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Inside the American Couple

New Thinking, New Challenges

Marilyn Yalom (Editor), Laura Carstensen (Editor), Estelle Freedman (Editor), Barbara Gulpi (Editor)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 273 pages
ISBN: 9780520229570
August 2002
$29.95, £22.95
One of the most fundamental human urges is to form a pair. Despite many tendencies that threaten traditional marriage and even make committed cohabitation problematic, very few people live through adulthood without at least one lengthy relationship, and up to ninety percent of Americans marry at least once in their lives. This pioneering volume draws attention to issues that question the unspoken traditional practices underlying coupling in America. In it, some of today's most innovative feminist scholars consider the dramatic changes couples have experienced over the past fifty years, such as the proliferation of divorce, the increase in ethnically-mixed relationships, the preponderance of older couples, and the new visibility of same-sex unions.

Approaching their subject from a range of disciplines, the authors explore the couple as an enduring paradigm for human relationships, despite the changes in ideology and practice that couples have experienced over time. The essays delve into such subjects as the historical roots of modern marriage, the recent phenomenon of lesbian and gay commitment ceremonies, the home as a workplace and a place of refuge, and the stresses that turn a happy marriage into an unhappy one. One chapter explodes the myth that feminists are responsible for the high incidence of divorce, while another focuses on the financial worth of the wife after the demise of a long-standing marriage.

Taken together, these essays impart a deep and complex picture of the challenges facing couples in our time. The vital and engaging narratives show that however anxious our society may be in the face of dissolving marriages and dysfunctional families, couples will continue to form the bedrock of American society in the twenty-first century.
Laura L. Carstensen and Marilyn Yalom
1. Biblical Models:
From Adam and Eve to the Bride of Christ
Marilyn Yalom
2. Dearest Friend:
The Marriage of Abigail and John Adams
Edith Gelles
3. "The Thing Bartered":
Love, Economics, and the Victorian Couple
Kate Washington
4. "Boston Marriage" among Lesbians:
Are We a Couple If We’re Not Having Sex?
Esther D. Rothblum
5. "You’ll Never Walk Alone":
Lesbian and Gay Weddings and the
Authenticity of the Same-Sex Couple
Ellen Lewin
6. The Couple at Home
Education’s Contribution
Nel Noddings
7. When One of Us Is Ill:
Scenes from a Partnership
Mary Felstiner
8. Wives and Husbands Working Together:
Law Partners and Marital Partners
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein
9. Grounds for Marriage
Reflections and Research on an Institution in Transition
Arlene Skolnick
10. Divorce, American Style
Deborah L. Rhode
11. Divorce, Executive Style:
What’s a Wife Worth?
Myra H. Strober
12. Toward an Understanding of Asian American
Interracial Marriage and Dating
Jeanne L. Tsai, Diane E. Przymus, and Jennifer L. Best
13. Arranged Marriages
(What’s Love Got to Do with It?)
Monisha Pasupathi
14. Marriage in Old Age
Susan Turk Charles and Laura L. Carstensen
List of Contributors
Marilyn Yalom is Senior Scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and author of A History of the Wife (2001), A History of the Breast (1997), Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory (1993), and Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (1985). Laura Carstensen is Professor of Psychology and the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University. She has published more than eighty articles and chapters on life-span development, marriage, and emotion.
"By interrogating rather than accepting traditional platitudes about our need to be coupled, this vital and original collection both broadens our understanding of what constitutes a couple and deepens our appreciation for the human needs that coupling meets."—Michael S. Kimmel, author of Manhood in America: A Cultural Reader

"Reading this book is like looking at a crystal-first one interesting facet of coupledom and then another comes into view. It's entrancing!"—Barrie Thorne, Director, Center for Working Families, University of California, Berkeley

"This wonderfully important book shows where the couple has been and where it is going, challenging us to simultaneously remake and redefine coupledom for ourselves. Reassuring and enlightening, Inside the American Couple is essential reading for anyone concerned with joining in partnership and love with another human being."—Rebecca Walker, author of Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self

Laura L. Carstensen and Marilyn Yalom

One of the most fundamental urges of human existence is to form a pair. Something in us calls for another—friend, lover, companion, spouse. Or perhaps it is something not in us, some lack, some deficit, that hungers for completion. In the Symposium, Plato fancifully expressed this craving by having Aristophanes contend that the first humans were unseparated twins who, once they were split apart, pined away for the missing half.

