Where Logic Meets Love

3BoT Vol. 7: Three Great Books About Marriage as an Institution

Thursday, April 5, 2012

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3BoT Vol. 7: Three Great Books About Marriage as an Institution | Faith Permeating Life

The first Thursday of every month, I share three related book recommendations with you. You are invited to link up at the end of the post with three recommendations of your own! Click here for more info about Three Books on Thursday.

I am loving the contributions I've received so far for the What Marriage Means to Me series (and I'm always accepting new submissions!). But personal stories and perspectives, even a collection of wonderfully varied views like I'm building here, can only ever tell part of the story. As long as people continue to talk about "how marriage has always been" and "changing the definition of marriage," I think it's important to be fluent in the history and the statistics around the institution of marriage.

These are certainly not the only books on marriage as an institution, but they are three that I enjoyed for their thoroughness and/or clarity on the subject. (I'd love to get your recommendations in the comments!) Also, I'm recommending them for different reasons, and I think that, taken together, they give you a pretty comprehensive view of the institution of marriage.

Marriage, A History
#1: Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz
If you start doing any research into the history of marriage, you're going to run into Stephanie Coontz's name rather quickly. This book is an overview of marriage throughout the centuries, from ancient times to the Middle Ages to the 1950s family unit so often called "traditional" today. She explores various cultures' attitudes toward divorce, same-sex relationships, and sex outside of marriage at different periods in time and what influenced changes in those attitudes. I found the chapter "How the Other 95 Percent Wed: Marriage Among the Common Folk of the Middle Ages" particularly interesting; although the nobility had to get permission from the Church for a divorce, the Church was really uninvolved in the creation and dissolution of most marriages for more than 700 years. The book is heavily sourced but a very accessible read nonetheless.

#2: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book has been called a sequel to Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, but it has a very different tone and structure to it. Gilbert finds herself frantically trying to arrange a wedding with the Brazilian man she loves but never planned to marry (thanks to both having had messy divorces previously) until the American government said she had to marry him if he were ever going to be allowed back in the United States again. In the meantime, they spend a year traveling around Southeast Asia, and she decides to investigate what marriage means to different cultures and across time. It's part memoir, part scholarly treatise, part personal reflections and insight. If you have any illusions about marriage being one unchangeable, definable thing, she will dispel that notion in no time, and give you a lot to think about besides.

For Better
#3: For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage by Tara Parker-Pope
You may recognize this title from my post on why the 50% divorce rate is a myth. Whereas Coontz will tell you about marriage throughout history, and Gilbert will tell you about marriage across cultures, Parker-Pope gives you an overview of the scientific research relevant to the institution of marriage. For example, are lobsters actually monogamous? (No.) What evidence do we have that humans are suited for sexual and social monogamy? What kind of communication patterns more often lead to divorce? How does having children typically affect marriages? She does a nice job of presenting and explaining research without drawing broad conclusions from it about all marriages. Instead, it's more like an answer to the questions, "Are we 'normal'?" and "What might make our marriage even better?"

So if you're looking to get a better grasp on the whole idea of marriage, these three books are a great place to start. If you have other recommendations in this same vein, please leave a comment below or write up a post and link up!

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Please note that this post contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you click on a book cover and make any purchase at Amazon (including but not limited to the books suggested here), your purchase will be supporting Faith Permeating Life. Thanks!


  1. Just finished a book you may be interested in: The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. It was amazing how much scorn some parts of the early Church had for marriage. St. Jerome said that the blood of martyrdom might be enough to wipe out the shame of marriage. Flabbergasting!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I talked about this same thing a bit in my "...And Then the Bishops Threw a Tantrum" post. I don't think many people realize how many times the Church has changed its position on marriage and sex throughout history. One part of Marriage, A History that I found really interesting was when Church officials were debating whether or not sexual consummation was necessary for a marriage to be considered valid. Previously a parent could have their child's marriage annulled if they could provide the couple had not been alone long enough to consummate the marriage yet. But then someone pointed out that, according to the Church's own teachings, this definition would mean that Mary and Joseph never had a valid marriage! I find this whole topic fascinating.

    2. Now all I can imagine is a Catholic romantic comedy where two sets of parents try and keep a couple from being alone for any span of time so they can petition for the marriage to be annulled.

    3. Hahaha, it does seem to lend itself to a plot like that, doesn't it?


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