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The End of Marriage? Individualism and Intimate Relations
Jane Lewis
Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2001.
£49.95 (hc), viii + 235 pages, ISBN 1-84064-287-4.

Myriam Boussahba-Bravard
Université de Rouen

Jane Lewis is Barnett Professor of Social Policy at the University of Oxford. Her book Marriage, Individualism and Intimate Relations is an outstanding contribution to current debates inside and outside academia. Her encyclopaedic knowledge of past and current historical and sociological works, and her own field research make for a study which is clearly presented despite the multiple interplay of variables that she looks at. It certainly remains widely accessible to keen readers, as she offers an exceptionally comprehensive and balanced account of the state of research and adds her own results and questioning, an achievement mirrored in the invaluable 33-page bibliography set across several research domains.

Her study is divided into three parts and eight chapters which lead the reader to the ultimate question: “What is to be done: what should be the role of private law and family policy in respect of intimate relations?” The first part is about setting up facts, concepts, and methodology. Chapter 1 (“Introduction: the debate”) offers a perspective on the current and past debates on marriage and equips the reader with concepts and theories that are necessary to understand the terms of the debate, but also to become aware of the limits of the multiple variables mentioned above. Yet, this richly referenced chapter is also packed with significant questioning and impeccable scholarly problem setting. The second chapter assesses “Changing patterns” that are mainly “the decline of marriage and the rise of cohabitation” and prolongs the factual, statistical and conceptual information already present in the preceding chapter.

In the second part of the book, Lewis shows how the decline of “the male breadwinner model family” (chapter 3) has been accompanied by a shift from “public to private morality” (chapter 4) inside the couple, whether married or cohabiting. Having proved the novelty of the self-defining moral authority of the couple she switches back to “The Law of marriage and divorce”—collectively elaborated and so usually accepted by all (or most)—to question the commonly-held assumption that the relaxation of divorce laws have led our western societies to worrying instability, or as she puts it, to “privatisation and deregulation” (Chapter 5). Thus the dynamics of change is carefully monitored and analysed, paving the way to the mostly, but not exclusively, qualitative approach of the third part.

In “Inside Relationships” (chapters 6 and 7) Lewis shares the results of her qualitative research; contrasting the behaviour of married and cohabiting couples, she studies their “decision to marry or cohabit and the nature of the commitment” (chapter 6). Then she looks at “individualism and commitment” and “the investment of time and money” (chapter 7). Having rounded off the individual level—along with some mentions of collective policies, she deals with the role of the State in the final chapter, discussing what “the role of private law and family policy in respect of intimate relations” should be.

In the 1960s, sex became accepted outside marriage; in the 1990s, parenthood took place outside marriage. These developments have been deemed worrying, since marriage is still seen as an institution that guarantees stability. Today the dissociation of marriage and parenthood generates new accusations; men are condemned as irresponsible because many walk out of a relationship even when there are children; working mothers are blamed for jeopardising their families with their careers. Beyond this simplistic vision of the couple of parents lurks the idea that individualism or one of its facets—selfishness—is at the heart of family changes. Indeed, in one generation the number of marriages has halved, the divorce rate has trebled and children born outside marriage have quadrupled. From a statistical perspective, these facts cannot be ignored, and their causes and effects have modified family politics. Does it mean though that changes of attitudes towards marriage, divorce, cohabitation and working mothers have modified family values? In other words, does it mean that current family changes equate family breakdown? This commonly held assumption relies on one of the main outcomes of these changing attitudes, which is the increase of lone mother families. Yet, as Lewis underlines, there have been few studies on the changes in marriage itself, whereas marriage shelters enormous changes, in terms of ideas about the way it should work and in terms of the division of Labour within it.

For Lewis the argument of ‘selfishness’ is a dubious explanation for changes in family values, an explanation based on uncertain grounds. Besides, that intellectually lazy analysis cannot account for sociological studies for example of working mothers in paid employment. Although their numbers have indeed increased, female employment still offers a gendered work profile, with women accounting for the majority of part-timers and low-wagers: thus their supposedly economic independence is far from being achieved, generating new expectations on the Labour market and family law on their part. It shows that changes at the level of the family cannot be accounted for without examining the much broader social context, and ‘individualism’ has to be discussed at the collective level, too.

