HE who writes a theory of marriage has no blank page to write upon. There are already among us at least four conceptions of marriage, not always clearly stated, but nevertheless widely believed. The conflict and confusion of their varying tenets echo in every casual conversation on the subject, and in our social judgments and attitudes they have their full share of influence. One theory is naive, two are sophisticated, one is pedantic. We might name them, for convenience, the schoolgirl theory, the mousetrap theory, the tomcat theory and the theory of the schools.

There is implicit in the schoolgirl’s attitude toward her beau a simple but consistent view of love and marriage, which often gives the conventional marriage to which it leads a wrong start and adds to the inevitable disillusionment of middle age. According to this view, in which both sexes participate, one marries when one is in love. But one must be truly in love, and so a mistake of fact is fatal. The distinguishing characteristics of true and genuine love are that it never dies, and that it guarantees happiness if one marries, and sorrow if one does not. If, having married, one finds oneself unhappy, then it is evident that true love is lacking. The only valid explanation of such a situation is that a mistake [p.8] has been made and that love did not ever exist at all. On this account a wise young person is very careful not to marry until the fact of true love is very definitely established. Here arises the great difficulty: there is no final test of true love save marriage; to test the egg one must break it. The only test that even the most careful can make before marriage is, according to this theory, “the test of one’s own heart.”

This schoolgirl theory is the Western World’s basic view of the relation of love to marriage. If by a feat of imagination we remove it from our mental ken, most fiction and modern drama becomes unintelligible. Even the most sordid product of the naturalist school, or such a work as Ben Hecht’s pornographic triumph, Fantasius Mallaire, presupposes a familiarity on the part of the reader with this schoolgirl theory. All other theories are corrections and criticisms of this one. Though the sophisticated abandon it, the cigar-store cynics scoff at it, the professors overlook it, nevertheless it remains unshaken in the popular mind. Even those who reject it for themselves are likely to encourage young people to believe it, as mothers teach their children to believe in Santa Claus. Moreover – and this is the most important of all – the great majority of young men and women who are actually doing the marrying or who are wrestling with the problem of whether or not to marry, that is to say, the great majority of people in their late teens and early twenties, govern their conduct on this schoolgirl theory.1

[p.9] Whence came this curious imagery wherewith so many of us are accustomed to construct our views of family life? It did not come to us from scholars, like our theories of the State or of economics. The schoolgirl theory is not accredited among scholars. It has no academic standing. It has grown out of two strangely different nurseries, of the preachers on the one side and of the poets on the other.

The Provençal singers of the Middle Ages, the French and Italian courtiers of the Renaissance, drew up a delicate and fantastic view of the erotic side of life. The Church contributed a somber and serious view of marriage. The two doctrines grew up quite independently, to be finally combined in a popular morality.

The Mediaeval and Renaissance theory of love was not a theory of marriage; the Courts of Love even decreed that true love was not possible in wedlock. True love was pictured as a kind of fixed-idea phenomenon, an almost psychopathic mode of behavior, seldom met with in fact. The Church’s view of marriage, on the other hand, had little regard for love but suggested the curious concept that marriage was a spiritual union similar to the union of Christ with his Church. Eroticism appeared as a necessary though somewhat degrading incident of married life. And when the Church spoke of erotic life, its language was anything but poetic: “The wife shall not deny her body to the husband, nor the husband to the wife.” Such was the crude dictum. The only thing that was common to the preachers and the poets was the notion of permanence. Poets and courtiers said that true love was everlasting; the Church said that marriage was irrevocable; now the schoolgirl says [p.10] that both must be permanent and that they must coincide.

In the face of the manifest improbability that true love, rare enough in itself, should coincide with marriage, the schoolgirl resorts to the expedient of a deus ex machina, the “right man,” the prince. If the “right man” appears, all difficulties vanish; the conjunction of true love is established, eternal felicity is assured; nothing remains but to marry and live happily ever afterward. Consequently the all-sufficient preparation for marriage is the daydream, wherein the image of the prince or the dream girl is defined. The actual identification in the flesh of prince or dream girl must be left to intuition. And a young person’s thought upon marriage is considered amply developed when he has made an imaginative character sketch of a future mate.

