Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz, New York: Viking, 432 pages, $29.95

Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Berkeley: University of California Press, 293 pages, $24.95

The end, as usual, is nigh. “Barring a miracle,” Focus on the Family founder James Dobson writes in the April 2004 edition of his group’s newsletter, “the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.” Dobson obviously has a knack for apocalyptic hyperbole, but some version of that sentiment haunts many a conservative mind.

It was the eschatological horror of wedding cakes adorned with pairs of little plastic men in tuxedos that prompted Dobson’s prophecy. But the fear of gay marriage is only the most headline-friendly manifestation of a broader concern that the institution of marriage is in a parlous state. As conservatives look at high rates of cohabitation and divorce, especially among poor mothers, many conclude that the institution you can’t disparage requires a helping hand from the federal government to stay afloat. Indeed, it’s not just conservatives: Political scientist William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton, has argued that marriage is a key component of poverty alleviation, and that government must “strengthen [two-parent] families by promoting their formation, assisting their efforts to cope with contemporary economic and social stress, and retarding their breakdown whenever possible.” The most prominent recent effort in this vein is President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, run by the Department of Health and Human Services and funded to the tune of $100 million annually, most of which goes to fund educational or mentoring programs in which couples learn “relationship skills,” often by means of grants filtered through faith-based organizations.

If the link between gay matrimony and the “crumbling” of marriage remains something of a puzzle—for all the ink and pixels expended on the issue, no one has managed a compelling explanation of precisely how allowing more people to marry will induce fewer people to marry—concerns about the state of the family aren’t groundless. A spate of studies has led to a broad consensus among social scientists that children raised by their biological parents fare significantly better than children raised by single, cohabiting, or remarried parents on a wide variety of dimensions: They’re half as likely to drop out of high school or go to prison, more likely to attend college, and less likely to have behavioral problems or encounter material hardship—differences that may be reduced but do not disappear after controlling for factors such as parental income and education. These differences are apparent even in countries like Sweden, where both social norms and public policy are more hospitable toward single-parent families.

And there’s a class chasm in family structure: Some 3 percent of births to college-educated women take place outside of marriage, compared to almost 40 percent among high school dropouts. The proportion of women between the ages of 18 and 24 who attend college doubled between 1967 and 2000, to more than 38 percent, and fertility rates are significantly lower for women of childbearing age who hold a bachelor’s degree (an average of 1.05 offspring per mom) than for those with only a high school diploma (an average of 1.46). In short, the disadvantaged children for whom the stability marriage provides would be most helpful are also the least likely to enjoy it. “That is what government neutrality has gotten us,” Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an ardent booster of using the state to promote traditional families, told an enthusiastic audience at the 2005 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Yet two quite different recent books on marriage (and its absence) suggest there’s something seriously wrong with the popular account of the American family’s ills, which attributes them to a recent breakdown in values, caused perhaps by latte-sipping elites who scorn traditional matrimony. In Marriage, a History, Evergreen State College historian Stephanie Coontz, author of the 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, reveals that marriage has served diverse purposes through the ages, and that the really radical change in the institution was the 18th-century innovation of marrying for love. In Promises I Can Keep, sociologists Kathryn Edin of the University of Pennsylvania and Maria Kefalas of Saint Joseph’s University take a close look at the lives of poor single mothers in Philadelphia, where they found a story much more interesting and convincing than the familiar “values” narrative.

Does marriage, as some conservatives seem to suggest, have an intrinsic nature and a deep purpose that remain constant across millennia, such that changes in its form or meaning should be considered inherently suspect, as unnatural as oceans boiling and lambs shacking up with lions? Not so much, according to Coontz, who finds that when it comes to marriage, the most reliable constant is flux.

While “one man, one woman” has become the clarion call of gay-marriage opponents, Coontz observes that the most “traditional” form of marriage adhered more closely to the rule “one man, as many women as he can afford.” Many Native American groups cared about diversity of gender in marriage rather than diversity of biological sex: A couple had to comprise one person doing “man’s work” and one person doing “woman’s work,” regardless of sex. In Tibet prior to the Chinese occupation, about a quarter of marriages involved brothers sharing one wife. To this day, the unique Na people in southwestern China live not in couples but in sibling clusters, with groups of brothers and sisters collaboratively raising children conceived by the women during evening rendezvous with visitors.

Even within the category of monogamous heterosexual unions, Coontz finds a dizzying variety of motives and meanings associated with marriage. Among early hunter-gatherer bands, trading members to other bands as spouses was, above all, a means of establishing networks of trade and economic cooperation between men. Once each group had members with loyalties and ties to both, barter became a safer bet.

