Review: Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Editor’s Note: I also wrote this review back in 2015, but I am taking a second look at the book in light of the Victorian-to-Modern transition that I have been been researching. In hindsight, we can attribute the fall of marriage and the family to the two waves of Modernism that swept through America in the 20th century. The first wave hit in the 1920s and transformed elite attitudes. The second wave was the mass popularization phase with the Boomers in the 1960s which was due to the expansion of higher education and the development of the mass media.

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Around the time that Andrew Anglin over at The Daily Stormer started to go full MGTOW, I bought some books on Amazon that I thought would be helpful in learning more about the meaning of traditional marriage and traditional gender roles.

What exactly is “traditional marriage”? How did “traditional marriage” evolve in the West over the course of history? How and why did “traditional marriage” crumble in the West? Is there anything traditional about MGTOW and the Men’s Rights Movement?

After doing some searching online, I found some books that had been written by feminists on the topic of marriage. I was initially skeptical that these books would be of any value, but after reading a few chapters, I quickly changed my mind. History, after all, is still history and there is no disputing that we have been born into an age of unprecedented social revolution in sex, marriage, family life and gender roles.

The institution of marriage has changed more in the West in last fifty years than in the last five thousand years of history. After reading this book, I was struck by how swiftly traditional marriage and gender roles unraveled in the 1960s. While there were plenty of crises in the institution of marriage in the past, the pace of change was much slower. Marriage in the European Middle Ages, for examples, warranted only two chapters in Coontz’s book, a period that lasted a thousand years, while each decade of the twentieth century seemed to have its own chapter.

According to Stephanie Coontz, marriage in the West can be broken down into roughly three periods:

The Patriarchy, Antiquity-1750

The foundation of the Western institution of marriage was laid in ancient Rome, Greece, and Israel. These were all patriarchal societies, but the Roman marriage was the closest ancestor to our own system. The ancient Israelites practiced polygamy and women in ancient Athens were treated like property, but the Roman marriage was based on consent between the two parties. It required the approval of the fathers of the bride and the groom.

In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church gradually wrested control of marriage away from the state and the kin group. Incest was strongly discouraged. Divorce was prohibited. Marriage was brought to the church as a religious service, was announced publicly to the community, and involved a priest. Medieval marriage vows and ceremonies were very similar to our own. Also, a valid marriage in the Middle Ages was based on the consent of the two parties. This was a shift toward a more individualistic system of marriage that did not require parental approval.

Still, marriage in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era was fundamentally an economic institution. A wife in those times was an economic necessity in a viable peasant household. People lived in villages and worked in common fields on feudal manors. Whether it was family, neighbors, or lords, outsiders had far more influence over marriage than they do today. The pressure to conform to social norms was far greater in the small rural villages and emerging cities of the Middle Ages because marriage was more of a community affair due to the way the economy was organized.

The Love-Based “Male Breadwinner” Marriage, 1750-1960

The Enlightenment and Romantic era brought a new system of marriage into existence: the love-based “male breadwinner” marriage.

In this new system, which was strongly driven by the emergence of the market economy, urbanization, and industrialization in the West, marriage came to be based more on the emotional needs of individuals: it was about romantic love, intimacy, personal fulfillment and finding your “soul mate.” The household, which had previously been the site of shared production in the Middle Ages/Early Modern Era, became the “home,” a place the man returned to as a sanctuary after spending his day working for wages in the industrial economy, and a place the woman often now stayed at alone as a homemaker.

Coontz argues that this model was always inherently unstable and was beset by periodic crises in the 1790s, the 1890s and the 1920s. After all, if couples married for romantic love, what should they do if those passions ebbed? Why couldn’t couples pursue romantic love outside of marriage? Are children a necessary byproduct of romantic love? The logic of the love-based marriage ultimately leads to decomposition, but Coontz argues the system was propped up for decades by the Victorian doctrine that women and men had “separate spheres” and which exalted women and put them up on a pedestal.

In the Middle Ages, women were seen as depraved sexual creatures who had caused Adam’s fall, and society took a dim view of sex and women’s sexuality. The Victorian era turned the old view of women upside down. Women were now seen as exalted maidens with little in the way of a sex drive. Men saw themselves as chivalrous knights protecting their honor. Women had to be sheltered at home from the evils of the workplace.

