For the true commitment-phobe, living among the Na people in southwestern China would be paradise. The Na are the only known society that completely shuns marriage. Instead, says Stephanie Coontz in her new book, "Marriage, a History," brothers help sisters raise the children they conceive through casual sex with non-family members (incest is strictly taboo). Will we all be like the Na in the future? With divorce and illegitimacy rates still high, the institution of marriage seems headed for obsolescence in much of the world. Coontz, a family historian at Evergreen State College in Washington, doesn't proclaim the extinction of marriage, but she does argue that dramatic changes in family life over the past 30 years represent an unprecedented social revolution--and there's no turning back. The only hope is accepting these changes and figuring out how to work with them. The decline of marriage "doesn't have to spell catastrophe," Coontz says. "We can make marriages better and make nonmarriages work as well."
To understand how we got here, Coontz traces the evolution of marriage from Paleolithic times. Throughout human history, people married to arrange child rearing, pass on property and organize life. Until relatively recently, most of these alliances were not legally sanctioned but rather informal arrangements accepted by society at large. The choice of partner was rarely left to the couple; parents and other respected community elders made the match. "Marriage was a way of turning strangers into relatives, of making peace, of making permanent trading connections," Coontz says. "There are many different languages that call wives the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the word 'peace-weaver'."
In the Western world, that model held until about 200 years ago, Coontz says, when the idea of marrying for love emerged. Those who bemoan the current state of marriage should blame the Enlightenment emphasis on self-fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness. It took a while for the love revolution to have its full impact. Some other barriers had to be knocked down first: inequality between men's and women's roles, little social mobility, unreliable birth control and harsh penalties for illegitimacy.
By the 1970s, Coontz says, these obstacles were gone and marriage became a potentially much more satisfying personal relationship but a much weaker social institution and the subject of intense debate. In this country, it has become a lightning rod, Coontz says, "for our anxieties about our speeded-up, materialist, winner-take-all society. People think if only marriage were more committed, that would take care of all the other problems." But Coontz argues that it's pointless to try and roll back time. For better or worse, we're stuck with marrying for love and accepting the consequences of living happily ever after--until someone better comes along.