That’s not to say the husbands were in full control either: In ancient Rome, married sons and daughters both lived under control of the patriarch until his death, and ancient civilizations more generally regarded marital decisions as far too important to be left to the whims of the marrying couple.

In the medieval period, too, marriage might be a handy means of cementing an alliance or sealing a truce among rulers. In other times and places, marriage was seen primarily as a means of regulating inheritance or succession. Often, especially where simple market sales of land were tightly restricted, it was the primary means of transferring landed property, and that was seen as the decisive factor in marriage decisions. Such considerations were not limited to the nobility: Peasant farmers who held land in separate strips might arrange a marriage that allowed adjoining parcels to be united. And while formal state approval is regarded in America today as a sine qua non of a valid marriage, the church considered a couple married as soon as they had exchanged “words of consent,” even alone and without formal trappings.

Among the working classes in later pre-industrial Europe, though a village was apt to intervene if a wedding brought a poor worker into the fold, marriage was seen as more centrally about the married couple. This view was encouraged by a church doctrine that recognized as valid any union entered by mutual consent and, later, by an emerging post-feudal economy in which young people were increasingly apt to leave extended families to seek their fortunes in cities or to work their own small plots. But husbands and wives saw each other more as business partners than as lovers. Marriage was a way of establishing an efficient division of labor, and a new widow or widower represented a job opening.

The love marriage, in which people more or less freely chose partners based on mutual affection, was really an 18th-century invention, Coontz argues. It was partly a spillover effect of new political ideologies that saw government as arising from contractual agreements designed to promote the happiness of society’s members and partly a result of further increases in economic autonomy, especially the autonomy of women. As late as the mid-19th century, French wags were still bemused at the new fashion of “marriage by fascination.” Opponents of gay marriage such as Maggie Gallagher sometimes identify this development as the central problem: the idea that marriage is mainly about uniting a loving couple, from which the notion that it ought to be equally available to gay couples follows.

Such critics sometimes talk as though marriage based on love is a recent innovation, rather than a transformation that’s been going on for centuries. As Coontz notes, during the 1950s—the conservative’s golden age for families—it was precisely the prospect of finding personal fulfillment through marriage to your soul mate that gave married life its central place in the social imagination. The vision of domestic bliss familiar from sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show found its complement in a spate of self-help manuals and newspaper columns touting a successful marriage as the key to happiness, as couples’ average age at first marriage reached its lowest point in half a century. “In a remarkable reversal of the past,” Coontz writes, “it even became the stepping-off point for adulthood rather than a sign that adulthood had already been established. Advice columnists at the Ladies’ Home Journal encouraged parents to help finance early marriages, even for teens, if their children seemed mature enough.”

What emerges from Coontz’s account is the realization that marriage has no “essence.” There is no one function or purpose it serves in every time and place. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to readers of F.A. Hayek, who in The Mirage of Social Justice spoke of evolved rules and institutions that “serve because they have become adapted to the solution of recurring problem situations.…Like a knife or a hammer they have been shaped not with a particular purpose or view but because in this form rather than some other form they have proved serviceable in a great variety of situations.” Institutional evolution, like its biological counterpart, is opportunistic: A structure that serves one function at one stage may be co-opted for a very different function at another stage.

Coontz knows the benefits of marriage, but she’s wary of attempts to stand athwart history crying “Stop!” If marriage now seems especially fragile, she argues, that’s not a function of public policy mistakes subject to easy political correction. It reflects underlying economic, legal, and technological changes that are, in themselves, mostly desirable. While not opposed to attempts to help couples craft stable marriages, she warns that “just as we cannot organize modern political alliances through kinship ties…we can never reinstate marriage as the primary source of commitment and caregiving in the modern world. For better or worse, we must adjust our personal expectations and social support systems to this new reality.”

That conclusion may seem excessively fatalistic, especially given Coontz’s own chronicle of marriage’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. But it does encapsulate a core piece of Hayekian wisdom. Organic social institutions grow and evolve from the bottom up, as individuals change their behavior in light of the circumstances they perceive on the ground. Attempts to freeze or correct them in accordance with a Grand Plan—a vision of how they ought to function that views change as a dangerous deviation from an ideal—are no more likely to succeed for marriages than for markets.

Where Coontz’s history gives a picture of marriage painted in broad strokes, Promises I Can Keep is a close-up, lapidary study of unmarried low-income mothers in eight of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, culled from interviews with 162 such women over the course of five years. Several of those years were spent living in their communities. Edin and Kefalas’ account makes it clear that the growth of single motherhood among poor urban women can’t be chalked up to anything as simple or straightforward as a “breakdown of family values.”

