Book Review of “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage” by Stephanie Coontz

Book Review of “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage” by Stephanie Coontz

In the book, Stephanie Coontz embarks on providing evidence that there is no crisis in the marriage institution despite the worrywarts who had pointed to the increased rates of divorce, the high number of couples cohabiting without marriage and increased gay marriages.In this book, which follows the modernization of marriage from the medieval time to the present age, taking a lengthyand comprehensive view and exploring matrimony through the millennia and across diverse cultures, Coontz discovers that the problem in marriages is love. She argues that present day marriages are more fragile for the same reasons that they are more satisfying.

The author’s interesting study places the present perceptions of marriage in an all-encompassing historical context, showing that there is much more to “I do” than meets the eye.She explainsmarriage as a means of guaranteeing a domestic labor force, as a political instrument and as a flexible expression of changing social ideals and desires.

A key idea in Coontz book is that for most of human history, marriage has been a union bound together by external forces and that wide-ranging societal transformations still continuously shape the marriage institution. She states that no matter how pleasant the 1950’s traditional model of marriage was, it cannot be revived. She deliberates on the long established orderliness of marriages as they were prescribed for social, political and economic advantage. This she states involved the participation of parents, siblings, rival nobles, in-laws, concubines and after the middle ages, popes, bishops a well as the church reformers.This system the author finds was the custom until the 18th century, after which the starting of the enlightenment and the rise of the market economy brought forceful changes. She christens the 1950s, “The golden age of marriage,” “a unique moment in the history of marriage,”a time when the breadwinner father and stay-at-home mother were viewed as the norm and marriage offered the context for the majority of the society’s life. This model of marriage and family became regarded as the “traditional marriage” a concept whose regression was mourned.In the final chapters, she examines the good point and deficiencies of contemporary marriage and explores the value of alternatives.

A most notable claim in the book is that the traditional model of marriage of the 1950’s was the best representation of how a marriage and family life should be. She claims the setup of a working father and stay at home mother was the arrangement that would have been ideal and most probably addressed the present problem of a high divorce rate because therein, the marriage was based on love.

The book also postulates that the people having the greatest problem getting and staying in marriages are the poor. She adds that, this is not as a result of these people lacking family values, but because they lack education and employment. Many women must leave the work force to look after newborns, and this more often than not destabilizes their marriage and compounds their stresses rather than relieve it. She writes,”The big problem doesnot lie in differences between what men and women want out of life and love. The important problem is how difficult it is to realize equal relationships in a culture whose work policies, school schedules, and social programs were constructed on the assumptions that male breadwinner families would always be the norm. Tensions between men and women today stem less from different aspirations than from the difficulties they face translating their ideals into practice” (Coontz, 2006).Relations entangling men and women, she infers, are fundamentally healthy, possibly better than they have ever been. It isthe society that is sick.

In both the books“Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage”, Coontz (2006) and “The Second Shift”, Hochschild and Machung (2003), it is apparent that marriage is celebrated as the lasting institution upon which the rest of the society develops.Both have detailed the convolutions of early modern marriage and the development of modern marriage.In HochschildThe Second Shift, although women work just as much as their male counterparts, their conventional gender role of caring for the home were still in place. The book addresses the issue of gender roles and how they have changed as well as whether women were just taking more work.It studied the experiences of two-income families and how they deal with domestic roles in the household,such as housework and child rearing.This is consistent with the ideas in Coontz book only that Coontz has employed a more rudimentary way of expressing her arguments and has focused more on the issues that affect present day marriages and how they have evolved.

What is noticeable in the book, and perhaps an oversight is the missing from the book the role that psychology of the people plays in the context of marriage.It is too simplistic to explain divorce naively in economic terms. The book fails to address this. It also fails to address whether people are psychologically prepared for lifelong commitment and marriage to one individual. In addition, increasingly, people live unaccompanied and the book plainly attributes this behavior to the fact that people are living longer and are now capable of surviving without a lifetime mate. This is not a satisfactory explanation from the author. It is too simpleminded. Additionally, throughout the reading, the author kept pointing out to how marriage and marriage life was hard and testing in the modern world, however the practical advice that she gave to address this is deficient.



Coontz, S. (2006). Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (Reprint edition ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

Hochschild, A., & Machung, A. (2003). The Second Shift. Penguin Books.


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