Marilyn Yalom & Laura L. Carstensen (eds.),
California: University of California Press, 2002

Reviewed by Ida Fadzillah, Assistant Professor,
Anthropology (Middle Tennessee State University)

Inside the American Couple provides much-needed insight into the social construction of intimate partnering, or couplehood, in the United States. Yalom and Carstensen bring together a diverse set of articles that explore marriage in its various forms, and raise the issue of how popular perceptions surrounding marriage have changed over the years and across social, ethnic, and economic strata.

The first articles trace the origins of current patterns of marriage as found in Judeo-Christian scripture (Yalom), early colonial America (Gelles), and nineteenth century capitalism (Washington). The text continues by deconstructing same-sex unions (Rothblum, Lewin) and traditional notions surrounding the concepts of home (Noddings), caregiving (Felstiner), and work partnerships (Epstein). Models of good and bad marriages based on statistical analysis are then examined (Skolnick), as are legal perceptions of divorce in relation to feminists (Rhode) and the financial “worth” of wives (Strober). The final section of the volume turns its attention to more “non-traditional” intimate partnerships, specifically those involving interracial marriage and dating by Asian Americans (Tsai et al.); arranged marriages (Pasupathi); and older couples (Charles and Carstensen).

As Yalom and Carstensen state in the introduction, “as we enter the twenty-first century, the essential ingredients in marriage are love and shared material resources – the primary basis for unions during the last two centuries (4)”. Their efforts to assemble examples of how models of marriage then diversify from these two essential ingredients are enlightening in their focus on how American society recognizes the “legitimate” union of two people. All in all, I found Inside the American Couple to be a text that would be useful for an “Introduction to Women’s Studies” class or one focused on kinship and family in the United States, for the articles are thoughtfully written and accessible enough for undergraduates as well as graduate students.

However, while this volume does much in presenting the reader with a variety of forms of intimate partnerships, as a feminist anthropologist the articles I found most compelling and useful were precisely those that problematized the centrality of the notion of “love.”  Lewin’s article (the only one by an anthropologist) on the importance of marriage as a ritual publicly affirming gay and lesbian relationships, Rothblum’s on the non-sexual nature of lesbian “Boston marriages,” and Pasupathi’s very personal perspective on the place of love (“What’s love got to do with it?” she asks in the title.) within arranged marriages all question the monolithic nature of Western notions of love as an essential ingredient of marriage.  They explore how Americans’ popular notions of marriage center around a notion of romance, intimacy, active sexuality, and an almost natural sense of belonging together that are in stark contrast to the actual structure of many current relationships.

Because of the book’s focus on the United States, I believe it to be of limited use for a class on cultural anthropology. One of anthropology’s strengths lies in the ability to provide rich and plentiful examples of differences in human relationships that confound standard Western ideas about how things are supposed to be. While the articles in Inside the American Couple will be useful to those engaged in research on American society, they do not fully engage with current ethnographic research that illustrates even more precisely (through cross-cultural examination) how stereotypical notions of couplehood – of love, romance, fidelity, sex, and even desire – are culturally specific and indelibly tied to individuals’ social (and national, gendered, educational, and language-specific) backgrounds.

Ida Fadzillah received her PhD in May 2003 from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Her dissertation, “You Take the Good and Leave the Rest Behind: Northern Thai Adolescent Girls and Their Narratives of Future Possibilities,” examines how globalization influences rural girls’ sense of responsibility, possibilities, and desires.  She is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University.

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