Preferred Citation: Oliker, Stacey J. Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Chapter One The Modernization of Friendship and Marriage

The Rise of the Romantic Companionate Ideal

In colonial America, Puritan theology emphasized marital companionship and love, but affection was to grow from dutiful marriage— not to unite bride and groom. Furthermore, it was to grow from women's "reverend subjection" to their husbands. "Puritan love," writes Edmund Morgan, "was no romantic passion but a rational love in which the affections were commanded by the will." Indeed, Puritans cautioned against excessive marital affection as well as other "earthly" comforts.[44]

Courtly love had been an adulterous passion, thought to be incompatible with marriage. Puritanism prepared the ground for a marital love ideal by prescribing love in marriage. Drawing upon both traditions, the romantic love ideology resolved the Puritan antagonism between passion and reason.[45] The eighteenth-century novel (a new literary form) adapted the codes of courtly love to courtship and marriage, advertising a new conjugal ideal to the expanding reading publics of the middle classes. Idealized adoration, erotic passion, emotional attachment, enduring commitment, and the practicalities of property, class, childrearing, and conjugal cooperation blended in the new ideal without apparent contradiction. The earthly, the sublime, and the commonplace reconciled in the bourgeois "tender passion." By the late eighteenth century, the romantic conjugal ideal appeared in America and spread rapidly in a nineteenth-century surge of romantic novel reading.[46]

A structural source of the new ideal, Ian Watt proposes, inhered in the changing conditions of courtship in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. Single women who were losing economic ground as production moved out of the household faced a marriage crisis; a new emphasis on love offered to shore up marriage chances for these dispossessed (or upwardly mobile) women.[47] Watt's evidence—the letters of wealthy married women


and the novels of their literary sympathizers—tells us much more about ascendent cultural ideals than about practices, however. The secular themes of individuality and romance emphasized in free courtship may have stirred imaginations and raised an ideal of romantic marriage among married women who had the leisure to develop their personality and whose economic dependence prompted a search for new marital bonds, But we must not mistake that ideal for actual change in marital relations.

The romance of courtship notwithstanding, nineteenth-century married couples appear not to have realized a romantic companionate ideal. Unless we are to believe that a small sampling of fervid correspondences between spouses or erotic diaries represented the very silent bourgeois majority, scholarship on nineteenth-century Europe and America suggests that marriage became more affectionate before it became romantic, and then more romantic before it became companionate. (I wonder whether a psychoanalytic historian like Peter Gay has considered that torrid correspondences may have represented bursts of romance set off by the obstacle of separation rather than indices of the sentimental texture of marriage.)[48] Even the emotionally intense marriages preserved in correspondence seem to manifest a distance and deference between husbands and wives that must represent a very rudimentary companionship.[49] Domestic sentiment united spouses whose separate lives provided limited bases for engagement, empathy, or joint endeavor. The separation of public and private spheres of life created the needs and possibilities for new emotionalized domestic attachments. Nonetheless, it seems likely that romantic sentiments waned throughout marriage. The attachments women kept to their own families were often more intense than their marriages until as mothers they transferred their attachments to their children.[50]

Even where courtship had become romantic and emotionally intense, writes Ellen Rothman, young women anticipated marriage with "images of confinement, struggle, and loss"; they expressed the belief that the intimacy of courtship could not be sustained in marriage. Steven Stowe infers from his Southern courtship letters that courtship allowed women, who approached marriage with a model of intimacy they had learned from female friendships, to relinquish that ideal as they acknowledged that "the


thing is not its vision." Nancy Cott reports evidence of a nineteenth-century pattern of "marriage trauma" among bewildered and disappointed married women.[51]

European visitors of the time noted "a want of entire community of feeling" between husbands and wives. One observer commented on the fidelity of American husbands and also noted their indifference to their wives: "His wife is never the confidante of his intimate and real thoughts."[52] And Tocqueville noted the effects of separate spheres: "All these distinct and compulsory occupations are so many natural barriers, which by keeping the two sexes asunder, render the solicitations of the one less frequent and less ardent—the resistance of the other more easy." He believed men's commercial passions dampened marital feeling—the criticism of American marriage that Frank Furstenberg says foreign observers made most frequently.[53]

Among midwestern farm folk, writes John Faragher, the notion of companionate marriage was "foreign"; and in folk songs of the region, "women's needs for sentiment, passion, and sensuality combined with constancy were nearly always betrayed by masculine incapacity."[54] In urban Los Angeles and Newark, Elaine Tyler May finds no new forms of intimacy in divorce records of nineteenth-century partners who failed to live up to traditional sex roles of masculine provision and feminine purity.[55] Carl Degler, who presents evidence of companionate marriages, also documents widespread complaints by women about their treatment in marriage. In a series of letters to Good Housekeeping, women insist that husbands ought to provide the sympathy and support that wives provide husbands.[56]

Whatever the progress of marital sentiment, expectations considerably outdistanced it. The romantic ideal probably affected courtship (and perhaps, early marriage) far more than later married life.[*] When Christopher Lasch locates a historic apogee of emo-

The literature on companionate marriage often misgeneralizes from the intense romantic passion, reciprocal introspection, withdrawal from social networks—all keynotes of romantic marriage—that characterize these brief early stages better than the later ones. From such erroneous generalizations come Georg Simmel's conclusions that women do not develop friendships because they remain immersed in the sphere of love (The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. Kurt H. Wolff [New York: Free Press, 1950], 325).


tional intensity in the nineteenth-century bourgeois family, he mistakes lyric celebrations of a new domesticity for conjugal romantic love.[57]

Chapter One The Modernization of Friendship and Marriage

Preferred Citation: Oliker, Stacey J. Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.