By the 1920s, Victorian morals had ebbed enough where a more positive view of sex had emerged, and sexual fulfillment was added to the list of things that made a good love-based marriage. The love-based marriage started to come unglued in the 1920s, but the Great Depression and World War II were so disruptive that men and women were focused on the more important problem of survival. In the 1950s, normal times returned, and most people were so grateful and ready to act out their pent up dreams of marriage and starting a family that social revolution was not on their minds.

The Egalitarian Partnership, 1960-Present

In hindsight, what caused the big collapse in the 1960s? A number of things …

1.) First, urbanization, the maturation of the free market economy, and the expansion of government continued to undermine the family. In dense urban cities and the brand new suburbs, the social and economic constraints that had preserved traditional marriage over the centuries collapsed. Add to that list government in its newfound role as substitute husband. Women could more easily work for wages and support themselves in the labor hungry postwar economy.

2.) Second, America’s brand new consumer culture made many traditional gender roles superfluous. A man no longer needed a woman to prepare his meals, sew his clothes, preserve his food, and so on. Simply put, America and other Western countries had become so prosperous that marriage was no longer an economic necessity, which is why the number of single households has exploded to an unprecedented level.

3.) Third, liberalism which glorifies liberty and equality as the only things that are good in life and celebrates the perpetual expansion thereof, predictably invaded and undermined the family sphere. Women’s suffrage followed in the wake of abolitionism. Feminism followed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.

4.) Fourth, one of the biggest factors was undoubtedly the rise of the mass media, especially television in the 1950s, and how film, radio, and television began to collectively reshape popular culture. Jewish influence isn’t addressed in this book, but Freud and countless other Jews played a major role in reshaping expectations of marriage.

5.) Finally, the logic of the love-based marriage ultimately doomed it to failure, as conservatives had always warned would happen. The slippery slope predictions made by critics of the love-based marriage eventually came true. If you don’t love someone, why not divorce them? How long does it take to find “true love”? If you aren’t satisfied with your marital intimacy, why not get a divorce? Why can’t you love someone outside of marriage? What if your soulmate happens to another man or woman rather than a member of the opposite sex?

The 1960s and 1970s ushered in an age of unprecedented social revolution in sex, family life, and gender roles: among other innovations, interracial marriage was legalized, singleness and cohabitation ceased to be taboo, workplace discrimination was outlawed, illegitimacy was abolished, premarital sex became the norm, no fault divorce became legal and divorce rates skyrocketed, abortion was legalized, head-and-master laws were repealed across the West, and above all, the advent of birth control decoupled sex from reproduction for the first time in history.

Marriage was transformed in the West into an egalitarian partnership held together only by bonds of affection. It became a purely private and personal civil contract between two free and equal individuals. Men were stripped of all authority over their wives. With most husbands and wives now in the workforce, stress within the household exploded, and most marriages started to end in divorce.

Ultimately, Cootz doesn’t have much to say about the future of marriage and seems to assume the existing state of affairs is a permanent change which we must adjust to. I was disappointed that she didn’t address the demographic winter issue: how, after all, is the contemporary system of marriage supposed to survive when women’s liberation is inverting the age pyramid in so many countries? How are so few young people supposed to take care of so many old people in the long run?

I expect there will be even greater changes ahead in the nature of marriage in my lifetime.

About Hunter Wallace 9702 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

17 Comments

    • Of course there is.

      I’m not a modernist though. I don’t value extreme individualism and self-expression above all else. It would never occur to me to dissolve my marriage to “find myself” or some such nonsense that these people believe.

  1. Many people have become fetishized – they thinking that a life of pursuing their most sought-after sexual orgasms has some profound and lasting spiritual value.

    Too many have become bereft of their good sense, and seem to no longer realize that a deeply meaningful life is constructed of subtler affairs and tender moments that, though they do not make for good headlines, enrich life beyond any possible description.

    The falling away from Christianity is, among a variety of reasons, the most important cause of this.

    Too many people are watching porn’ when they ought be in Bible class; too many people watching ESPN instead of taking their boy to a little league game; and too many people smoking dope and tuning out, instead of tuning in and listening with sincere interest in listening to the wive explain how she felt as she went through her day.

