Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Why Were Marriages Stronger a Century Ago?

Were marriages happier in the 1800s?

Historian Ellen K. Rothman's exhaustive historical study of American middle class courtship and marriage, "Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America" documented an America without mirage marriages. Back then compatibility was key as a married couple experienced drought, famine, pestilence, disease, violence and a short life span in an often isolated home in incredible extremes of weather with no air conditioning and a simple stove heater. A man and woman had no government handouts to save them. They had to depend on each other to survive. Character, complementary roles and shared interests were vital to get a couple through the challenges of day to day existence.

Ms. Rothman documented the insidious nature of the new courtship of deception we now practice today and its impact on relationships based on true intimacy:

"For most of the nineteenth century, the sharing of confidences had been important both as a guarantee and as a measure of intimacy between engaged men and women. Now, in the early twentieth century, a style of courtship was emerging that inhibited candor and frankness. Increasing contact between the sexes did not necessarily mean greater openness. Cabarets, dance halls and movie theatres were settings that lent to sexual experimentation but not to emotional openness. Dancing cheek to cheek or sitting side by side in a darkened nickelodeon may have invited new physical freedom, but neither encouraged the heart-to-heart talking that had occupied couples in earlier generations."

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The grim consequences of linking courtship and weddings to physical attraction and charm that began in earnest during the Roaring Twenties are now present for all to see. More marriages began with the  enlightened 20th Century notion of equal roles for both partners under the emerging companionate marriage model, but the gains of such egalitarian marriage were lost due to the incompatible pairing of strangers. Millions of American couples began dissolving their unions at alarming rates once either partner became disillusioned with the romantic realtionship. Instead of feeling empowered, many women found themselves saddled with children, work and often an impoverished economic standing. Many men became gun shy knowing marriages can end at any time if their mate sours and they would be at a distinct disadvantage in divorce courts, alimony, child support and with child custody. Eventually many women and men began moving away from the very notion of marriage itself and have serial families out of wedlock.

Today's courtship is completely different than that of a century ago. As Cornell Professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg showed in her work "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls", the very definition of "goodness" has radically changed from 100 years ago, when it was defined in terms of moral and emotional character. Today it is defined in terms of the body and physical image. Our society is now obsessed with the superficial. Is it a myth that it would impact the quality of our marriages? The healthy courtship of a century ago led to incredible intimacy and strong marriages that could withstand a battering todays pampered Americans can only image. That's not anecdotal. It's a fact.

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

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