According to Stephanie Coontz, many modern beliefs about marriage traditions are myth-based. For more than 35 years, the author, historian and professor has studied marriage and family, across cultures, as far back as written records exist.
Coontz -- who addressed the history of marriage in a lecture in March at Weber State University -- has made appearances on such high-profile shows as "20/20," "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Today" and on CNN. She has testified about her research before a House committee in Washington, D.C., and her writings have been translated into a dozen languages.
She currently teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and tours nationally and internationally for speaking engagements.
In her research, Coontz finds that many marital behaviors viewed as new trends have actually been common for thousands of years -- while several modern-day ideas about the "traditional" nuclear family are based on practices that have existed for 150 years or less.
As Coontz explains in her lectures, writings and multiple books, one thing is certain -- the rules of a successful marriage are changing faster than ever before.
And, while it is more difficult in this day and age to keep a marriage from crumbling, odds are also better than ever before for establishing a deep and meaningful marital relationship.
The arranged marriage
"Having your partner as your first love and primary source of comfort was not the norm for thousands of years," Coontz said.
In fact, love didn't have anything to do with marriage throughout most of history.
Greeks and ancient Europeans believed love sickness to be a type of insanity. In the Chinese language, the only word for "love" referred to illicit affairs -- never marital relationships -- until a new word for love was invented in the 1920s, she said.
Most marriages were prearranged contracts between parents to forge political or social bridges.
"Through most of history, marriage was not about love or free choice," Coontz said. So, what exactly was the purpose of marriage?
"I believe marriage was invented to get in-laws," Coontz quipped.
Most historians argue over whether the marriage institution was invented to protect women or oppress them. But Coontz points out that marriages performed the distinct function of turning strangers into relatives. In fact, the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for "wife" translates to "peacemaker."
Marriages solidified alliances between groups, helped parents improve their social status or merely served as a means of pooling valuable labor resources to run family businesses or farms, she said.
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, stepfamilies and single parents were even more numerous in the past than they are today, due to the higher death rate, Coontz said.
And prostitutes, affairs, same-sex relationships and acts of adultery have been around since the beginning of time.
"There hasn't been a lot of respect for marriage vows throughout history," Coontz admitted.
Even in monogamous unions, harmony was not necessarily the norm.
Women did not have adequate means to support themselves in most cultures, making it difficult to leave an unhappy marriage.
As recently as 150 years ago, men had the right to "physically correct" their wives in our country. Coontz found one medical journal published in 1964 containing a study that condones domestic violence as a fairly efficient way to restore equilibrium to a marriage in which the wife has become too independent.
Coontz says the notion that people in the past had stronger personal commitments in marriage or that they worked harder at their relationships is a myth.
The truth is that men were expected to be unfaithful or abusive, and these actions were blamed on deficiencies in the wife, she said.
Since most marriages were prearranged, love was not an essential ingredient.
"Love was the gravy, not the meat and potatoes, of marriage," said Coontz.
A new enlightenment
It wasn't until the late 18th century -- the Age of Enlightenment -- that the masses began to overrule arranged marriages, and marriage came to be about love.
As marriage became consensual, women gained rights, and society relinquished penalties such as denying bank loans to men who divorced or who remained single, divorce rates began to rise.
In the early 19th century -- the Victorian Era -- our culture began to view men and women as opposites, rather than seeing men and women as "the same," with the man as the boss.
Under this new school of thought, men became the protectors and women were expected to show their love by caring for the home. In modern times, the tendency is to look at that era as the ideal -- with the male as the breadwinner and the female as the stay-at-home nurturer.
But that was the romanticized version, not the reality, said Coontz.
The truth was, most women had to work, and children as young as 6 performed horribly demanding jobs. There were other problems in this era, too, Coontz said. For example, women began to define men as the grosser sex while men viewed their wives as symbols of purity. Sexual frustration abounded.
The idyllic '50s
The 20th century brought even more changes. The expectations of marriage dramatically increased from 1900 to 1929, causing the divorce rate to triple, Coontz said.
In the 1940s, one-third of marriages were ending in divorce.
The prosperity of the 1950s brought a temporary decline in the divorce rate. Women began marrying at a younger age. The birth rate soared. And, for the first time, the idea of men supporting a stay-at-home wife became a reality.
Ironically, the loss of women in the workforce was one of the factors that caused the economic crunch of the 1970s.
And, once again, the truth was not reflected in the media and popular sitcoms such as "Leave it to Beaver."
A survey revealed that, even when women reported that they were happy with their lives, as many as 90 percent of them hoped their daughters would not follow in their footsteps, Coontz said.
The bumpy '70s
The 1970s brought radical changes. While it had taken more than 150 years to establish traditional nuclear marriage, it took less than 30 years to dismantle it.
For thousands of years, marriages were held together by deeply rooted societal traditions, female dependence on males, stiff penalties for divorce, and political and societal contracts.
When those ideas were replaced with freedom of choice, mutual consent, equal rights for women and the concept of marrying for love, marriages were held together by rigid stereotypes about the roles of men and women. It was also still extremely difficult for women to support themselves because of unequal wages and discrimination in the workforce.
These adhesives no longer apply.
In some ways, marriage has become optional. Furthermore, Coontz reveals, many of the things that stabilized marriages 20 years ago now destabilize marriage, and vice versa.
The rules are changing faster than ever before.
For example, a woman taking a job or pursuing higher education now stabilizes marriage -- something that destabilized marriage 20 years ago. Men who believe strongly in male breadwinning are more likely to marry, but also more likely to divorce.
These statistics show that there are new expectations about gender, said Coontz.
What is the answer?
"When a marriage works today, it is better than in the past, but, when it doesn't work, it is less tolerable than before. Marriage is no longer the only game in town," Coontz said.
The same freedoms that make it possible for the marital relationship to be rewarding and meaningful are, unfortunately, the same variables that make it easier to divorce.
The good news is that today's marriages are held together by sincere liking, mutual respect and friendship.
Research suggests that marriages have a high success rate when the female is able to voice what she wants and the male listens to her wishes, Coontz says.
By contrast, in marriages where the man stonewalls the woman's requests, the chances for divorce are high.
Positive communication is key. Even in mundane interactions, positive responses help marriages succeed.
According to Coontz, her research shows that men require little criticism and lots of sex -- while women want emotional support and equal division of housework and child care.
"One reason marriage is so difficult today is because love is not enough. We did not need mutual respect 50 years ago like we do today," Coontz said.
It is also important to evaluate our expectations of marriage. It is unrealistic to expect a spouse to fulfill all of your needs.
Coontz said networks outside of marriage, such as friends, neighbors and extended family, are vital to fulfilling needs that are not met by a spouse. Strengthening these outside relationships helps marriages succeed.
"People really need networks beyond each other to be fulfilled," Coontz said.
"I think that if we can understand how radically things are changing and that this is a bigger issue than one between just two people, it will help us."
Read more about Stephanie Coontz and her new book, "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s" (Basic Books, 2011) at www.stephaniecoontz.com.