Sociobiologists assume that the search for a mate is propelled by an animal instinct to copulate. Human attachment theorists locate the source of adult pairing in the child-mother bond. Anthropologists look to the central importance of kinship systems in human cultures as an explanation for the universality of marriage. Political scientists understand marriage as an institutional means of assuring societal stability. Existentialists see the desire to merge with another as a way of attenuating a basic sense of isolation. Jews and Christians traditionally believe that marriage is ordained by God. Whether primacy is accorded to sexual, psychological, anthropological, political, existential, or religious factors, there is broad agreement that coupledom provides a viable answer to a basic human longing.

Here we are at the dawn of a new millennium still cherishing the belief that being part of a couple represents some central part of being human. Individuals, despite gender and sexual orientation, continue to search for soul mates, to move in together, to vow to love each other, and, when legally allowed, to enter into marriages. Despite myriad modern tendencies that could render long-term couplehood obsolete (such as casual sex, cohabitation, and increase in divorce and single parenting), more than 90 percent of Americans marry at some time during their lives. However anxious we may be as a society in the face of dissolving marriages and dysfunctional families, individuals continue to place their hopes in the marital bond. They exchange public promises to remain together—for better, for worse, for a lifetime. And among those who do not marry, partnering is still very widespread; few people live through adulthood without at least one lengthy, intimate relationship.

Our aim in this volume is to draw attention to issues that question the unspoken traditional practices underlying coupling in America. To accomplish this aim, we turned to feminist scholars who consider the couple in their work and the dramatic changes couples have experienced during the past fifty years, such as the proliferation of divorce, the increase in ethnically mixed relationships, the preponderance of older couples, and the new visibility of same-sex unions. By focusing on some of these changes, we hope to contribute to scholarly and public dialogue about a fundamental unit in human societies.

Gender has been at the core of the traditional image of the couple in America, an image generalized from an idealized middle-class marriage in which husbands have provided (or were expected to provide) financial support for wives and children and wives have carried responsibility for housekeeping and child rearing. Even though this image has never been reflected in working-class couples, the image itself has been held up as the (often unmet) standard of the typical marriage. In cases where the wife was employed, her work was often viewed as supplemental to the husband's work, even if she earned more than her husband. Yet, in the second half of the twentieth century a significant sea change took place. Women began to enter the workforce in record numbers, and the separation of domestic and public spheres began to blur. Not only did women work, as many always had, they also developed identities as paid workers outside the home and pursued long-term careers. Although it occurred less frequently, men began to enter the domestic sphere and share more in household and child-care responsibilities. This overlap of professional and personal boundaries, much feared by nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans raised with an ideology of separate spheres for men and women, became reality in the late twentieth century.

By many measures, the age-old education gap between men and women is rapidly narrowing. Females now receive educations comparable to those of males—women in the United States earn the majority of associate bachelor's and master's degrees and an increasingly greater share of advanced degrees.1 Women expect to be able to support themselves, and most women in America do work outside the home (Folbre and Nelson 2000). Few think in terms of Marriage as a Trade, the title of a well-known Edwardian book that exposed the compulsory economic nature of marriage for women. Because many women now earn income independently of their husbands (albeit usually less income) and share similar educational and work histories, they have many more relationship options than their female predecessors. They can choose not to marry or, conversely, to marry in the expectation of an egalitarian union. Although women's increased educational and professional opportunities presumably lead to greater compatibility in marriage, the reality is that the more education a wife has, the more likely she will be to divorce her husband. Not only are women today more easily able to say "no" to a prospective marital partner, they are—like men—able to say "no" later on, if the marriage turns sour.

