Shifting from tasks to feelings


Eli J. Finkel, in his “All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” highlights an under appreciated shift in marriage in the 20th century:

In the two centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution, developments in political theory, the social contract, Enlightenment thinking, the freedom to use one’s intelligence, gender relations (separate spheres), and romantic beliefs (the primary of authentic emotional experience), set the stage for a new martial ideal. This ideal shifted the basis of marriage from sharing tasks to sharing feelings

The older view that wives and husbands were workmates gave way to the idea that they were soulmates. It’s easy to see why many Americans preferred this new ideal to the more impersonal, patriarchal ideal it replaced. But ideals and behaviors are not the same thing. And the transition from the pragmatic ideal to the love-based ideal was slow. As long as American society was predominantly agricultural, with the individual farmhouse serving as the primary unit of production, it was virtually impossible to complete the transition. There were too many other, more essential, demands on the relationship. However, it wouldn’t take long for industrialization and urbanization to crush the pragmatic model of marriage. These forces sharply increased the proportion of houses that subsisted on wage labor rather than farming and domestic production. In doing so, they created a social and economic context well suited to the ideology of separate spheres. They also reduced restrictions on individual freedoms, and people used these freedoms to marry for love.

It’s in this sense, Finkel writes elsewhere, that contemporary marriages far less practically speaking than marriages of the past, and far more than marriages of the past in the sense of very heightened expectations of meaning and fulfillment.