    Too many people seeking psychotherapy and taking psychotropick pills, instead of letting their unattenuated pain drive them to a life closer with The Lord.

    As to sex : my wife and I do not make love every day, or every week, however, when we do, it lights up our souls for days after, because our physical life is part of an integrated existence with each other, under The Lord Jesus Chryst.

  2. “Roman marriage was based on consent between the two parties. It required the approval of the fathers of the bride and the groom.”

    Marriage in ancient Rome was an agreement between families, the arrangement for the future marriage (bethrotal in english?) sometimes was made when the girl was 7 years old.
    Women’s condition in Rome changed drastically from the early Republic to late Republic and Empire.
    It’s constant in Roman writers the complain about the degeneration of marriage, relaxation of laws, behavior of women (especially the rich ones), from the 2nd century BCE onwards.

    The more the abundance of resources and the absence of external threats the more feminine the society becomes. Pretty much no escape from that.
    But anglo and nordick nations are in a league of their own when it comes to girl power

  3. The recent marriage revolution is not something entirely new … in fact these things, the feminist agenda etc, have cycled repeatedly in past history. Key reference work here –

    In 1934, a young, Oxford-educated ethnologist, Joseph Daniel Unwin (1895-1936), published a book ‘Sex & Culture’ which concluded that throughout history societies destroyed themselves by adopting feminism and “sexual liberation.” – Text is available online, a very rich historical work.

    “Sexual licence amongst males, is bad, Unwin found, but sexual licence for women blows up the whole social edifice rather quickly.”

    “If the British anthropologist J. D. Unwin is correct in his assessment of society, this present generation in the Western world may be the last one.

    In his book, professor Unwin studied eighty ‘uncivilized’ cultures and compared his results with sixteen ‘civilized’ cultures extending over the last 4,000 years.

    He found that when strict heterosexual monogamy was practiced, the society attained its greatest cultural energy, especially in the arts, sciences and technology.

    But as people rebelled against the prohibitions placed upon them and demanded more sexual opportunities, there was a consequent loss of their creative energy, which resulted in the decline and eventual destruction of the civilization. Remarkably, he did not find any exception to this trend.”

    –Janosik, Daniel. “The Fate of Culture in J. D. Unwin’s ‘Sex and Culture'” in Christian Apologetics Journal, Vol. 10:1 (Spring 2012)

    https://www.henrymakow.com/2019/07/women-have-become-time-bombs.html

  4. They all have their merits. Pragmatic, romantic and a bond between what should be two peers. Raging capitalism, the internet, media and declining moral standards are the real problem here. You cant have social media, porn and most dire an age which frowns on judgement. Divorce was considered a black mark even when i was a child, even though it was becoming more prevalent. Almost every woman i meet or know is a single mother in her late 20s to early 40s

  5. I like this article, I wish you would do more articles like this one, Hunter.

    My fiance is liberal-minded while I am conservative minded but she is very much a caretaker in the home. I think she loves me so much she wants to take care of me.

    She cooks my meals, washes my clothes, and cleans the house.

    However we do not have a traditional relationship, she has kids from a previous marriage, they are all teenagers and one is out of the house. They are highly disfunctional and degenerate but it isn’t my problem because they are not my kids and they don’t listen to me anyway so I don’t give a fuck. They are not always with us, if they were I don’t think I would be able to deal with them.

    I never had the desire to have children, I hate kids. I like that I have the freedom to choose not to have children, I like the fact that my fiance works and helps financially although I am the primary breadwinner but its nice that I don’t have to be 100% the financer of the household.

    A lot of women do not want to take care of their man and I blame both men and women for this.

    I think relationships should be encouraged to be fixed and be worked out, rather than be encouraged to “shop around”.

    Stability is a lot more appealing and soothing than jumping from one relationship to another getting a high off meeting someone new.

    There needs to be a balance between allowing people to have more modern relationships and also catering to older values such as responsibility to the other person. This isn’t the 1950’s, we’re never going back to that.

