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Interview of Stephanie Coontz Interviews with Robert D. Benjamin, Senior Editor

February 24, 2006

This is an interview with Stephanie Coontz on the role of negotiation in marriage, family and divorce.

Stephanie Coontz is a Professor of History and Family Studies at Evergreen State College in Evergreen, Washington, and the Director of Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. She is the author most recently of Marriage, A History (2005), The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalga Trap (1993), and The Way We Really Are: Ending the War Over America’s Changing Families(1998). Ms. Coontz resides in Evergreen, Washington with her son, husband and two cats. Her work has been especially important for challenging the conventional wisdom about what we think we know about what families are and what they have traditionally been. She notes that many of the ‘family values’ that people nostalgically recall and use to bolster their view of how things should be never really existed.

Q: Your notion of the family seems to be that of an evolving dynamic organism as opposed to a static notion, is that right?

A: Yes, every society has variations on what a family is. Men and women have different definitions within the same household. There has always been diversity within each society and changes within that notion. Back in the 16th century, people used the word “love” as frequently for neighbors and cousins as they did for the nuclear family. But then, in other societies, there was polygamy or polyanrie, one man and many wives were predominant. People often put social definitions above biological ones. What proper family sentiments are have changed. Many ministers told women not to call their husbands by familiar nicknames, because marriage was really about authority relationships.

Q: To bring things forward, you seem to say that women gained an independent legal existence beginning with the enlightenment?

A: It happened in two stages. It was not until 200 years ago that it became respectable to marry for love. Even after that became the notion of marriage, where there was much more sentimentality, the definition of love was one that made women subordinate to men. It wasn’t until 130 years ago that men began to lose their right to beat their wives and to take over any property their wives had. It was still another 100 years where that was enforced, right up to the 1970’s many states had ‘head and master’ laws that gave men the final say over many family decisions. So, yes the nature of marriage has been changing constantly. The idea that men and women are equal in marriage is extremely recent and a revolutionary change in the marriage relationship.

Q: So it is only since the 1970’s that men and women have had the broader opportunity to construct their marriages around reciprocal duties and to negotiate their roles?

A: It was in the 1980’s that the Courts began to overturn the legal definitions of marriage that demanded different roles. Until then, in most of the 20th century, the man, but not the woman, had a duty to support the family, the wife, but not the husband, had a duty to keep the house clean, take care of the kids and also to provide sex. Which is why it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the courts have recognized marital rape. So, since then, the courts have increasingly ruled that husbands and wives should be able to figure out for themselves who does what. That’s where the negotiation comes in.

Q. It sounds like the traditional view of marriage was that of a business proposition?

A: For thousands of years, marriage was more about the political and economic than it was the individual. People fell in love, but as we know, it was no accident that those stories often ended tragically. People married for political and economic advantage. Even in the lower classes, you had to marry someone who could work along side you. There was far more parental and community oversight of who married whom. Marriage had a lot more practical calculation involved. Right up until the late 18th century, the dowry a man received in marriage was the single biggest piece of property he would ever get at one particular time, so that was more important to him than the daughter. And, for the women, finding a husband was the best investment they could ever make in their economic future. They often chose their pocketbook over their heart.

Q: So marriage has moved in some ways from being a business proposition to being about love, affection, and emotion?

A: Yes, exactly. Ironically the first people to embrace the love revolution were men. Through the 19th century, your read stories from men about women who have stolen their heart, where women who remained economically dependent continued to be quite calculating in who they would marry right up through the early 20th century, even into the 1950’s and 60’s. So it is only in the last 20 or 30 years that women, as well as men, have been able to say, “No, I want a soul mate, not just a provider.”

Q: So men continue to be more romantic than women and more eager to marry?

A: That’s true and goes against expectations. Women, as they have needed marriage less economically, have expressed greater dissatisfaction with the institution marriage. Which is not surprising, because, as marriage has evolved over the last several hundred years, women have had to shoulder most of the emotional and time consuming work of making the family go.

Q: Doesn’t the marriage still remain a fundamental source of security and a significant business proposition. The conventional wisdom is that, after divorce, the standard of living of the man will go up and for women and children it will go down significantly?

A: This is the paradox. The majority of divorces are sought by women. You have to ask yourself, women are not stupid, they know they will undergo a drop in their standard of living, and yet are willing to do it anyway.

Q: So is the shift of marriage toward the pursuit of a soul mate and about relationship an encouragement of divorce? Are women too ready to leave marriage if he is not perfect?

A: I think that most people don’t expect perfection, but they do expect much more intimacy, fairness, passion and satisfaction from marriage than they have in the past.

Q: Are their expectations too high?

A: Well, I would say this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having high expectations makes people work harder at their marriage. Many people today work hard at their relationships.

Q Do we work too hard on marriage? Have we become too preoccupied with getting marriage right? In this hyper-moral age, is the length of your marriage a sign of your goodness as a person?

A: There are gains and losses. For thousands of years, people have had such low expectations of marriage that people put up with stuff that we would find positively chilling and unbearable. Now, we have higher expectations of marriage and when a marriage works well, it works better than ever before in history. But it is also true that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Maybe it’s no so much that we expect too much of marriage, but that we expect too little of other relationships. We put all the burden on that partner.

Q: So that marriage partner can’t and shouldn’t be expected to fulfill all of our needs?

A: Exactly.

