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Title: Contemporary Marriage in Historical Perspective
Author(s): COONTZ, Stefanie
Journal: Marriage, Families & Spirituality
Volume: 14    Issue: 1   Date: 2008   
Pages: 7-18
DOI: 10.2143/INT.14.1.2031550

Abstract :
From an historical perspective, the author argues, much of what popular wisdom considers as new in family life today – e.g. the multiplication of diverse living arrangements and emotional or sexual relationships – has been a long-accepted part of family life in one or another culture in the past, while much of what is thought of as “traditional” – that marriage is a way of redistributing resources to women and children or protecting them from violence – is a comparatively recent invention. Throughout history, marriage has been a tool for forging social connections and extending networks of obligation and reciprocity. Its economic and political functions were far more critical than its personal and protective ones. The novelty within contemporary marriage is its emphasis on love and its characterization as a personal relationship between partners. Unlike in the past, marriage is now widely expected to function for the benefit of all its members – husband, wife, and children. But the same things that have made marriage fairer and more beneficial have made it also more optional and more fragile. The author argues that most of the changes in marriage’s role in society are inherent in the very ideals that have made it such an elevating and beneficial way of organizing the nuclear family unit. She thus disagrees with those who believe that the de-institutionalisation of marriage is a result of increasing individualism, consumerism, or libertarian attitudes. Given these elements, she concludes first, that any measures to restore the hegemony and stability of marriage as a social institution would undermine some of its satisfactions and successes as an interpersonal relationship, and second, that placing hopes for social connection, altruism, commitment, and interdependence exclusively in marriage will further contribute to the atomization of contemporary social life. Society needs to respect and encourage social ties that extend beyond the couple, including those of unmarried individuals, as well as between the married and the unmarried.

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