Stephanie Coontz: Family life in America has changed drastically in the last 30 years

Historians in the News

Marriage and family life have "changed more in the last 30 years than in the previous 3,000," writes Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College. With change comes new challenges to overcome, but, she writes, "we cannot do so if we delude ourselves into thinking there has ever been a Golden Age when life was much better for all, or even most, families."

Society tends to "romanticize marriages of the past," writes Ms. Coontz, but "for millennia, marriage decisions were dictated more by economic and political considerations than by love and personal satisfaction." Once married, she adds, "couples were not expected to construct a relationship that fostered mutual cooperation, but to conform to a rigid marital model based on male dominance and wifely subordination."

Marriage today is much different. People now have "unprecedented freedom about whether, when, and whom to marry, as well as about how to organize their personal relationships in and out of marriage," says Ms. Coontz, the author of a recent book on the history of marriage (The Chronicle, May 6, 2005). And while "more choices mean new opportunities for success," she writes, they also mean "new opportunities for failures."

For example, most Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, "live together outside of marriage for a portion of their lives, and not all these relationships result in marriage," says Ms. Coontz. Consequently, "we can never again assume that all dependents … will be taken care of within first-marriage nuclear families." Another challenge couples face, she adds, is how to raise children now that "women are much less likely to leave the labor force to stay home with their kids than in the past."...
Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) summary of article by Ms. Coontz appearing in the Fall Issue of Greater Good: The New American Family

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