This article will discuss how the shift in marriage began in the early 1700s and significantly impacted marriage everywhere by the 1800s. Stephanie Coontz writes about the origins of marriage and how it has shifted over the years. For thousands of years, marriage was strictly arranged for family connections and wealth. A shift in marriage occurred in the Enlightenment movement when ideals of love came to be widely accepted. However, with this came higher expectations for finding a partner if people wanted to love and financial security.
The most significant shift the idea of love brought about was that it made marriage more individual to two people rather than the community arranging marriages. Coontz writes, “The measure of a successful marriage was no longer how big a financial settlement was involved, how many useful in-laws were acquired, or how many children were produced, but how well a family met the emotional needs of its members” (2005, 146). This was a significant shift in how marriage worked because it no longer involved parents' and neighbors’ decision-making but rather two people who wanted to marry for love. However, while many agreed with marrying for love, this wasn’t always the case.
While marrying for love seemed enticing during the 1800s, and even more so in later centuries, it wasn’t always realistic. Novels romanticized ideals of love and made it seem as if love can overcome anything if two people were willing to fight to be together. The reality was that people needed to survive more than they needed love. Finding both in a partner would be ideal, but most of the time, “The contradictions between the goal of marrying for love and the practical need to find a male provider could lead to some surprisingly radical critiques of marriage” (Coontz 2005, 179). The chances of a woman finding a man she loves and a man who can financially support her were not always the case. It wasn’t until women entered the workforce that this began to shift. The idea of love also came with high expectations of what people were looking for, and with this came higher divorce rates.
For the first time, people were introduced to the idea of divorce, and this significantly shifted the way marriage works. People no longer felt trapped under the strict marriage ideals of ‘till death do us part.’ If people were unhappy in a marriage, there was a way out. Spouses were now less tolerant of cheating, abuse, inequalities, and other aspects they had to tolerate just decades before. For this reason, it became harder to maintain a marriage because both spouses now had a responsibility to make each other happy.
The male breadwinner stereotype has existed for centuries, but certain moments of history caused this to change. The Great Depression encouraged women to work to help their husbands make ends meet. The next historical moment was the second world war, when men went into the army and women went into the workforce to replace men in the jobs they left behind. When they came back, their role as bread-winner was challenged. This challenged their masculinity, which is why many efforts were made to bring women back into the role of housewife. All of this rigidness in gender structures was also a factor in divorce rates and why the rates only continued rising.
In a recent study by World Population Review, they break down divorce rates by age, religion, and education: “About 90% of people in Western cultures marry by age 50. In the, about 50% of married couples divorce, the sixth-highest. Subsequent marriages have an even higher divorce rate: 60% of second marriages end in divorce, and 73% of all third marriages end in divorce.”
The subtitle of Stephanie Coontz's book is How Love Conquered Marriage, and it is accurate to say that marriage shifted significantly because of love. Not only did it emphasize the individuality of spouses, but it also turned gender roles. With love also came expectations of spouses that were not always met, resulting in skyrocketing divorce rates. Sexuality also came about from ideals of love, and because of this, birth control became more accessible to people everywhere.
To conclude, marriages everywhere changed dramatically, and they only continued shifting throughout the century. Even today, people are still trying to figure out how to balance love, career, and gender roles within a marriage.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Penguin Books, 2005.
"Divorce Rate by State 2022", World Population Review, https://worldpopulationreview.com. It was accessed on 8 December 2022.
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