The cult of the prince and the dream girl, the “right man” and the unknown goddess, rounds out the schoolgirl theory. The theory is dangerous to human happiness because it suggests no explanation for unhappiness in marriage except the explanation that the marriage itself was a mistake; it counsels no course of action to improve an unsuccessful married life except the divorce court. It turns the minds of both man and woman back toward a single decision of their lives – the choice of each other as partners – and diverts their minds from the innumerable decisions which they make every day. It gives to every marriage the character of being saved or lost as soon as the ceremony is completed, so that all that remains is to let time reveal the wisdom or foolishness of the initial step.

What actually happens in everyday life is that people [p.11] sooner or later give up their “illusions,” as they say, and recognize that their partners are neither princes nor dream girls, and find plenty of opportunity for exercising constructive ingenuity in developing their married lives. The false evaluations of the schoolgirl theory may not wreck marriages, but do consistently give them a false start.

The converse of the schoolgirl theory is the tomcat theory. This latter is the product of disillusionment or worldly wisdom. The premises of the tomcat theory are simple. Man is a predatory creature; he is sex-minded; he requires sex satisfaction. Whether he is to seek this satisfaction in marriage or out of it depends partly on the general merits of the marriage institution. There is no expectation that the partners in marriage will be extraordinary people. Whereas the schoolgirl’s ideal marriage requires that bride and groom he exceptional and unique, the tomcat ideal reckons with the fact that all men and women are pretty much alike. Whereas the schoolgirl ideal demands true love, the tomcat ideal is satisfied if marriage is put on a sex basis. Consequently the tomcat theorists do not bother with character sketches of ideal mates – except perhaps to insist upon physical beauty or “sex appeal” – but their speculations often constitute a thoughtful judgment on the merits of the marriage relation itself.

The principles of the tomcat theory are illustrated in that memorable Rabelaisian conversation in which Panurge, seeking advice from Pantagruel upon his proposed marriage, presents arguments pro and con, while Pantagruel replies alternately, “Marry then, in God’s name,” and, “Then in God’s name do not marry.”

[p.12] “But you see,” quoth Panurge, “since I cannot get along without a woman would it not be much better for me to associate myself with some pure and honest woman rather than to get a new one every day, with continual danger of beating, or of disease which would be worse?”

“Well, then, in God’s name, marry. . . .”

As the long argument unwinds, Panurge displays the characteristic tomcat attitude: he wants to marry because he needs a woman; he hesitates chiefly because he doubts whether he will have exclusive possession of the woman he marries. The central fact of marriage, to him, is sex competition.

When marriage is looked upon as an instrument of sex satisfaction, its superiority to the unmarried state is claimed upon the ground that it stabilizes sex relations. It offers a vested interest in sex satisfaction, in lieu of a precarious tenure. It affords an expectation that there will be permanent rather than transitory attachments, and guarantees that the children will be the objects of fixed legal rights and duties. Thus the chief raison d’être of marriage is its proprietary result. A husband or wife is a species of property purchased at a risk with one’s own liberty. In making the purchase one seeks to give up as little liberty and to obtain as complete a possession as is possible. Marriage therefore does not end sex competition, but gives it a new orientation. Husband and wife seek each to enforce an exclusive sexual right over the other, and to resist a like enforcement as regards himself.

To the man’s insistence that his wife shall not make him a cuckold there corresponds the woman’s concern [p.13] that she shall “hold” her husband. She must curb his predatory predilections and monopolize his affections. The comic strips and the feature pages of the newspapers tacitly recognize this as a proper wifely preoccupation. An elaborate technique has been devised for holding a husband – a technique wherein the arts of cookery and the devices of harlotry have equally their place. This technique has been made known to the world in the racy popularizations of Elinor Glyn. It takes for granted an essential antagonism between husband and wife. By making porridge without lumps and by choosing appropriate personal perfumes; by toasting bread without burning it and by wearing silk underwear – by such means as these does a wife fulfill the purposes of a tomcat marriage. The test of success, for husband and wife alike, is the physical fidelity of one’s partner to the marriage bed.

