to various social needs or pressures. Changing societal values, alterations in the material conditions at a particular point in time, or even changing ideas about romance have all exerted enormous influence on the understanding and practice of marriage at any particular time. Her discussion essentially renders virtually all right wing rhetoric about the need to protect "family values" or "marriage" utter nonsense.
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This is an extremely well researched investigation of the institution of marriage from earliest times to the present. It may prove shocking to some readers to discover how recent our concept of "traditional marriage" may be. But information such as this book provides is essential for those concerned about marital values. History provides us with immensely important lessons regarding the attitudes and feelings of human beings over the centuries; and we must not shrink from the observations made here as we seek to understand the social and economic and even religious crises of our times. The scope of the book is incredibly ambitious yet it is clearly and at times entertainingly written, and always inviting. It can point the way for further research in many areas. On all counts, a fine and important book.
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After reading this book, it is abundantly clear that for almost the entire history of mankind, marriages have not been based on love, let alone equality. Marriage was basically a necessity, serving both political and economic purposes, in contrast to the many choices for living arrangments that have appeared in the last fifty years or so. In addition, marriage in the past was all about male domination, a wife having no legal standing whatsoever. Divorce in most settings was nearly impossible. But the introduction of love into forming marriages has been transforming in many ways.

In the absence of formal legal rules and governments, powerful families or tribes generally ruled over territories. Marriages were used to forge alliances among rulers. In the lower classes marriage was an economic necessity - a solitary individual found it almost impossible to survive. Marriages were not formally sanctioned, though the Church in the Middle Ages attempted to impose some control. Fundamentally, the intent of two consenting adults established a marriage. With the rise of constitutional governments and individual rights, women gained some ability to withstand forced marriages, but were still seen as subservient to husbands - not equals. Women because of their "differences" were seen as being suited to the domestic sphere only, but many women chafed at that arrangement.

There is no doubt that the twentieth century saw more changes in marriages and other living arrangements among adults than in all previous eras combined. The changes were uneven, often depending on the state of the economy. The changes of the 1920s, in which potential partners followed their feelings, somewhat regressed during the Great Depression of the 30s.
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I can't add much more to the customer review above, except to note that one should keep an open mind while reading...I made the mistake of reading aloud a few passages on the early Christian views of marriage to a Christian friend, and she was very, very insulted and angry, snapping that the author was clearly wrong, as THIS is the way that passage in the Bible should be interpreted, and how dare she write something so blasphemous. I didn't press the matter.

I, however, being rather agnostic, enjoyed it immensely, and learned QUITE a lot! The various views on family structure and what defined a marriage over the centuries was illuminating, and I found myself quoting it to anyone in reach (hence my problem above). It's tilted toward Western culture in the last part of the book, being focused on the American history of marriage, but it's still an excellent read for anyone wanting to see how marriage was looked at in the past.
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