Coontz discusses the history of marriage from prehistoric times to the present. I was expecting her to denote that marriage moved from being an affair based on familial decisions, extended families, and convenience rather than true love to one based on a “love” system, and that is exactly what Coontz establishes. However, in that story, Coontz sees an institution that has never been wholly stable and a change in marriage in our modern day that would inevitably lead to its currently changing definition.
The introduction recounts how Coontz came to her topic and was surprised by the history she found--more surprised than she expected to be, though she'd known that the 1950s ideal was a temporal thing. In that introduction Coontz covers various types of marriage as they have existed through history, including agreed-on relations between the same sex, polygamous and polyganous marriages, and even one society that has no marriage concept at all. Marriage, as Coontz brings out, has been throughout history a way of organizing human society. The society without a marriage system was very interesting to read of. Children are raised by this entire African community.
Marriage among the rich and powerful was generally a way to increase one's power and riches. And even among those who were not so well off usually used marriage as a way to aid the community as a whole. Many a marriage was created to gain land, whether it be to merge two countries or two fields.
Much of this changed once the Church entered the picture. As the Church extended its power, familial concerns with regard to treaties were no longer as important as getting the approval of the Church for various things--like marriage itself, or divorce. Interestingly the Church's stance toward divorce and remarriage was not always what it is today. However, as the stance toward divorce became stronger, it became more important for kings to have Church approval to rid themselves of unwanted wives using the Church's ability to declare such marriages annulled. That was needed, not for love, but to ensure heirs--women who could bear sons.
Once the Reformation, happened, that ushered in a time when the Church no longer had say in when and whom people married. It also ushered in the Age of Reason in due time, and with that the foundation for marriage based in love, since society less and less devolved around extended familial relations.
Marrying for love thus started its beginnings in the Renaissance and found full form in the Victorian era. But that era saw husbands as protectors for a frail and frigid but moral sex; women hated sex, but men too needed to avoid it as much as possible. (This was different from the previous era/generation, when women were seen as temptresses, to prone to sexual desire and pulling men away from things that really matter.) As the twentieth century came into being, women came to be seen as more sexual, and men lost the protective aura.
Women increasingly entered the workforce and married older--through World War II. Then the 1950s came, and men came home, taking the women's jobs and taking advantage of GI bill to further their education. In this time, marriage moved to a younger age, divorce actually decreased, and the nuclear family came to be the norm, with men as the breadwinners. This “long decade” lasted only fifteen years, and then marriage continued to develop on its way.
For the issue with love as the basis of marriage means that when love is no longer there or you happen to love someone untraditional, then the extension, by reason, of what should constitute acceptable marriage is no longer based on community standards but on individual desire. And that is why divorce became more common, and why now gay marriage is finding its place into our culture. It also means that other changes to marriage are likely to come.