In a sense, the problem is an excess of family values. Women who dropped out of high school are more than five times as prone as college-educated counterparts to say they think the childless lead empty lives, and also more likely to regard motherhood as one of the most fulfilling roles for women; motherhood is so highly regarded that it becomes difficult to see even a pregnancy that comes in the mid-teens as a catastrophe to be avoided. And far from having lost interest in marriage, the authors write, the women they spoke to “revere it”—so much so that some are hesitant to marry when they become pregnant because single motherhood seems less daunting than the opprobrium they fear they’d face were they to divorce.

In a long meditation on “Marriage and Caste” in the Winter 2006 City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz (who cites Edin and Kefalas) writes that the “marriage gap” between poor and middle-class mothers shows that “educated women still believe in marriage as an institution for raising children.” But as Edin and Kefalas point out, high school dropouts are actually far more likely than their college-educated counterparts to believe it’s important for a child to grow up in a married household and to express disapproval of childbearing outside marriage.

The crucial difference, the authors find, is not in poor women’s attitudes toward marriage but in the way they approach childbearing. Middle-class couples may follow the more traditional trajectory—love, marriage, baby carriage—but they’re doing it significantly later than previous generations typically did, often postponing both marriage and children until their late 20s or early 30s in order to attend college, perhaps obtain a graduate degree, and establish themselves in careers. Half a century ago, the median woman was barely 20 years old when she first married; in 2004 she was almost 26. While the average age at which women have their first child has risen across the board, the trend has been much more pronounced for those with more education. In the late 1970s, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, 15 percent of women without a college diploma were childless at age 30, compared with 40 percent of college graduates. By the early ’90s, the percentages were 16 percent for the least educated and 56 percent for college graduates. Meanwhile, as noted above, the share of women attending college rose sharply. Those trends have helped change marital norms in one important way: Marriage is no longer seen as a necessary rite of passage into adulthood or, as Coontz puts it, “part of the credentialing process that people had to go through to gain adult responsibility and respectability…like completing high school today.”

Postponing marriage has become more acceptable; both poor and middle-class couples expect to marry not in their early 20s as their careers are beginning but only once they’re at least somewhat “settled” economically. Among poor women in particular, there is a fear of economic dependence, both within a marriage and in the event that it should end; marriage is regarded as a step to be taken only when both partners have significant incomes and savings of their own. But for many poor women, later marriage does not mean later childbearing. For those without realistic prospects of attending college or launching high-powered careers, Edin and Kefalas conclude, motherhood provides an alternative means of proving their worth to themselves and their peers, and an alternative identity around which to structure their lives. Many credit a child with giving them new direction and a sense of responsibility—even saving their lives by pushing them to abandon wild lifestyles. The lack of prospects makes the opportunity cost of childbearing relatively low. Poor women understand how to use birth control as well as their more affluent peers do, but they have less motivation to take every precaution against pregnancy, because they lack the high economic and academic aspirations a child might derail.

What we find, then, is not a change in marriage that can be neatly explained by changing values but a complex tangle of cultural and economic changes reinforcing each other. Women’s increasing participation in the labor force resulted from a combination of factors: the internal logic of equality that has been playing out in the West for centuries, the demands of World War II, the shift to a service economy in which raw strength was a less important requirement for entry-level jobs, and labor-saving technologies that made maintaining a household less of a full-time occupation. As the economic incentives facing women—especially middle-class women with access to higher education—changed, middle-class women’s marital timing adapted. That, in turn, helped to change broader norms about when, and at what stage of economic success, people of any class are expected to marry.

The reluctance of Edin and Kefalas’ subjects to marry is also tied to more concrete concerns. Often the fathers of their children are in prison, have histories of violence or criminality, have become addicted to drugs, or exhibit any of a host of other serious defects that make the women reluctant to enter into what they believe should be a lifelong commitment. The women report that many men, even those who first greeted the news of a pregnancy enthusiastically, fail to change their ways when they learn a child is on the way. Some become even more wild, as if desperate to assert their youth and independence in the face of impending fatherhood. And in communities where large fractions of the young male population are incarcerated—thanks in large part to a war on drugs that disproportionately targets young African-American males—the remaining men face a buyer’s market of “surplus” women, making the temptations of infidelity strong. Two-thirds of the mothers the authors interviewed described relationships that had dissolved because of alcoholism, drug dealing, infidelity, or (for almost half) chronic violence.

