The Couple Rises: Historian Elizabeth Abbott Explains Why

Couples were not always so intensely focused on one another

Posted Sep 13, 2010

In my post, "The rise of the couple and the demise of the rest: How did this happen?" I asked this:

"How and why have couples ascended to a place of dominance in contemporary American society, leaving so many other important relationships and life pursuits devalued, dismissed, and neglected?"

Happily, historian Elizabeth Abbott agreed to answer my question. I'm especially grateful to have her informed opinion, since my original post generated a lively discussion (90 comments so far!) and personally, I don't have the expertise to address the many questions that were raised.

Here is what Elizabeth Abbott said in this guest post. Check out the note at the end to learn more about her.

Guest Post by Elizabeth Abbott

What an intriguing question, though it may be too gloomy about the effects that the glorification of coupledom has had on other important relationships and life pursuits.

Except in rare polygamous communities, marriage has been the coupling of two individuals. Yet until well into the 19th century, marriages were generally accepted and appreciated as arrangements connecting families, business inter-ests, members of the same social or economic class or other common denominators.

The husband and wife were not disregarded but, as a couple, were seldom the focal point of each other's emo-tional, intellectual or social life. They had little domestic privacy and rarely spent time alone. Their deepest affections were often reserved for their siblings, relatives and best friends. Many of their activities and interests were gender-specific and, as such, excluded their spouses. Large segments of their life's experiences were conducted independently of each other.

At the same time, their marital arrangement or interest took priority over each spouse's individual needs and desires, and so unhappy relationships were tolerated. If intervention or reconciliation efforts failed, for example, the beaten or betrayed wife or the wretched husband were expected to endure their situation for the sake of the wider entity their marriage embodied.

Several developments converged to alter this situation and to transfer attention onto the couple, the man and woman at the heart of the marriage. Primary among these developments were: the evolution of the idea of love; the industrialization and urbanization of society; the swelling Rights movement that sought to empower workers and women; and the infrastructural accommodations that quietly permitted single citizens to live and, sometimes, flourish.

Historically, marriages were intended to benefit the spouses' families, for example by advancing their business or vocational interests. Then, romantic love was scorned and even feared as an ephemeral and unstable foundation for marriage, and "love matches" were rare. But by the end of the 18th century there was growing acceptance of the notion that love between spouses mattered, though it was a more companionate affection than the all-consuming love we aspire to today.

The changing nature of the honeymoon gave evidence of this new regard for romantic love between spouses. Once, the honeymoon was a trip taken by newly-weds to introduce each other to relatives and friends, and it was common for parents and friends to go along. Afterward, the honeymoon became a more intimate event designed so that the couple, unchaperoned, could indulge in romantic and erotic love.

An even clearer sign of the shift in thinking about love was that more and more, spouses found their prime source of emotional support and deep connection in their marriage rather in friendships. This validation of romantic love made marriage the true home of passion and emotional sustenance. Today, this expectation has so intensified that our cultural gold standard is a spouse who is not merely loved and lover, but also a soul-mate. No wonder, then, that the couple has become such a formidable entity.

Yet the power of love alone could not have made this happen; the catalyst of individual rights was also necessary. The ideal of the right to personal happiness, love and satisfaction was fed by women's expanding career and educational opportunities, the new labor unions' vocal demands for equal rights, and growing prosperity. The existence of large numbers of single people - in some eras and places as many as one-quarter to one-third of the population - also helped by creating an infrastructure for individual rights; privileged single women, for example, were permitted to forge and maintain social, economic and family/dynastic relationships.

As women in particular gained more rights, more education, more vocational and professional opportunities, they gained as well the means to choose or accept a spouse who did not necessarily advance their economic paths but who fulfilled other needs and desires. Both men and women began to prioritize their own needs and desires about marriage as in other spheres of life. More couples self-selected on the basis of personal preferences and attractions rather than, as in the past, parental and family considerations.

Under the influence of these new standards, the impetus to marry became less an economic decision and more of a romantic one rooted in the belief that marriages should be grounded in mutual love. More and more, marriageable men and women subscribed to the ideal of marriage that required loving, supportive, loyal and compatible spouses deeply devoted to each other in their mission to complete each other's existence: individual rights willingly merged for the greatest possible happiness and satisfaction as coupled spouses. In fantasy if not in reality, the couple represented the essence of personal fulfilment.
The empowerment of the couple has profoundly changed the role of the wife-as-mother. In the 19th century Good Wife model, the relationship between mother and children was paramount. But the rise of the couple as intensely interdependent individuals has created a conflict between the old and new ideals and pushed women to struggle with incompatible priorities and demands.

True, the advent of reliable birth control has tempered this by allowing spouses to plan their parenthood and, by limiting themselves to manageable and affordable numbers of children, to keep themselves available for each other. Even so, the fundamental dichotomy between competing responsibilities lingers.

Finally, with expectations so much higher than they ever were in the arranged, finagled or ‘settled' unions of the past, the couple may judge theirs harshly, find it wanting, and resort to such apparatuses of redress as divorce, separation, or unresolved dissatisfaction within an intact marriage. In the latter case, friends and relatives may provide the intimacy and unconditional love that the spouses fail to. A century ago, those same spouses might well have tolerated such a marriage as no better but also no worse than they expected.

From Bella: Thanks so much, Elizabeth!

About Elizabeth Abbott: First, that picture is of Elizabeth Abbott and one of her dogs. The author describes herself as "a dog rescuer and dog fanatic!" Living Single readers may remember Elizabeth Abbott from what I wrote about her latest book in my post, "Single life as a ‘satisfying choice and a profound threat'." The book I was describing was A history of marriage. In April, it will be out in the U.S. In the meantime, it's available in Canada through amazon.ca. Her book Sugar: A Bittersweet History is already available in the US. It was reviewed in the New York Times and the Wall St. Journal and it was the Library Journal's Editor's Pick. You can learn more at Elizabeth Abbott's website, www.elizabethabbott.ca.