In the past four decades, divorce has skyrocketed, and marriage rates have shown a decrease. Roughly 40 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine are today unmarried. The average age of first marriages has moved upward from twenty for women and twenty-three years for men in 1960 to twenty-five and twenty-seven, respectively, in 1998.2 Delays in marriage are particularly striking among African Americans; indeed, many African American women are delaying marriage so long that "delaying" may prove to be avoiding the institution altogether. It is conceivable that rising divorce rates have weakened the long-term investment both husbands and wives previously put into marriage. When a couple faces statistical odds of divorcing that are as high as the odds that they will stay together, the commitment to a marriage may be undermined from the start. Economically, too, educated women who enter into a marriage contract today recognize that they are unlikely to benefit financially in the way that their mates will if the marriage fails. One year after a divorce, husbands are fairing better than wives. Ironically, one might argue that even the thirty-year increase in average life expectancy that occurred during the twentieth century may have put a damper on marriage. With longer life expectancy the urgency to marry has lessened. The prospect of lifelong marriage may have seemed more appealing and more viable when couples expected to live together for twenty or thirty years rather than fifty or sixty.

Similarly, the demographics of children enter into the decrease in marriage rates and the rising incidence of divorce.3 At the beginning of the century, the average number of children per Caucasian, American-born mother was 3.5, with immigrant and African American women bearing more (this was down from 7 children per mother in 1800). Even in 1960, despite fluctuations during the century, American women were, on average, bearing 3.5 children. Today, the American mother, like her counterparts in other developed nations, bears roughly two children. While women in the nineteenth century spent most of their adult lives raising children, motherhood per se now takes up a relatively shorter part of the life span.4 If a woman waits until her late twenties to have children, as many do, and lives until she is eighty, she will have spent only a third of her life in the active phase of mothering young children. Such a life pattern may afford new perspectives on the later years. Whereas, in the past, life may have been winding down by the time the children had been raised, women today can anticipate additional decades after middle age. If the marriage has been frankly unhappy or merely unsatisfying, a wife may choose to leave her husband, especially if she has the financial means to survive on her own. Unfortunately, for many older women who had lower (or no) earning capacity earlier in their lives, this decision usually entails serious economic consequences. Importantly, despite the fact that young women today will be more likely to come to old age with incomes and pensions of their own, other societal changes (such as increased likelihood of divorce) ensure that they will face just as great a risk of poverty as older women do today (Smeeding 1999).

Yet these statistics and practices do not suggest that people are giving up on marriage. A different sort of change is in the air. Some scholars believe that we have entered an era of serial marriage, with multiple marriages and remarriages becoming the norm. Most people who divorce do remarry within a few years. Perhaps lifelong commitment will cease to be a common goal. Perhaps procreation will occur increasingly outside of marriage; already more than 40 percent of first births in the United States occur out-of-wedlock.5 It is even possible that heterosexual marriage will lose its privileged place among other forms of couples. But it is unlikely that marriage itself will disappear.

As we enter the twenty-first century, the essential ingredients in marriage are love and shared material resources—the primary bases for unions during the last two centuries. Together they contribute to a powerful bond between spouses. However, without the dependence of one (the wife) on the other (the husband) for economic support, love alone bears the burden of holding the couple together, and love is often not enough. A combination of factors—respect, commitment, shared values, and mutual interests, as well as love and money—make for a considerably more solid marital foundation. In cases where love holds strong, even on the part of only one partner, marriages can and do survive. But if love turns sour for both parties and it is economically feasible to separate, there is little motivation to remain together, especially when there are no children.

Another dramatic change in coupledom concerns the increased visibility of same-sex unions. Today, in many parts of America, lesbian and gay couples not only live together openly but also enjoy commitment ceremonies blessed in churches, and many are claiming the right to legal marriages. Following the pattern of the Netherlands and several other northern European nations, we expect to see legislation in this country that will grant full privileges to same-sex couples sometime in this century. In fact, we believe that someday Americans will look back upon the interdiction on same-sex marriage the same way that we now view antimiscegenation laws forbidding marriage across races.

The authors of the essays in this book focus on the ties between two people who commit to a long-term union, primarily, but not exclusively, within marriage. The authors come from various disciplines (anthropology, economics, education, history, law, literature, psychology, and sociology) and are interested in the couple as an enduring paradigm for human relationships, despite the changes in ideology and practice that couples have experienced over time.

