Book review: Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage - Stephanie Coontz

There are two arguments for and against gay marriage today. The For argument is generally, ‘Love is a human right’ and the Against tends to be for ‘Protecting the Sanctity of Traditional Marriage’. This book examines why both views were largely irrelevant for most of human history. Not only was love not a human right, until recently love wasn’t even a consideration when planning a marriage. Both men and women were discouraged from too much affection for their spouse, in case it undermined their loyalty for their family, their community, or God. As for the sanctity of marriage, the ‘’traditional”1950’s marriage deemed worthy of God’s love, was in fact a very unusual event in Western history, an event which lasted less than 20 years. Prior to last century, marriages were more like business mergers or investment partnerships and the married couple almost always shared their home with others of their family or community.


Stephanie Coontz studies family history and was inspired to write this book after being repeatedly asked if the institution of marriage was falling apart. While it is true that marriage is more fragile today than the days when the church held firm against divorce, she also shows that marriage has not always been the formal institution it is now, and that the church’s own position on marriage has changed many times. Even same-sex marriage has been previously permitted in places, provided both partners were able to commit to gender roles as firmly as any heterosexual couple. In Rome, where male-male marriages were derided, it wasn’t two men in love which was scandalous, but the idea of a man demeaning himself by doing ‘women’s work’.


This book is not about gay marriage; instead this is a book about the changing nature of marriage itself. Stephanie shows us that it is not gay equality that is threatening the Sanctity of Traditional Marriage, rather it was heterosexuals themselves who forever altered the institution -the growing popularity of ‘love’ matches, the desire to choose their own spouse, the breakdown of gender roles, the rise of feminism, and the acceptance of divorce and cohabitating partners - all opened the door to the inevitability of same-sex marriage.


This is a brilliant book, particularly in her comparisons to marriage myths as opposed to measurable marriage trends. It’s also an important read during this time when marriage is going through yet another upheaval.