Bookmarks Issue: 

From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage

A-Marriage HistoryIf you married only for wealth, security, or good looks, you’re bucking the newest trend. Today, Coontz argues, the unstable bond of love has replaced traditional motives for marriage. Trekking through the history of wedlock from the Stone Age through the present day, Coontz shows how different cultural and historical contexts have produced different ideas about marriage. Debunking the idea of a "biological" basis for prehistoric coupling, she claims that marriage served the social and safety needs of the larger group; by the Middle Ages, marriage represented a career move. Since the 18th century, we’ve married for love, a tactic "more effective in fostering the well-being of both adults and children," but also "more optional and more fragile." The course of true love never did run smooth, did it?
Viking. 432 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 067003407X

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"This enlightening and highly detailed book bursts with interesting and often surprising facts. … Coontz’s book is an eye-opener, especially for those who believe love-based marriage has always been the norm." Verna Noel Jones

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"A title along the lines of ‘Marriage, a History: Always Tricky, Never Boring’ would have been more fitting for this comprehensive book. … Coontz is at the top of her writing game here."
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… [Coontz] neatly, entertainingly and convincingly deconstructs a number of our most cherished and least examined beliefs about the bonds that tie men and women together, for better and for worse. … Coontz is perhaps at her very best when she calls into question the pearls of wisdom proffered by today’s traditionalists, pro-marriage pundits, and advice-mongers." Judith Warner

Orlando Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"It could be that what marriage is losing in quantity it is making up in quality. According to Marriage, a History, that’s a powerful legacy for an esteemed institution." Elizabeth Randall

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"One story after another about married life in early Egypt or Greece can make for monotonous reading. … The major flaw in Coontz’s book is that she does not adequately wrestle with the problems facing marriage today."
Maurice Timothy Reidy

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"If her attempt to channel the ruminations of our hunter-gatherer ancestors leads to some dubious speculations … Coontz is on firmer ground when she examines Greek and Roman attitudes toward love, marriage and extramarital attachments. … It does seem, however, that Coontz’s book may be attempting too much—and thus suffering from a surfeit of only partly digested (and consequently indigestible) information." Francine Prose

Critical Summary

This year the protean state of marriage is all about love. Really—even if the institution itself wields less power over individuals now than it ever has before. Critics agree that Marriage is an engrossing read. Coontz’s impressive research, well-supported details, and brisk pace provide a wealth of information and ideas (ladies, being blonde or dumb is not the secret to success). Yet, it has some flaws. Each chapter in this general survey could have been its own tome. Although Coontz embraces and debates contradictions, she speculates wildly at points, particularly about couples in the Paleolithic world. Finally, she fails to effectively deal with the consequences of high divorce rates today.

Also by the Author

The Way We Never Were American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992): This classic American social and economic history argues that the Golden Age of the family, represented by Ozzie and Harriet and the Cleavers in the 1950s, never existed.