The authors of the first three chapters deal with the historical roots of modern marriage: those found in Judeo-Christian scripture, in early colonial America, and in nineteenth-century capitalism. Yalom compares marital proscriptions and prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and traces some ongoing effects of these beliefs within Western civilization. Gelles portrays the union of Abigail and John Adams as a larger-than-life example of eighteenth-century companionate marriage. Washington examines the nineteenth-century British public debate that compared marriage for money with prostitution: Each institution was purportedly characterized by an exchange of male financial support for female sexual services.

In the next two chapters, the authors address lesbian and homosexual unions. Rothblum asks how sex, or the lack of it, defines the lesbian couple, while Lewin describes the recent phenomenon of lesbian and gay commitment ceremonies. Both of these essays raise questions that are central not only to gay and lesbian couples but to all couples. Rothblum asks the fundamental question of whether genital sexual activity is the core condition for lesbian couplehood; she suggests that contemporary society has fixated upon sex as the defining characteristic of lesbians, whereas other feelings and behaviors, such as attachment, friendship, love, and companionship, tend to be overlooked. If we define couples by genital sexual activity, many couples—both heterosexual and same-sex—are no longer couples by this standard.

Lewin's essay reminds us that public validation of private unions is at least as important to gay and lesbian couples as it is to heterosexuals. Humans seem to need rituals of public affirmation that involve the community. In a country marked by few mandatory rites of passage, the wedding becomes one rite in which it is now possible for both heterosexual and homosexual couples to proclaim publicly their joint identity and enlist family and friends for ongoing support. Not only do couples need societal affirmation but societies benefit from couples. The economic and emotional stability of couples benefits society at large in innumerable ways (Wald 1999; Waite 1995).

In chapters 6 and 7, Noddings and Felstiner consider the physical realities within and surrounding the couple. Noddings explores the home as a place of refuge and a workplace, with different meanings for men and women. Felstiner focuses on the human body when one partner is chronically sick. Both authors raise questions about caregiving, a traditionally female responsibility, that is now, in the wake of feminist pressure, demanding greater participation from men. In chapter 8, Fuchs Epstein examines marriages when they cross the boundaries of home and work by describing the complex issues that arise when couples who are both lawyers share legal practices.

Skolnick's work in chapter 9 examines psychological and sociological research, including her own, that tries to understand similarities in good marriages as well as the stresses that turn a happy marriage into an unhappy one. She articulates a good/bad marriage model, drawing from Jesse Bernard's notion that every marriage contains two marriages, the husband's and the wife's, and from the work of John Gottman and Robert Levenson, who found that marital success could be predicted by a high ratio of positive to negative emotion expressed to one another within the couple's relationship. Skolnick's most recent work looks at the impact of stress on couple interaction, stress resulting from outside employment rather than conflict generated solely from spousal interaction. In focusing on working-class couples in cases where the husband is a police officer, she illustrates the ways that stress outside the marriage can come inside the marriage in disastrous ways. Her analysis leads into the following two chapters on divorce.

Rhode first explodes the myth that feminists in our time are responsible for divorce and its lamentable sequellae—impoverished families, displaced homemakers, and fatherless children—and then proposes some legal solutions to these problems. Strober, focusing on the divorce case of Wendt v. Wendt, in which she was an expert witness, asks what a wife is worth financially after the demise of a long-standing marriage. On the basis of "human capital theory," she argues that such a woman is entitled to half of the family assets plus a declining proportion of future assets.

In chapters 12 and 13, the authors address ethnic issues arising from the cultural diversity of America today. Tsai, Przymus, and Best discuss Asian American interethnic dating and marriage from psychological and cultural perspectives and the role that gender plays in ethnically mixed relationships. Pasupathi raises intriguing questions based on her knowledge of East Indian marriages about the consequences and practices of arranged marriages. Contrasting love matches with arranged ones, she asks whether Western assumptions about the damaging nature of arranged marriages are necessarily warranted and suggests that similarities between the two kinds of marriages may outweigh their differences.

