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Good old days for marriage were not as rosy as some think
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The challenges facing marriage today are "the product of higher expectation than in the past," according to experts who discussed how marriage in America has evolved. - photo by Lois M. Collins
PHILADELPHIA People who pine for the good old days of marriage must not be thinking of what marital life was like around the time America was founded.

While modern America marries for love, at various times in the history of American marriages, happiness and love were not the point, according to a panel of experts who compared marriage then and now during a World Meeting of Families session Friday.

Today's challenges are in some ways the "product of higher expectation than in the past," said Stephanie Coontz, author of seven books and a professor at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. "For most of history it was not about love. It was considered antisocial to disobey parents' wishes and marry for love."

She noted a long list of social injustices related to marriage and family life, such as children as labor, inequality and abuse that were "kind of routine" between spouses and marital life as a business transaction, not a love match. A woman who disobeyed her husband committed a "small form of treason."

"There is much we can learn from the past, but little we would want to return to," she said.

Couples probably do have a higher expectation of marital sexual fidelity now than back in the late 1760s, she added.

Couples were more committed to making marriage work in the past, but not necessarily to making the relationship work, as marriage was a social structure and economic arrangement, more than a match between compatible people, Coontz said.

Panelists agreed that couples today find each other through mutual attraction, where early in America's history different reasons led to matches.

But author Marcellino DAmbrosio, an international commentator on religious issues, said that "love and affection was not ignored; it was just expected to grow" and the relationship to "warm up" as familiarity and partnership increased.

Among more recent changes in marriage is the frequent departure of women from the home to work outside, said panelist Kathy Finley, an adjunct instructor of religious studies at Gonzaga University and a counselor.

Catholics, she and her husband, who also sat on the panel, often write and lecture about marriage, among other topics. She noted that women are able to leave home because many devices think "plumbing, electricity and frozen food" make their jobs at home different.

"Plus, the workplace changed. It used to be the workplace wasn't outside the home" even for men, at times. And kids at that time were important economically, too. Their roles have evolved from a pair of hands on the farm to the modern view of kids as "loving masterpiece."

In the late 1700s, infant mortality was high, she said, about 100 per 1,000 compared to about 6 per 1,000 now. And the advent of reliable postal service, radio, TV, Internet, social media and more was in the future. With time has come an "increase in expectation for what marriage would be," arriving at the modern concept of intertwined and probably best friends.

"In 1765, that would not have been in the job description," Kathy Finley said, adding that "til death do us part" wasn't that long, either. Life expectancy has grown from 37 years on average in the late 18th century to at least 79.

But some couples were best friends back then and had a more romantic love. DAmbrosio said John and Abigail Adams were such a pair. The two, who were third cousins, were friends who bucked the tradition of marrying to enhance social positions. He did not marry her for money. She had no formal education, though her grandfather home-schooled her very well. John Adams was a Harvard-educated young lawyer who rode a circuit handling cases and she was his adviser. They wrote to each other when he was gone, often addressing "my dearest friend."

Their "critical collaboration" made it through his long absences, the death of two of their children and the formation of a new country. Pressures strengthened them, D'Ambrosio said. They were "faithful and intensely in love" and remained so into their older years and retirement together on their farm until death parted them.

Part of their strength was "sacrifice" and "duty," two words often absent from modern marital discussion, D'Ambrosio said.

The concept of family has changed alongside marriage.

The idea that family is the most basic unit of the church is one that has been rediscovered in recent decades, but it's one that was familiar as far back as the second generation of the Christian church, Mitch Finley said. An early pope used the Greek word for "church" to describe family. That has "pastoral implications" leading to a view that family is the most basic unit of the church and of marriage as the smallest unit in the church, he said.

He also referred to Pope Francis' remarks made in the Philippines, where he said that it is in families that children first learn to pray.