Are Americans Polygamous?

Is marriage a failed institution in America? Is it polygamy that we're looking for?

Monogamous marriage, as we have known it, is challenged. For if repetitive divorces are permitted for capricious reasons—as in the notorious Tommy Manville case—we are tacitly establishing a legal halfway house between monogamy and polygamy. It is a polygamous relation accessible now only to the well-to-do. The ordinary man can no more afford the luxury of repetitive divorces than the ordinary Moslem, to whom polygamy is permitted by his faith, can afford four wives. But this is unimportant. What is important is that the law permits men to skip into and out of marriage at will, and the law is the expression of the will of the people. If we abandon monogamous marriage, it follows that we must also abandon our old concepts of the family and the relationship of parents to children.

It is too early to say precisely in what direction we are heading, but it is evident from the statistics of divorce that we are not heading in the direction of re-establishing monogamous marriage and the family in their once almost impregnable position. Marriage, as we know it, is an institution of relatively recent origin. Monogamous marriage is largely a product of the Western world. Cultures as great as ours, or greater, have long endured under other forms of marriage. And it may be that Americans, subconsciously believing that marriage and the family, as they have anciently existed, no longer suit their needs, are slowly changing them for other forms.

If we seek, however, specific reasons for our high divorce rate, we shall find them expressed in our attitudes and aspirations, in our character, in the manner in which we think and act. It is apparent, for example, that divorce lightly asked and lightly granted is individualism gone mad. It is an orgy of the ego. An anarchy within the law. It is an indulgence of the gratification of the immediate desires of man or wife without regard to family, children, or state. It is the case of my welfare and the rest be damned. Commenting upon our individual anarchy in another context, Frank W. Notestein wrote as follows in the Atlantic (June, 1946):—

The true causes of the declining birth rate lie [very deep]. They are to be found in the gradual shift from a society organized around the family and its perpetuation to one oriented toward the individual, his physical and material welfare, and opportunity for his advancement.

It is characteristic that, although the landscape of America is cluttered with the wreckage of marriage, we continue to foster a falsely romantic point of view toward it. Marriage is a difficult, if deeply rewarding, exercise in human relations. Perhaps it is even, as William Graham Sumner put it, "a state of antagonistic cooperation." Yet it is represented to the young by their elders, the movies, and slick magazine fiction, as a perpetual Christmas Eve with Tiny Tim passing double Martinis and saying "God bless you, every one." The deception is cruel and stupid. It is cruel because it is bound to bring about a mood of revulsion and disappointment in the mind of the deceived. It is stupid because it is no more a preparation for marriage than tree-sitting is a preparation for the ballet. And it is the expression of the dangerous mawkish romanticism of a people who refuse to subscribe to the first principle of becoming adult: to recognize that every blessing has its price.

We teach our young that to be married is automatically to be happy. We believe that everybody is, out to be, or can be made happy; that all are "entitled" to happiness as to fresh air. One must be happy all the time; slap-happy if possible. But simultaneously, in our anarchy of impermanence, we believe that if we are not happy in one marriage we shall surely be happy in another. This is the miracle wrought by a change of address and laundry marks. Few people pursue happiness with such demonaic energy as we, briefly pausing at one roadside stand of illusion before rushing to another.

We reject the austere truths that human life is tragic and its destiny dark; that frustration and pain are of the world as well as fruition and joy. So, too, in our passion for black and white, we reject the exquisite nuances that lie in what might be called informed patience—that profound patience and stillness of the spirit which tutors and restrains the impulsive mind as instinct restrains or impels the jungle-watching tiger.

Happiness in marriage eludes those who make a dogma of it, and so they become foes to compromise. Marriage is, among other things, the art of the possible. Love is not "pure," but exists in combination with other things. It is interwoven with heredity, family or class tradition, religion, prejudices, predilections, and an infinite number of other qualities in an infinite number of variations. It is certainly not a machine which gives the same response whenever a button is pushed.

The attitudes among us that destroy marriage are the result of our emotional and intellectual adolescence as a people. This, in my opinion, is the chief factor in our appalling divorce rate. The United States is the only country where the husband often is not—and does not want to be—a man, but a Boy. He wants, poor thing, not to be wived but to be mothered. Perhaps this is why he so often calls Maizie Mama, and Iwilla, his daughter, becomes Sister, and Joe, his son, becomes Brother. But Maizie dreamed of marrying a Man. Nobody told her that our men like to be giants in their offices and midgets in their homes. Yet all goes along well enough in the first years of marriage because Maizie finds it pleasant to mother her young boyish husband. But when the children come, she can far more satisfactorily discharge her maternal impulses through them. Then she begins to find it tiresome to baby her husband. She years to live with a Man, and since neither entered the marriage with mature attitudes toward it, while its contents made maturing impossible, Maizie soon is on her way to Reno. There she gets a divorce, and this time marries a man who wears knitted ties unlike the foulards affected by her first husband.

So, too, out of our immaturity, we have come to look upon marriage either as a relationship at will, or as a finality. In the first case we do not take it seriously. In the second case we see it murkily. Marriage is obviously not a finality but a beginning, since if it is to thrive, it must be constantly renewed. Marrying is a different thing from marriage, for the one implies something completed, while implicit in the other is the concept of becoming rather than being. Girls are brought up to look forward to marrying; then they may relax. Men marry to "settle down." But both may discover too late that a spiritual ferment, a search for a perfection never to be found, is the condition precedent to spiritual repose. We find such a concept tedious and emotionally tiring. It suggests the task never completed, the problem never solved. We want to do something and be done with it. We want today's car delivered yesterday. Life is a short story, not an epic; and before you begin to read it, the editor tells you precisely how many minutes it will take for the reading.

Yet the fact that there are no finalities in marriage, nor even in divorce, makes little difference to us in our search for marital happiness. We continue to get divorced, change wives, breed various sets of children, and applaud when the speaker of the day comes to his thundering peroration—"And this, ladies and gentlemen, we must do not only for our own sake but for the sake of our children's children." Nor does it matter that while we prepare diligently to become a lawyer, plumber, secretary, our philosophical preparation for marriage is at best sketchy and at worst hopelessly inadequate. God will lead the way for the innocents, it is presumed, or the divorce courts will. It is only in heaven that you can eat your cake and have it too. Marriage, for all the rich satisfactions it may yield, is less than a heavenly estate, and one must conduct oneself according to its ordinances.

Presented by

David L. Cohn

David I. Cohn was a regular Atlantic contributor during the mid-1900s. A Mississippi native who studied at the University of Virginia and Yale, he authored books as diverse as African American history (God Shakes Creation), American industry (The Good Old Days), and and matrimony (Love in America).

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