In the last chapter, Charles and Carstensen consider couples in old age. They refute the common stereotype that older couples are emotionally and romantically lifeless and argue instead that they are generally happier than younger couples. They do, however, highlight the difficulties of this period of life, especially for women, who are at greater risk than men for financial, physical, and psychological problems associated with widowhood.

From these essays we get a complex picture of the challenges facing couples in our time. Characteristically, studies of this sort tend to focus on problems, such as internal and external stress, divorce, and the difficulties faced by outsiders to the heterosexual and ethnic norm. Yet here and there, we glimpse some of the joys of living as a couple. Noddings reminds us that the home can be a place of shared aesthetics and mutual care. Felstiner's chapter is a testimony to the triumph of love over the stresses inherent in chronic illness. Lewin speaks of the affirmation experienced by gay and lesbian couples who enact public commitment rituals. Tsai, Przymus, and Best show how some interethnic couples see each other first and foremost as loving partners rather than in terms of the stereotypes foisted upon them. Charles and Carstensen believe that couples in old age can attain a kind of happiness that would be unthinkable in earlier years—one that grows out of shared experiences, those that are painful as well as pleasurable, and a more complete acceptance of one's partner, warts and all.

Surprisingly, perhaps, we do not dwell very much on the subject of sex, except for the interesting question raised by Rothblum concerning lesbian couples: Are they truly "couples" if they are not having sex? Certainly sexual desire provides the impetus for the formation of most couples, but we suspect that sex—even good sex—does not in and of itself keep partners together, at least not for a lifetime. Charles and Carstensen point out, for example, that heterosexual couples reduce genital sexual activity over the years, but this does not mean that eros has died, only that it has taken on different, nongenital forms.

Similarly, we do not explicitly take up the issue of children, although the advent of children alters the parents' relationship in innumerable ways, both bad and good. Children introduce stressors to a marriage that for many lead ultimately to divorce. For countless other couples, children cause partners to remain together in the face of formidable reasons to separate and, as Charles and Carstensen point out, in the later years of a marriage, children often come to represent a great source of shared pleasure. Even when older couples experience heartaches due to problems of adult children, these heartaches less frequently become a source of conflict within the couple.

In the United States today, the desire for children is no longer the primary impetus to marriage. During the past hundred years, Americans have moved away from the widespread religious belief that sex was ordained for procreation and that it should occur only within marriage. Fewer wait for marriage to experience sex, and many do not consider marriage a prerequisite for bearing children. In the early 1990s, 41 percent of first births occurred out of wedlock. This contrasts with only 8 percent in the early 1930s (Bachu 1998). Clearly, many of these mothers marry the fathers during pregnancy or after the birth of the child, yet the phenomenon does suggest that procreation and marriage are becoming less closely linked. The large number of women, both heterosexual and lesbian, who bear children without the benefits of holy matrimony can be viewed as a threat, or an alternative, to traditional marriage.

Couples now take many visible forms: legal spouses, heterosexual and same-sex lovers, married and out-of-wedlock parents. Perhaps the more striking change during the last thirty years is not so much the very real increase in extramarital sexual activity, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and serial marriages but the way our society has accommodated such previously condemned practices. Of course, there is great variation in practice and acceptance along religious and ethnic and regional and socioeconomic lines. To give a few examples, Fundamentalist Christians still vehemently oppose premarital sexual activity of any kind. Sexually active white women who become pregnant are more likely to marry before giving birth than either African American or Hispanic American women. Japanese Americans intermarry more frequently than Filipino or Chinese Americans. African American women and men are less likely to marry than European Americans. Divorced men and women, commonplace in the Western world, are still frowned upon by the Catholic church. Same-sex couples may "come out" less fearfully in cities like San Francisco and New York than in many Midwestern and Southern towns.

