Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: What Tradition?

Marriage, a History

MarriageHistory-coverHow Love Conquered Marriage
By Stephanie Coontz
Narrated by Callie Beaulieu
Tantor Media:
Publication date Jun 21, 2016
Running time 16 hrs

Audiobook provided by publisher for review. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.



Just when the clamor over “traditional” marriage couldn’t get any louder, along comes this groundbreaking book to ask, “What tradition?” In Marriage, a History, historian and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz takes listeners from the marital intrigues of ancient Babylon to the torments of Victorian lovers to demonstrate how recent the idea of marrying for love is—and how absurd it would have seemed to most of our ancestors. It was when marriage moved into the emotional sphere in the nineteenth century, she argues, that it suffered as an institution just as it began to thrive as a personal relationship. This enlightening and hugely entertaining book brings intelligence, perspective, and wit to today’s marital debate.


My Take Oblong Shaped



As someone who reads a love of romance, and a lot of romance wherein marriage is the HEA, a book on marriage presents a really tempting read. I often wonder if marriage at any time before the 20th century was about love or if the books I read, and the movies I see, are all foolish fantasy or if they represent the highest ideal of an imperfect institution.

What I found in this easily understood audio was not anything I didn’t expect. Marriage was regarded very differently and people placed less importance on the sexual aspect of their being.  It was a survival mechanism and not, in the vast majority of instances, about romantic love at all.   And, I also learned that one’s sexual identity was given less importance, which makes the entire business and survival aspect seem much more possible.

She tells us that in may cultures from ancient Greece to 19th Century France romantic love in marriage was an aberration. Surely people fell in love, but it was seen as transient and volatile – not a good basis for marriage.

It’s just one word, “Marriage,” and yet there is so much to say about it.  She found that while every permutation on marriage has occurred at some time or other, that today’s expected interpersonal relationship between spouses is unique. What is most evident is that throughout history marriage was a way of organizing labor in a family, where no one person could do all that was needed in a subsistence existence. And, in most cases was, or became, a way of organizing and allotting property and inheritance rights.

And, this is is also a history book — the result of scholarly research and a lifetime of study —  and at times it feels like a lecture or like reading of a dissertation.

As far as the narration goes, I found the narrator had an easy voice to listen to with one exception: the word “nuclear” appears 25 times within the book and she pronounces it nuk-U-lar. This is wrong in any book. but is even worsened by its inclusion in a scholarly work.

All in all, it was a fascinating book and left me to wonder why it is often seen as men being “dragged to the altar”  or “leg shackled,” “wearing the old ball-and-chain,”  when it is women who have historically borne the worst of the negative aspects of the relationship: having no property rights, being subjugating to the will of one or more men, being “put aside” for whatever reason. The author cites Jane Austen’s published writings and her letters including a quote to the effect that marriage without affection is not the ideal but that single women were often poor and marriage prevented that poverty (p. 185).

Coontz posits that conditions used by American political and religious leaders: divorce rates and out of wedlock births, have been higher at other times and the actual demise of the traditional marriage, which did not exist until rather recently (and is actually not a worldwide concern) are based in the actual conditions that created the so-called “traditional marriage,”  the insistence that “love” be the primary consideration in mate choice and equality in the relationship.

Interesting? I thought so.   It may change the way you see marriage.  In any event, it will probably change the way you see romance novels. I thought it was actually necessary reading for my understanding of the relationships described in the novels I read.


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