In recent days there has been much discussion about the meaning of marriage and threats to it. It is with some interest then that I am reading Marriage. A History. From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz.
Coontz shows that for most of human history marriage had very little to do with love and intimacy. It served goals such as securing links between families, the transfer of wealth; increasing social standing; regulating social relationships among adults; and the production legitimate heirs. While a husband and wife may have hoped for love and intimacy, this was very much secondary to the purposes for which they married.
During the 20th century the social ends served by marriage were dissipating. Children could be born out of wedlock and be well regarded; women no longer needed a male protector and could enter the workforce to support themselves; adults could remain single and be fully accepted in society; sexual freedom broke the nexus between marriage and sexual intercourse, and effective contraception meant sexual intercourse could be pursued without the likelihood of pregnancy and the commitments of parenting.
Marriage today is no longer necessary to having children, securing social status, transferring wealth, or gaining entry to adult society. This has radically redefined its meaning. People enter marriages in order to celebrate and secure a relationship of love and intimacy. Coontz calls this a revolution. It has made marriages much more personally rewarding than at any point in history yet at the same time has stripped away the social benefits of marriage and thus left them more fragile than ever, dependent entirely upon the capacity of married couples to maintain love and intimacy over the course of their lives. As paradoxical as it sounds, love is not only the greatest possibility, but also the greatest threat to marriage.