I've always known that Americans are not the most historically-minded. In my high school, history was taught by the football and basketball coaches, and they mostly enlightened us about the history of the game the night before. So when I first started reading about the history of marriage, coupling, and singlehood, I was astounded to discover how different attitudes and practices have been at different times and in different places. Historically speaking, marrying for love is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the kind of intensive coupling Americans often practice (the "you are my everything" variety) is, in the big picture, just weird.
Elizabeth Abbott's book, A History of Marriage, is hardly the first book on the topic. I'm not sure why she wrote it, but I'm glad she did. Of the accounts I've read, Abbott's is the only one to include a chapter on singles.
Why should there be a chapter on singles in a book about marriage? Here's what Abbott says:
"Whether because of war, vocation, profession, economics, or personal choice, significant minorities of men and even more women have lived as singles, and theirs is a hitherto hidden history of human relations and marriage."
Don't let the "hitherto" fool you. Abbott is a wonderfully engaging storyteller, so even if you are not particularly interested in the history of marriage, you might enjoy this book.
Just how significant have those minorities of single men and women been in the past? "In the eighteenth century," Abbott notes, "about 25 percent of English and 30 percent of Scottish aristocratic women remained single." In my own writing, I like to dig up the latest Census figures and note that the percentage of single men and women has been growing and growing. Typically, though, I'm just looking back four or five decades, or occasionally, a little over a century. That's short-term history. Living single, and staying that way for life, is hardly a contemporary American phenomenon.
But what about our attitudes? Are they unique? Discussing the Civil War, in which at least 618,000 Americans died, Abbott says this: "Back home, as official death notices began to arrive, single women realized that many of them would never find husbands." What do you expect to read right after that sentence?
Here's what actually did follow: "By no means all of them grieved at their fate."
That sort of delightful subversiveness and surprise is sprinkled throughout the book. The introduction, for example, begins with the story of a couple getting married. The bride, in describing the picture of her life together with her husband, says that she sees a huge "sky filled with bubbles and lollipops." Now, if I didn't know there was a chapter on singles coming up, I would have closed the book right then and there. It turned out, though, that this was not a cloyingly matrimaniacal couple. Instead, the twosome had already been together for 14 years. They wanted to adopt, but the adoption agency would only consider officially married couples.
Did you know that the term "spinster" once was a nod to the economic independence of women who could support themselves by spinning wool? Obviously, that changed: "at the same time that contingents of spinsters were enjoying satisfying and fulfilled lives, the cult of domesticity's new sentimentality about wives increasingly recast spinsters as socially inadequate losers."
Abbott mentions this Living Single blog in her book, so I wish I could say that I found nothing to criticize in her writing. Unfortunately, though, there was one point at which I thought the book had been hijacked by some crazed member of the Marriage Mafia. Referring to the battles that are still brewing over custody issues, Abbott says this: "If they are not resolved, generations of children will grow into adulthood at risk of being wounded or stunted, susceptible to depression and social withdrawal." When I titled my chapter in Singled Out on single parent families, "Attention, single parents - your kids are doomed," I was mocking the overblown rhetoric. Abbott's prediction about "stunted" children seemed to be offered in all seriousness.
Maybe that was just an aberration. In the epilogue, where Abbott tells us her own opinions, she says this:
"I do not believe that marriage is the right way of life for everyone."
"I believe that divorce is not necessarily a failure, that it may also be a solution or a release."
Finally, I think Abbott nailed the place of singles in contemporary society when she said:
"The choices and possibilities are now so entrenched in North American society that singleness has become both a satisfying choice and a profound threat to the institution of marriage."
[I've focused on the chapter on singles in this post. For a review of the entire book, take a look at this piece by Stephanie Coontz, who also wrote a history of marriage. Elizabeth Abbott, by the way, is a prolific writer. Among her previous books are A History of Celibacy (mentioned in this post on Sex and the Single Person) and another I haven't read, A History of Mistresses.]