A History of Love, or why American marriage is loaded with so many expectations

Europeans find the American cult of marriage (and of the related rite of passage, the mega-wedding) somewhat freakish. We tend to get married somewhat later (there is no such concept as the “starter marriage” over here), and we divorce a bit less. Also, it seems to me that we do not load our spouses with expectations that they’ll be the exclusive source of intimacy, companionship, and fulfillment. That is for reasons both good and bad, as (I speculate) we are on average better at maintaining our pre-marriage friendships alive, but at the same time we tend to stay much closer to our family of origin, marital mobility being lower than it is in the United States – in much the same way people are markedly less willing to relocate for work.

An article published a couple of years ago by history professor Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, makes some interesting points about how Americans got to fold their expectations for bliss into one relationship alone, the one with their spouse. Of course, things didn’t start out that way: for centuries, marriage was pretty much an economic arrangement, period:

Until 100 years ago, most societies agreed that it was dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion. […] From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

The Victorian refusal to acknowledge sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.

By the 20th century, however, we somehow got the idea that “individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage”:

[…] society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection. The insistence that marriage and parenthood could satisfy all an individual’s needs reached a peak in the cult of “togetherness” among middle-class suburban Americans in the 1950s.

And it didn’t get any better with the shift to a post-industrial society:

[T]he time Americans spend socializing with others off the job has declined by almost 25 percent since 1965. Their free hours are spent with spouses and […] with their children. […] As Americans lose the wider face-to-face ties that build social trust, they become more dependent on romantic relationships for intimacy and deep communication, and more vulnerable to isolation if a relationship breaks down. In some cases we even cause the breakdown by loading the relationship with too many expectations.

The solution, it seems, lies in the domain of portfolio theory: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Why something so obvious got obliterated by American culture, I guess, is for behavioral economists to explain. In Coontz’s words:

The solution is not to revive the failed marital experiment of the 1950s, as so many commentators noting the decline in married-couple households seem to want. Nor is it to lower our expectations that we’ll find fulfillment and friendship in marriage.

Instead, we should raise our expectations for, and commitment to, other relationships, especially since so many people now live so much of their lives outside marriage. Paradoxically, we can strengthen our marriages the most by not expecting them to be our sole refuge from the pressures of the modern work force. Instead we need to restructure both work and social life so we can reach out and build ties with others, including people who are single or divorced.

4 thoughts on “A History of Love, or why American marriage is loaded with so many expectations

  1. Just want to point out another intriguing difference between American and European wedding habits: the diamond ring. Though European men are under increasing pressure to emulate their American mates, gifting one’s beloved with a rock when proposing remains an eminent US tradition – and for a reason.

    Cecil Rhodes may be remembered for his additions to the British Empire but his most enduring legacy was the foundation of DeBeers. After buying out competition with ruthless focus, the man found himself controlling the world supply of diamonds. He needed a steady, predictable demand to release cartel’s huge stockpile while keeping the rocks pricey. Rhodes soon realised he had to turn to US marriages to find what he was looking for. The US market was large and wealthy enough to swallow most of DeBeers’ production; moreover, the number of US weddings over time was fairly predictable, ensuring DeBeers could plan investments well in advance, without loosing control on prices.

    Rhodes fine-tuned DeBeers’ capacity to match the number of US middle-class marriages and his successors – the Oppenheimer family – built a formidable marketing machine geared towards a single purpose: making American men feel compelled to buy a diamond when proposing and their women feel compelled to expect one when proposed. DeBeers depicted the American wedding as a “forever” commitment which perfectly justified some massive squandering on an allegedly everlasting object.

    This is not to say that American marriage is the way it is for some conspiracies by DeBeers: Coontz’s analysis is spot on. Nonetheless, DeBeers is the company which contributed most to manufacture the mystique surrounding the American wedding. In the late 1940s – right before the apogee of the “American cult of marriage” – DeBeers’ US advertising agency NW Ayer coined the “A diamond is forever” line, dubbed the best slogan of the 20th century by Advertising Age for its unparalleled impact on American purchase patterns.

    Since then DeBeers has lost much of its grip on the world diamond supply, however its marketing strategies remain as subtle as effective. I’m puzzled on how differently DeBeers campaigns are perceived by women and men. DeBeers’ infamous budget guidelines for diamond purchases – two month wages – ease affordability concerns among women. The same guidelines trigger a rat race among men – after all, you don’t want your fiancé’s friends to suspect you’re an ordinary jerk grossing less than $5,000 a month.

    The locker-room secret is that anyone buying a diamond ends up paying way beyond his means and an engagement ring usually represents the largest single expense faced by young men in diamond-buying nations. A thought for you, dear Paola, and your fellow women: we the men, we the lucky few, we band of brothers, we too have some gender-specific hassles to deal with.

  2. Thoughtful as always. It escapes me, too – if she loves you, why wouldn’t she marry you after you give her a glass beads trinket bought from a street peddler? If she doesn’t love you, on the other hand, why would she marry you after you give her a De Beers diamond?
    I know, these are rhetorical questions. I long for a world where women buy their own jewelry, with their own money.
    On the lighter side, one more difference between Europe and America. A European bridesmaid (and there is generally one per bride, or two at most) wears whatever the hell she sees fit to wear on the occasion of her friend’s wedding. No color-coordinated gowns! No arrangements of miserable and resentful bridesmaids wearing stuff they’ll never wear again!

  3. Let me try to address your question with some loose and cheap evolutionary mumbo-jumbo. At the end of the day an engagement ring is just a signal conveying two messages. The first one to your girl: you have plenty of resources to support her future children. The second to your sexual competitors: your girl is out of the mating market. The more the signal (the ring) is expensive, the more its messages are credible.

    Diamonds fit well into the “handicap principle” of evolutionary biology, which seems to explain apparent paradoxes such as peacocks developing big tails and men developing a taste for expensive cars. You show off your superior fitness through some costly signals a less fit individual could not afford. If the signal is cheap, chances are you’re cheating – therefore a glass beads trinket won’t do.

    I’m fascinated by DeBeers’ ability to tap into the basics of human psyche, creating a sense of urgency that can be quenched only by over-spending. I recall coming across a big DeBeers billboard at a US airport, picturing two engagement rings side-by-side: one, with a regular stone and the headline “What a ring!”. The other, with a massive diamond and the headline “What a man!”. Best marketing & advertising department in the world.

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