A variant of the tomcat theory is the view which Havelock Ellis has expounded as the mousetrap theory. This theory is humorously defended by H. L. Mencken, and seriously propounded by the eminent sociologist, Professor McDougall:

The essence of the institution of marriage is that custom, law and public opinion force man to submit to a bond, to give binding guarantees under penalties, as a condition of obtaining satisfaction of strong desires. . . . The young man would prefer to have his lady love entrust herself to him without other guarantees than his vows of devotion . . . but society, dominated in the main by the matrons and the graybeards, takes a more cynical and skeptical view of the devotion inspired by sex attraction. The experience of the ages has taught it that too often love is fleeting; that in the companionship of the sexes, as elsewhere, familiarity too often breeds indifference [p.14] and not seldom engenders friction and resentments . . . [hence] . . . the mothers and fathers will not give up their daughters to their lovers without the guarantee of the marriage bond.2

If there is no better defense of marriage than that which McDougall offers here – that marriage is good because it serves to keep together people who would prefer to be apart – it may prove difficult to convince the new generations that marriage is worth while. For man may find a way to the “satisfaction of strong desires” without “giving bond,” and the mothers and fathers may find that it does not rest with them to decide whether their daughter shall be given to her lover or not. The mousetrap theory constitutes a joyless acknowledgment that marriage is a fetter.

The schoolgirl theory is aesthetically satisfying but scientifically outrageous; the tomcat and mousetrap theories are in accord with common sense observation but they insult aesthetic sensibilities. All of these theories, however, relate directly to matters which are of immediate concern to the young people who are doing the marrying. With most of the professors it is otherwise. Their theories of marriage are aesthetically inoffensive and scientifically plausible, but they have little bearing on the aspects of marriage which are in fact most perplexing. The professors declare that the family is a fundamental group in the complex of groups that make up society. They assert that the family has two functions of basic importance: the propagation of the species and the transmission of the social heritage in the education of the young. All this is very true; it is elaborated and [p.15] proved over and over again in innumerable books; it enters the doctrine of all the social sciences. It constitutes a laborious and indisputable answer to a question that nobody asks.

Of what value are these scholarly dicta to the common man? A man likes to have harmony in his family group, but he cares nothing about the fundamental position of the family group in the structure of society. He may marry in order to have children, but he certainly does not marry in order to propagate the species. He may pay for the education of his child, but he cares not one whit tor the transmission of the social heritage. His real interests in the family lie on a plane of personality which the theorizing of the scholars does not touch.

When Molière’s Sganarelle approached the learned Pancrace to obtain advice as to whether he should marry, he got little aid. Pancrace first demanded of him whether he wished to speak Italian, Spanish, German, English, Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Hebrew, and when Sganarelle admitted that he spoke only French the Savant told him, “Please pass to the other side, for this ear is reserved for scientific and foreign languages, the other is for the mother tongue.” And after he had passed to the other side and asked his question again, he still got no satisfaction, tor Pancrace insisted on talking about logic and art and the use of language. So Sganarelle went off muttering, “To the devil with these savants who will not listen to people.”

The professors are still suspected of preferring languages that are foreign to the common man. We can imagine a modern Pancrace demanding: “Do you wish to discuss this from the legal, ethical, economic, or social [p.16] point of view?” If Sganarelle then replies that it is a personal matter, Pancrace leans back in his chair and pronounces, “Oh, that is different,” knits his brows and wonders what he can say. He would find it difficult to draw upon his scholarly knowledge for any counsel that would be of real value. For the academic teaching pertaining to marriage and the family seems quite irrelevant in the solution of a real difficulty. The professors are found making definitions that do not clarify real problems, and ignoring the question upon which there is a universal demand for more light. There can still lie found those who will turn away from the schools damning “the savants who will not listen to people.”