The weakening of taboos once attached to love, sex, and marriage makes it possible for individuals to choose each other across religious, ethnic, regional, and class boundaries. But, like most things American, this freedom of choice has created a new set of problems. Without the limits set in the past by one's family, religion, and community, couples today have to negotiate not only the adjustments required by any intimate partnership but also those that derive from vast cultural differences, many of which are not apparent at the onset of a relationship. For example, some potential conflicts may not surface until well into a relationship, say, when a child is of the age to receive religious instruction or when one partner faces a life-threatening illness. Disturbed by the problems associated with free love and free marriage, young people today sometimes look back with nostalgia at the lives of their parents and grandparents, who had no choice but to marry within their religion and ethnic clan. The current popularity of singles groups in churches and synagogues indicates a continuing desire to find a mate from one's own religious background. At the least, they provide a more familiar context than dating services or Internet matches. Some East Indian Americans are willing to have their marriages arranged by their families, and as Pasupathi demonstrates, these "arranged" marriages now allow the prospective bride and groom freedom to "choose" each other from a selected group of candidates.

Many of these diverse challenges to couplehood will undoubtedly be with us in the coming century. It is our opinion that gender issues will continue to constitute core problems within the legal institution of marriage. The old quid pro quo, whereby women offered men sexual, reproductive, and housekeeping services in return for financial support and social protection, is no longer viable for most Americans. In its place, a new, more egalitarian model has come kicking and screaming into the world. Women are willing (or obliged) to earn income for their families and expect men to participate in housekeeping and child care. Some men expect women to contribute to the family income, and while many are learning to play more significant roles in the household, others still cling to an outdated vision of the archetypal, self-sacrificing, all-nourishing wife. So far, the balance is not equal in either case. Women do not, on average, earn as much as men (about 74 percent of what men earn), and men do not participate equally in domestic duties.6 Much of the malaise within heterosexual couples today centers around gendered differences in expectations. A plethora of books on this subject, ranging from the conservative author Danielle Crittenden's What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, which enjoins women to get married young and promptly have babies, to Susan Faludi's groundbreaking Stiffed, which sympathetically examines the sense of betrayal experienced by working-class males, attests to the fractious situation between the sexes.

It will probably take another generation or two before these problems are sorted out, and by then new ones will undoubtedly have arisen. The only certainty—and of this we are sure—is that couples will continue to form and reform throughout the next millennium. Partners will continue to say to each other some version of Matthew Arnold's poetic pledge: "Ah, love, let us be true to one another!"


1 National Center for Education Statistics, "Projections of Education Statistics to 2009" (1999).

2 U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Estimated Median Age at First Marriage" (Internet release date: January 7, 1999).

3 R. Lee, "Long-Term Projections and the U.S. Social Security System," Population and Development Review 26 (2000): 137-43.

4 Life-expectancy increases have also led to a dramatic increase in grandmothers raising grandchildren, but the absolute number of such households remains relatively small. See E. LeShan, Grandparenting in a Changing World (New York: Newmarket Press, 1997).

5 Amara Bachu, "Trends in Marital Status of U.S. Women at First Birth: 1930 to 1994." U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division Working Paper No. 20, 1998.

6 U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Employment and Earnings (January 1999).


Jennifer L. Best is a graduate student in psychology at the University of Southern California.

Laura L. Carstensen,Ph.D., is professor of psychology and the Barbara D. Finberg Director for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University.

Mary Felstiner, Ph.D., is professor of history, San Francisco State University.

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Ph.D., is distinguished professor of sociology, Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Edith Gelles, Ph.D., is senior scholar, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University.

Ellen Lewin, Ph.D., is professor of women's studies and anthropology, University of Iowa.

Nel Noddings, Ph.D., is Lee Jacks Professor of Education emerita, Stanford University.

Monisha Pasupathi, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology, University of Utah.

Diane E. Przymus teaches at the Unviersity of Minnesota.

Deborah L. Rhode, J.D., is Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, Stanford University.

Esther Rothblum, Ph.D., is professor of psychology, University of Vermont.

Arlene Skolnick, Ph.D., is visiting professor of sociology, New York University.

Myra H. Strober, Ph.D., is professor of education, Stanford University.

Jeanne L. Tsai, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology, Stanford University.

Kate Washington, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and writer.

Marilyn Yalom, Ph.D., is senior scholar, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University.

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