Fraser Forum

How capitalism made marriage (not Valentine’s Day) about love

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If you asked people what the connection between love and capitalism is, they might well point to Valentine’s Day as one example. After all, many people spend a lot of money on their romantic partners as they celebrate the day. But that’s hardly the most important connection between love and capitalism. Of far more importance is the role capitalism played in making marriage itself primarily about romantic love.

For most of human history, the family was first and foremost about economic production. From families who worked the land to survive, to the much smaller number who engaged in other forms of production such as blacksmithing, the household was organized to provide itself directly or through what it could sell. Families were little tiny firms, usually with dad as CEO and everyone else as, effectively, an employee.

With families about production, one’s choice in marital partner was about how well you could produce together, including producing more children to ensure the labour your farm or cottage industry required. Men and women were, in the words of the historian of the family Stephanie Coontz, “yoke mates.” Marriages were about the ties of what economists call “complementary productive human capital.” Finding a marital partner who could work the land and bear the children was hardly the height of romance, and romantic love was a luxury most people could not afford.

The advent of capitalism changed this in two ways. First, the factory system caused more and more work to take place outside of the home. As more people “went out” to work, this freed up the space inside the home for other goals and desires, such as love and affection. In addition, capitalism made the average person much wealthier, as working with productive machinery in the factories increased wages and provided much more certainty in income than did working the land.

The change in the nature of work and the increased wealth transformed the family. For one thing, families became smaller as, over time, large numbers of children were not needed to work the land or in the factories. Parents began to restrict their fertility and invest more of their resources in a smaller number of children. The greater wealth enabled families to provide their children with more, and advances in medicine and sanitation helped ensure that more of them survived to adulthood. Parents could, for the first time, truly express their love for their kids in ways that mattered to their survival and well-being.

Marriage was also transformed. Once the household was not primarily about earning market income, one’s choice of marital partner no longer had to be based on their economic productivity. Instead, people could indulge in the luxury of marrying for psychological satisfaction. Romantic love, which had previously been the province of the rich (or perhaps extramarital relationships), now moved centre stage in the marital relationship for an increasing number of people. To continue Coontz’s phrasing, married couples went from “yoke mates” to “soul mates.”

Rather than a household built around production, the family became the centre of consumption, and the complementary of husband and wife became more and more about common interests and shared consumption activities. What we now know as the love-based companionate marriage was born out of the economic transformations and increased wealth that came with capitalism.

So while you’re handing your sweetie a card or some chocolate, or raising a glass of wine at a nice dinner out, don’t forget that romantic love’s role as the central feature of marriage for the vast majority of the Western world is one of the many glorious gifts of capitalism.


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