Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Thematic: Hope Itself

Is There Hope for Marriage?

On Big Romance and other myths of the modern age.

Mary Harrington

Photograph by Brooke Cagle/Unsplash.

If the last few years tell us anything, it is that we are well beyond Peak Progress. The decades since the turn of the millennium have seen two international financial crises, terrorist attacks, a return of great-power politics, a brutal and potentially catastrophic war in eastern Europe, a global pandemic, and (at the time of writing) rocketing inflation.

Against this backdrop, what hope is there for those who want to build? It is an urgent question: The rolling crises show no signs of abating and promise to make life steadily poorer, tougher, and more uncertain for all but the wealthiest. And if building fundamentally requires families, families require solidarity between the sexes. Throughout much of human history and culture, this has meant marriage.

But what marriage means has varied over time. I have argued elsewhere that the “angel by the hearth” conception of private womanhood that conservatives usually refer to when they talk about “traditional marriage” emerged as a byproduct of industrialization, and that women in fact lost agency in some respects in the transition from productive agrarian households to bourgeois industrial ones. I have also argued that the romantic ideal of marriage emerged alongside that model of private womanhood. That is, women lost economic agency in family life and, in response, came to believe that they should be prized both as the more morally elevated half of the relationship and as an individual in an intimate relationship. These two things together form the core of Big Romance: the “companionate marriage” premised not on economic necessity or transactional exchange but on mutual interpersonal romantic affection.

When that worked, in the industrial era, it worked well enough. But over time, things changed again. The rising tides of prosperity and technological ease eliminated the need for marital fidelity, radically reducing the need for women to grant sexual access only to men who were absolutely trusted. Women’s entry into the high-tech workplace, where physical strength was largely irrelevant, eliminated the need for sharply divided sex roles that left women economically dependent. With this shift came a transition from the “companionate” to the “self-expressive” marriage, in which Big Romance no longer safeguarded women’s interests under conditions of economic dependence but set the bar ever higher for what we deserved as empowered individuals.

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