    • You bring up a good point – even if a man is the 100 percent breadwinner today, there is little practical or even a spiritual benefit to him. Modernity itself means that a woman will have every incentive to exercise her naturally rebellious tendencies and try to rule over her husband even when she is being supported by him 100 percent. Believe me I know what this is like as I supported my wife through her long post graduate education (even going as far to relocate a few times, change jobs, etc.), and my wife was’t nearly as much trouble as she could have been. Now that she is working it isn’t like she suddenly changed somehow. Wives will ALWAYS buck against their husband’s authority, and now that the state and society have removed all methods of laying down the law, it’s no wonder so many marriages end in divorce. A man who can’t stand up to his woman is a catamite and a man who won’t stand up to his woman (even if the law ultimately makes it futile to do so) will lose the woman’s respect and eventually earn her contempt. Either way every temptation to seek her “best life” outside the marriage can be rewarded by state power or cultural institutions.

  6. Given what we know about interpersonal relations between men and women due to pyschology, scarcity/relative value of the “means of reproduction,” and so on, it seems only completely natural to me that a system enshrining male authority over a marriage and the household is the only way to make sure that men have a purpose at all. The modern world doesn’t require us to go out and fight mammoths for food, and soon humans will probably be able to clone themselves with just enough genetic variation to prevent the species’ developmental stagnation. At that point, even sperm itself would have no purpose. Frightening stuff for half the population of all humankind.

  7. Europeans have always practiced companionate marriage, and on our side of the Hanjal line (excepting the Irish mired in papistry) marriages were relatively late.

    As Kevin MacDonald noted in Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition, it’s our evolved traits and cognition.

    Which means if you are a right-wing reactionary and hate liberalism and individualism, you aren’t actually white and are probably a jew.

    That would certainly explain a lot of the fake “white nationalism alt right” movement.

  8. The church did little to nothing to change marriage until the Lateran councils, and even then not much until Trent.

    Juvinel decries divorce as the first cause of the decline of the empire, and said that the Republic never allowed it. The heavy opposition to divorce itself is traditionally Roman.

    On the other hand Roman monogamy was merely something to limit the number of citizens, Romans were allowed concubines liberally and the early church was similarly lax about it outside of extremist sects like Montanists.

    It’s worth noting the lateran councils happened in the age of chivalry and romantic love. Similarly the promiscuity and decline Juvinel lamented was also from an age that emphasized romantic love over duty.

    You like to read about cycles, this isn’t the first time this has happened.

  9. Hunter, I would be interested to know what are the stats for “who” begins divorce proceedings: “who” (husband or wife) are the first to say they are done with their marriage?

    None of the males in my age group and circle of friends wanted a divorce: It was our wives who said, “F-you” cheated on us, and left us, taking our children with them.

    I just find it interesting that with the rise of “no fault divorce” it seems, at least with the marriages I am familiar with, it is the wives, with the full-force of law and the State, who leave us and take our kids.

    I would guess that the stats would be, 90% women starting divorce proceedings, and 10% men.

    Do you have any info or numbers on that?

  10. Hunter, what about marriages in the 18th and 19th century where men were basically marrying with an eye to the wife’s family fortune? An example of this would be Lord Nelson. (Or even earlier in history – Mohammed.)

  11. With the exception of Pat and Richard Nixon/Ron and Nancy Reagan I do not know of any genuinely happy marriages. Therefore I must conclude that they are, in the main, nothing but a fiction, an elusive, bourgeois ideal. I have found relationships with hookers, strippers and adult movie actresses to be far more satisfying.

    • I saw a news story a couple of months ago about an adult movie actress from Alabama. She and her boyfriend had a trio with a 50 year old ugly fat Mexican by the looks of him. There was money and drugs involved, and the old man ended up face down in a shallow grave, which was later found by dogs, Both she and the boyfriend are going down for his murder. A very pretty white girl of 22. You wouldn’t think she was a killer by looking at her.

    • I’ve known quite a few happy marriages. By “happy,” I mean contented. The mates are appreciative of, and enjoy being around, each other. Marriages tend to go off the rails, from what I’ve seen, when there are money problems. If materialism is one of your main concerns, as opposed to building a substantial, loving relationship, just go for a sugar daddy or mommy. (Being with hookers saves some hassle on that score, as the “relationship” is purely an economic one.)

      Sometimes, one of them doesn’t feel fulfilled, which usually means they want to be self-indulgent teens all over again. Basically, if you think marriage should be like a romantic Hollywood musical all the time, you’ll be profoundly disappointed.

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