Matt Yglesias says I’ve been too hard on David Brooks, who, after all, has correctly observed that today’s young adults are marrying later. Matt writes, "This is a real and meaningful change from the recent past, that, like any significant, change, is going to have some downsides. Downsides that people are going to notice and talk about."
They key word there is "recent." Sure, it’s amusing to poke fun at a middle-aged square’s attempts to be hip to pop music. But let’s be frank: Conservatives’ nostalgia for "traditional marriage" is delusional. I am not anti-marriage. Despite being one of those children of divorce that Brooks so pities, I believe that a life-long, egalitarian partnership is a wonderful way (though not the only wonderful way) to find happiness and support and to raise children. But early monogamous marriage between sexually inexperienced peers carries not only a higher risk of divorce (about double the risk for couples under 25), but is also a historical aberration, not a timeless, values-driven institution.
If you’re interested in shifting marriage ideologies over time, Stephanie Coontz‘s Marriage: A History, is a great place to start. Throughout most of human history, marriage for the great majority of people was a matter of spending the night. You had sex, you were married. You separated and had sex with someone else, the marriage was over. The rich and powerful married formally to create ties that would increase influence and decrease the likelihood of violence between families. Monogamy and sexual fidelity were not expectations.
Over time, the dominance of agriculture and private property brought marriage to the masses. Hunting and gathering had been a community affair, but the back-breaking work of planting, harvesting, spinning, and cooking on a discrete plot of land was easier to accomplish in teams of adults. But these marriages weren’t based on love either. Parents wanted to make sure their children had a life partner who was strong, hard working, and genetically desirable. The goal was to produce healthy children who could in turn take to the fields.
It was Christian sexual prudery and capitalism that ultimately combined to create the traditional marriage ideology we know today. A working husband with a supposedly idle wife at home was the ideal "producer" whose female counterpart filled the role of "consumer." But this was a myth. Until the post-war era, only a tiny minority of families could survive on a single income. The boom of the 1950s brought this luxury to the Western middle class for the first time in human history. It was a short-lived experiment, soon brought to a close by both women’s desires to lead full lives and increasing economic instability for both sexes.
The bottom line is that today, people marry later because it’s a better idea to do so. Both partners get a chance to pursue education, financial stability, and sexual confidence — all things that improve one’s chances of entering into a stable marriage for life. And isn’t that what Brooks and his ilk would like to see more of us doing? Pink and Avril Lavigne and Carrie Underwood and Lily Allen may be angry at men, but it’s not because they don’t believe in marriage. Their lyrics express the fears of many young women that no matter how much progress we’ve made, our society still very much us pulls us toward settling for less than we deserve. What’s at stake for conservatives aren’t marriages that raise happy children, but a fear of sex and women’s liberation, especially in combination.