Within the past few years there have been indications that the scholars are changing their attitude. A greater number of genuinely useful books on marriage have been published since 1920 than were published in the preceding century. The Protestant Church view of sex, love, and marriage has been formulated by a national Committee on Marriage and Home.3 A survey of the social and legal branches of family law, including marriage and divorce, birth-control legislation, and the financial relationship between husband and wife, is being conducted at Columbia University. President MacCracken’s Institute of Euthenics at Vassar College and Count Keyserling’s great symposium on marriage, as well as Dr. Hamilton’s masterly research, represent noteworthy efforts to be helpful. President MacCracken has set out to found an applied science of home-making; Count Keyserling has conducted a literary “symphony” of opinion in which the thoughtful [p.17] mind can detect certain dominant themes of a marriage philosophy. Dr. Hamilton has begun the gigantic task of describing objectively and statistically the married lives of normal people.4 There is a new interest and a new spirit of inquiry in matters relating to the family, but there has not issued forth from the schools any new doctrine to meet the needs of the common man, and to supplant the schoolgirl and the tomcat theories of marriage.

The material for such a new doctrine is being accumulated with great diligence. There is under way the creation of a social science which will devote itself exclusively to the study of the family. Ernest R. Groves, even though he may not admit it, is another of the founders of the coming science. He writes on “Social Problems of the Family,” but his real interest is in the personal problems of family members. A vast and chaotic literature exists. There are books by free-love writers who denounce love[p.18]less wedlock, books by socialists and feminists who resent sex inequality in marriage, enthusiastic books by eugenists who seek by enlightened mating to prevent race deterioration, indignant books by conservatives who protest against the break-up of the home. The list of able men and women who contribute to this literature grows rapidly: C. P. Gilman, Ernest R. Groves, Beatrice Hinkle, Willystine Goodsell, E. R. Mowrer, Margaret Mead, Mary Ware Dennett, Count Keyserling, and S. D. Schmalhausen to go along with the names of such pioneers as Westermarck, Havelock Ellis, and Mueller-Lyer. The files of learned magazines which give attention to the family problem grow longer as the years pass. Whether a periodical be devoted to charities or child welfare, parentage or prostitution, its editors recognize the problem of the family as an insistent object of their attention.

Despite this apparatus of discussion and erudition, there has been so far no thorough and consistent scholarly covering of those aspects of family life which are of greatest interest to us. Neither sociology nor sexology suffices. “Our study of the family has been like the blind man describing the elephant,” said Professor Eliot before a meeting of scholars and social workers. But the tendencies now clearly visible will lead ultimately to the establishment of a department of scholarly inquiry which will not ignore the romantic and personal sides of family life, but will rather focus attention upon them. The girl poet says to her lover:

Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

[p.19] The time is at hand for the laying out of a field of disciplined investigation wherein it will no longer be idle whether or not we find what we are seeking in marriage. There is room for a new branch of the social studies which can deal as amply with the problems of family life as economic theory deals with the problems of getting a living, or political science with the problems of the State.


  1. This fact is objectively demonstrated in the interesting and scholarly study of an average American community made under the direction of Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd: Middletown (Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1929).]

  2. McDougall in The Forum, July, 1928.

  3. “The Protestant Church View of Sex, Love and Marriage,” in Current History, February, 1929.

  4. Dr. G. V. Hamilton is a pioneer in the statistical investigation of the sex lives of normal married people. He selected as subjects one hundred married men and one hundred married women of New York City, trying to balance his selection in such a way that about half were happily married, half unhappily. He then took down the answers these subjects gave to a long series of carefully propounded and devastatingly intimate questions. The number of cases examined was too small, the selection too arbitrary, even the scope of the questioning (predominantly on sex matters) too restricted, to allow his findings to stand as a true statistical picture of marriage in America. The investigator himself disavows this intention. The fact remains that on many of the most significant points of fact in marriage relations, Dr. Hamilton’s figures are the only ones that represent more than a guess. For Hamilton has done several things that are new. Although his approach is that of a psychiatrist, he has undertaken to study normal marriage. And he has striven relentlessly to secure results into which no surreptitious influence of the investigator’s prejudices has crept. His results are published in two volumes, A Research in Marriage by Hamilton, and What is Wrong with Marriage, by Hamilton and McGowan (A. & C. Boni, New York, 1929).