Q: So how do you respond to the evolutionary propositions: that men give love to get sex and women give sex to gain love and security, and that this is still a major motivator in male-female relationships?

A: I am very leery of attributing these patterns to evolutionary biology. I think it was Paul Ehrlich who once said, “biology doesn’t command us, it merely, at best, whispers suggestions.” There have been so many changes in male-female relationships that I am optimistic that we can adjust our natures and desires to new realities. One thing that we find across cultures is that the higher degree of equality between men and women, the less men select their partners on the basis of sex, and the less women select men because they are older or have more resources.

Q: So you don’t have a high opinion of Maureen Dowd’s book, Are Men Necessary?

A: I think she is working with hugely outdated material. For women of my age, born before 1960, the higher their degree of education, the less likely they were to marry, but that has been reversed. Today, women with a college degree are the most likely to marry and stay married.

Q: Why do you think there is so much outdated-information about marriage and what we think we know?

A: That’s a good question. If I could answer that, I could move on to another topic. I think there is always a tendency to look back at the past through rose-colored glasses, to remember partially. There’s an example I use in The Way We Never Were, they did a study of kids who report on their school vacations. When they first come back from vacation, and they make a list of the good and bad things that happened, the lists are equally long. Six months later, the bad list has shrunk and the good list has increased. I think that’s what we do with family life; we use nostalgia about the past as a way of complaining about the present. We incorrectly kid ourselves that family life was so much better in the past.

Q: As the roles of marriage are being negotiated, you are introducing the term ‘negotiate’ in a popular sense. I have found that women underestimate their ability to negotiate and men overestimate their ability to negotiate. What do you think is their effective ability to negotiate?

A: Yes, we’ve made tremendous progress in equality. But there are lots of ways in which negotiations in marriage are affected by unequal power relations. Some of those power relations are individual; the person who wants the relationship to last has the least negotiating power. But also there is a gender pattern. Women have more financially too lose, more likely to end up with custody of kids and those considerations sometimes interfere with their negotiating power in a relationship. So, when I’m talking about the need for a negotiated relationship, I’m not talking about the kind of negotiation that comes when you have real conflict, but I’m suggesting that the happiest marriages are the ones where fair negotiations are taken for granted as a daily occurrence.

Q: Is it perhaps an issue that as people work on their marriage they don’t know how or have the necessary skill set to negotiate with each other?

A: That’s correct. One very common pattern you see in divorce is that women are afraid of conflict and they are trying to please when they are young, so they don’t ask for changes that they want in the marriage, they put up with things, they are afraid to initiate the conversation and the negotiation. And, by the time they get the courage to do so, they have disengaged so much that instead of asking for change, they ask for divorce.

Q: So this is a vestige of the way marriages used to be?

A: I think so, this is more than vestigal. Both men and women have a lot of old habits and patterns that interfere with our ability to negotiate fairly and to work through a relationship in a way that isn’t either exhausting or unfair. But I am cautiously optimistic in the sense that I do think that we know a whole lot more than we used about how to make marriages work for both partners. Both men and women seem to be making the effort. We aren’t going to wipe out the fact that some marriages won’t work when negotiations break down. So my optimism stems from the fact that we can make marriages work better than they do, but we must also make divorce work better when it happens.

Q: Few couples today seem to want to take responsibility in divorce, they want their lawyers to handle it, and they still want revenge, why is that?

A: There are new options to negotiate and have mediated settlements in divorce. But it’s true that especially couples who were very romantically in love have a tendency to have a deep sense of betrayal afterwards. Once lawyers are involved, it is very hard to back off and that remains a big problem.

Q: An unfair question, what have you learned for your study of the history of marriage and families that has helped you personally in your marriage?

A: I have found it very useful both in my relationship with my husband and my son to be able to step back and understand that some of the tensions we have are because of historical changes that have occurred. Nobody is a bad person, but everybody brings their different needs and assumptions. On top of that, we have so few social support systems from our society. 18 of the top industrial countries in the world have paid parental leave. They have much better child care available for working parents. So on top of all of the tensions that are inevitably involved in restructuring an institution whose rules are changing very rapidly, we have a society that gives absolutely no support to families. So you are forced to solve this at an individual level and many of the tensions couples have are not with each other but because of the way work is organized or health care is organized. And so, for me, I have found it very useful to be able to step back and ask if this is my fault, my husband’s or my son’s fault? Often it is actually a real dilemma and we should stop blaming each other.

Q: So all of the lip service paid to family values and what they should be is anything but?

A: We don’t put our money where our mouth is.

Q: I know you are a historian, but what would be your advice, what would you like people to understand?

A: Three things. In today’s stress filled global economy, no family can make it on its’ own, every family needs support. The other side of it is that no family is doomed if it gets that support. On a more personal level, if you are entering a marriage, I think that the changes in men’s and women’s roles make it so much more important to be friends who respect each other than has ever been necessary before. Married couples used to be able to rely on the fact that each of them did different things and they needed each other that way. Now they have to rely on mutual respect. And even when they divorce they can hold on to that respect so that instead of that revenge mentality they can make a good divorce happen.

Q: So before you look for the perfect soulmate, look for a good friend?

A: I think that’s very important. There is a psychologist, Andrew Christiansen, who says, “you don’t get a line item veto over your partner.” You have to learn to accept parts of that person that might not be what you’d pick if you could choose exactly what you wanted. On the other hand, you have to be close friends to think about if you could live with those differences after you get married.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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