Author Stephanie Coontz: 'Cookie-cutter marriages' do not work anymore

Wednesday, March 5, 2014 | 10:55 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Stephanie Coontz, a novelist and expert on the history of family and marriage, spoke to Columbia College students, faculty and community members Wednesday, beginning the college's Women's History Month celebration.

Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., gave her "Courting Trouble: The Historical Transformation of Love and Marriage," lecture in Launer Auditorium.

In her speech, Coontz said the kind of marriage many of us think is traditional, where the man is the breadwinner and love is the main priority, is not really how marriage has always been. In fact, much of what society thinks about marriage isn't always accurate.

"A lot of what you read in the popular press is wrong," Coontz said.

Because marriage was seen for so long as primarily a social contract for economic gain, many people thought marrying for love would destroy that institution.

Today, the married couples who have the most sex are the ones who share housework, Coontz said. People who marry later in life tend to stay married, and cohabitation before marriage is not necessarily a risk for divorce — it actually can make for a longer lasting marriage.

As for men who strongly believe that husbands must be breadwinners, they are more likely to get married faster, but they are also more likely to get divorced.

Marriage and family life in the 1950s seemed simpler and easier because people did not question gender roles, and men and women knew what their roles were, Coontz said. But "cookie-cutter marriages" do not work in today's society.

It's not that we're worse at marriage now, she said, it's that we are doing it differently than people have ever done it. Couples today need to not only communicate but also to compromise and act positively toward each other.

"The excitement and challenge of marriage today is not being able to fake this," Coontz said. "You have to pick a partner you respect, not just love, but like. It's a challenge to men and women."

Coontz has studied the history and evolution of marriage for years and has written a number of books, including "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."  She has also appeared on shows such as NBC's "Today" show, "The Colbert Report" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show," to speak about her books and research.

Tonia Compton, chair of the committee organizing the Women's History Month celebration events and associate professor at Columbia College, said this year the committee wanted a historian. When Coontz's name came up, everyone wanted her to speak because they are familiar with and love her work.

"It addressed good issues for Women's History Month as well as for society in general," Compton said.

There are three events remaining in the celebration. Compton said the committee tries to plan an event each week to remind students why it is important to celebrate women's history.

Supervising editor is Shaina Cavazos.

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Michael Williams March 6, 2014 | 11:06 a.m.

"Because marriage was seen for so long as primarily a social contract for economic gain..."

I agree with much of this missive.

But not one mention of this thing called "biology"????

Long ago, humans figured out that pairing off was the best management tool for social order. It was also the best strategy for the rearing of children. Big-brained and creative as we are, we created a ceremony for it, mentally strengthening the commitment for safe passage of the genetics.

Ignore biology at your societal and individual peril.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 6, 2014 | 2:27 p.m.

I too agree with most of her thesis. No mention seems to have been made of the hottest topic there is in marriage these days: same sex marriage. Was that because she sees no differences between heterosexual and homosexual couples for the points she's made, or does she feel that insufficient data are available concerning outcomes of same sex marriages? (If she needs data, she can visit the state where I reside: here, Adam can legally marry Steve rather than Eve.)

I'm also curious as to whether the speaker is married or has ever been married.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates March 6, 2014 | 8:26 p.m.

She need to have been married,and maybe twice, divorced once to be credible to me. Assumptions based on statistics may work well in some engineering...but, not so much in the complexity of relationships. Regardless, I'm sure her lecture was beneficial.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 6, 2014 | 9:37 p.m.

Skip said "Assumptions based on statistics may work well in some engineering..."

They can work very well, but only if the raw data are valid and have been properly gathered.

Engineering/business statistics most often deal with numerical data; data for behaviorial sciences frequently come from interviews, etc., and are therefore more subjective.

Bedtime story: Years ago there was this very expensive finishing school for young ladies, run by a spinster. Annually, in May the board of directors (all men) would come to the school for a meeting, at which time the young women would do lady-like things such as sing, perform skits, dance around a Maypole., etc.

At one such meeting, after the student performances, the spinster and board members gathered (sans students) for tea. During their discussions the spinster volunteered that all of the girls were VIRGINS.

It became very quiet in the room! Finally one of the board members asked how she determined that all the girls were virgins. She replied that one day when the girls were assembled she asked any girl who wasn't a virgin to raise her hand. No hands were raised.

(Report Comment)

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