Kay Hymowitz finds this account, the “marriageability thesis,” unsatisfactory, asking why there would be “a dearth of marriageable men when there appear to be plenty of cohabitable fathers.” But women often cohabit precisely because they view marriage as different and sacred. Many of those with whom Edin and Kefalas spoke considered cohabitation a vetting period, during which they sought assurance that a partner and father had given up habits and behaviors that might make him an unsuitable husband. The woman who came home to find her apartment bare, the furniture sold to finance her live-in boyfriend’s crack habit, presumably was happy not to have taken that next step. Conservatives often point out that marriages in the U.S. tend to be less stable if they’re preceded by cohabitation. But if the pattern Edin and Kefalas found is common, that period of cohabitation may be a response to, rather than a cause of, that instability. And as Coontz notes, the pattern found in the U.S. is not universal: In Germany, for example, cohabitation is associated with slightly more marital stability.

Many women also voiced concerns that marriage would change their partners for the worse—make them more controlling. As one put it, “He [already] tells me I can’t do nothing, I can’t go out. What’s gonna happen when I marry him? He’s gonna say he owns me.” That fear is consistent with polls finding that while lower-class women tend to share the relatively egalitarian view of gender roles common to both men and women of the middle class, lower-class men tend to subscribe to a more traditional conception of those roles—roles their partners may not be eager to fill. Among many of the women profiled in Promises I Can Keep, we see fragments of middle-class norms lifted from the economic context that gave rise to them and wedded with a host of other, more traditional views about marriage and family.

Yet the accounts given by the women themselves of their decisions make it difficult to say glibly that one set of values or another is wrong and needs to be corrected. By their lights, they are responding rationally to their circumstances. One says of her life before becoming a mother, for example, “There was nothing to live for other than the next day getting high. [My life had] no point, there was no joy. I had lost all my friends—my friends were totally disgusted with me—I was about to lose my job, [and] I ended up dropping out of another college.…Now I feel like ‘I have a beautiful little girl!’ I’m excited when I get up in the morning!”

In the 1980s books like Charles Murray’s Losing Ground argued that poor women would respond to economic incentives such as welfare benefits for single mothers by bearing more children out of wedlock. But if the model was correct, the margin at which those decisions occur may have been misidentified: For many, it seems, childbearing is the default in the absence of some potent economic incentive not to have a child—some prospect for personal fulfillment other than through motherhood. What seems rational for the mother might not, of course, be in the best interests of the child. Yet neither is it obvious that once the child exists, marriage is in the best interests of the mother or child, given the quality of the available fathers.

It’s true that, other things being equal, marriage seems to confer significant benefits on both parents and children—on average. But that doesn’t mean all families benefit. The Penn State sociologist Paul Amato suggests, for example, that some 60 percent of children are made worse off—financially, emotionally, and in other ways —by divorce. Yet he also believes divorce at least somewhat improves the welfare of some 40 percent, in similar ways. It seems excessively sanguine to suppose that most couples who’ve been reluctant to marry in the first place are apt to be more like the former group than the latter. Averages, as Coontz points out, are a dangerous basis for sweeping generalizations about what is socially desirable. And while studies can control for couples’ income and education, the one thing that can’t be factored out, the one thing all married couples share, is a revealed preference for marriage: Given all the detailed information each particular couple had about their particular relationship, they decided to marry. Concluding that superficially similar cohabiting couples would reap similar benefits if they married is akin to concluding that everyone would benefit from a given product because those who voluntarily purchased it do. There are doubtless worse ways to spend federal dollars than on voluntary relationship counseling for poor people, but attempting to promote marriage by teaching “listening skills” is a bit like affirmative action for graduate school applicants—a superficial intervention that comes too late to help the people who presumably need it most.

The growing focus on marriage in public policy owes its resonance to two distinct themes that recur in conservative thought: anxiety about unregimented sexuality, and the belief that social problems are better solved by local groups and time-tested institutions. Those tendencies make it tempting to conclude that calls for marital reform and the genuinely distressed state of some families are part of one coherent and insidious phenomenon: the collapse of marriage. Yet as Edin and Kefalas show, the biggest problems with marriage are not first or foremost problems with marriage.

Communities grappling with dim economic prospects, violence, addiction, and high rates of incarceration are going to have trouble sustaining all sorts of valuable social institutions, marriage among them. Broader changes in marriage, meanwhile, need not herald its collapse: They’re an ordinary part of the way the institution has always adapted, organically, to societies that themselves are always changing.