For most of the 20th century the male breadwinner model dominated and engendered expectations and arrangements as well as a set of attitudes in the family and outside the family. The “erosion of the male breadwinner model” has consequently modified the whole pattern and the accompanying expectations. Lewis argues that there should be a review of all standpoints. For instance, some wrote that because women were usually the partners who petitioned for divorce, they used their newly won economic independence to refuse what former generations had to accept. Bearing in mind what the female employment profile is, Lewis states that it is much more likely that being still the weaker partners economically speaking women have to get the protection of the state to fend for themselves and their children. The meanings of change have to be carefully assessed before coming to hasty conclusions.

Indeed Welfare and government positions have been and still are essential actors in family law. The shift here has been from a prescriptive institutional attitude—what marriage ought to be—to managing relationships when the divorcing couple have children. The official position has had to evolve along with most couples’ self-definition of marriage. At the end of the 20th century, marriage in western countries is based on romantic love, away from traditional prescriptions or even prescriptions of any kind. This makes marriage or cohabitation more vulnerable to breakdown but at the same time more open to negotiation inside the couple. In other words, it strengthens individual partners but raises the expectations of both. According to Lewis, this denotes “the erosion of an externally imposed moral code”; the change at the individual level has entailed legal changes, and it is interesting to find out how they relate. The author’s view is that although marriage is still an institution, it “has been disengaged from other social structures such as the law” (page 23), or as many sociologists now write, marriage has moved from institution to relationship. In any case, it is worth wondering about the effect of legal reform on family changes. Its direct effect still has to be proved, although it makes things easier when divorcing. Can it be the cause of divorce? It is not likely, but it undoubtedly legitimates behavioural changes and so secures the stability of the 1990s’ pattern of marriage and divorce. It leaves us to ponder the complicated relationship between law and social norms. Whether the top-down or the bottom-up approach—or both—play a major part remains to be seen. But the angle chosen could lead to questions such as ‘should the relaxation of divorce laws be seen as deregulation of family law?’ In the 1990s, writes Lewis, this view is no longer convincing as the current divorce law is pregnant (!) with individualisation and practically regulates men and women as fathers and mothers (see the 1991 Child Support Act). “Thus just because divorce has become easier, does not mean that moral debate and personal responsibility have been eliminated” (page 28).

Because of the veil of ‘selfishness’ or increasing individualism, the growth of individualism inside personal relationships has been neglected, although individualism has been linked to changes in individual behaviour (for instance the increasing number of women on the labour market) or mentalities (for example the objective of personal growth for both individuals in the couple).

Remarkably, the answers of the couples and individuals who have been interviewed do not vary much according to whether they are married or merely cohabiting. Most share the same views on living as a couple, although the cohabiting ones—with the notable exception of couples who use cohabitation as the immediate most “interesting” solution—show on the whole more commitment to their couple, in the sense that they have thought about marrying or not marrying, they have considered all the implications, and made a careful choice.

The pattern of marriage in the 20th century and the old system of coverture until the end of the 19th century both stemmed from the classical idea of marital unity, that is ‘2 makes 1’. Lewis suggests that Irène Théry’s ‘1+1 makes 2’ is more adequate to current conceptions of marriage: two individuals having a say, assessing and maintaining their individuality through negotiation. Why should it be selfish? The author writes that academic research across disciplines and political positions has proved that contrary to the shortsighted convenient ‘selfishness’ notion, moral issues and moral viewpoints are more essential than ever to couples of individuals and individual couples.

The End of Marriage? Individualism and Intimate Relations
is an impeccably researched book, which shows that the picture of change substantiated by extensive research is optimistic and has to be taken into account by family law and public policy. Everyone should read it, especially “those who seek to use the law to put the clock back”, as Lewis puts it at the end of her first chapter.

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