Tuesday, June 15, 2004


The best available evidence suggests that the institution of marriage is about 4,350 years old. Scientists believe that for thousands of years preceding the practice, families consisted of loosely organized groups of as many as 30 people, with several male leaders, multiple women shared by them, and children. The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies uniting one woman and one man dates from about 2350B.C. In early agrarian civilizations, marriage served to bind women to men and guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs, and had little (if anything) to do with love or religion even for the next several hundred years. Women were taken on as property through the act of marriage, while sexual urges for men continued to be satisfied through concubines, prostitutes, male lovers, etc. The involvement of the increasingly powerful Roman Catholic Church in eighth century Europe provides much of the modern frame for the institution of marriage. Then for the first time, the blessings of a priest became a necessary step for a marriage to be legally recognized, and marriage was widely accepted in the Catholic Church as a sacrament (a ceremony to bestow God’s grace). At the Council of Trent in 1563, it was made canon law in the church. Men were expected to show greater respect for their wives, and forbidden from divorcing them. Men were to remain sexually faithful to their wives, but the church still held that men were the head of families, with their wives deferring to their wishes.

For much of human history, couples were brought together for practical reasons, not because they fell in love. The idea of romantic love, as a motivating force for marriage, only goes as far back as the Middle Ages, “invented” by the French. Many historians credit the concept of romantic love with giving women greater leverage in what had been a largely pragmatic transaction. Wives no longer existed solely to serve men. The romantic prince, in fact, sought to serve the woman he loved. Still, the notion that the husband “owned” the wife continued to hold sway for centuries. When colonists first came to America—at a time when polygamy was still accepted in most parts of the world—the husband’s dominance was officially recognized under a legal doctrine called “coverture,” under which the new bride’s identity was absorbed into his. The bride gave up her name to symbolize the surrendering of her identity, and the husband suddenly became more important, as the official public representative of two people, not one. The rules were so strict that any American woman who married a foreigner immediately lost her citizenship.

Women’s suffrage in 1920 began a dramatic transformation in the institution of marriage. Each union suddenly consisted of two full citizens, although tradition dictated that the husband still ruled the home. By the late 1960s, state laws forbidding interracial marriage had been thrown out, and the last states had dropped laws against the use of birth control. By the 1970s, the law finally recognized the concept of marital rape, which up to that point was inconceivable, as the husband “owned” his wife’s sexuality.

Within the past 100 years, marriage has changed more than in the last 5,000, and yet it remains at the center of a debate that alleges that the downfall of society has been made apparent by the statistical elevation of a practice that has only existed for a short period of time. The United States has the third highest divorce rate in the world, beaten only by the Maldives (off the coast of India) and Belarus. Other nations in the top 10 include Cuba, Estonia, Panama, Puerto Rico, Ukraine, Russia and Antigua/Barbuda. (Sidenote: This was listed as a related link on the divorce statistics page, which I found rather amusing. Avoid Lithuania.) The breakup of any relationship, particularly one that lasts years or decades, is devastating. The act of divorce, however, is deemed a “failure”, even though the decision to leave an unfulfilling relationship may be viewed as an opportunity or an improvement for one or more parties involved. Certainly no one wants to go through the disappointment and heartache of the breakup of a marriage, but does divorce really indicate a FAILURE? The downfall of society? Can a couple really anticipate and avoid divorce when caught up in the excitement and promise of a new life together, and, more importantly, SHOULD they? Should the excitement of finding a companion who truly makes one happy and in love be overshadowed by the fear that it could, eventually, fail?

Culturally, we salivate like Pavlovian dogs at the prospect of a wedding. We alternately scoff and ooh and ah at marriages, celebrity or otherwise, all the way down the aisle. Many of us have been thinking about marriage our whole lives, whether with excitement or disdain, and have had details planned out for engagements and weddings for ages. The threat of ending up alone is terrifying for 20- and 30-somethings everywhere, though, truth be told, loneliness is not unheard of even if one operates within the confines of a romantic relationship, and (for me) has been known to be many times worse than being “alone”, but that doesn’t make the desire for loving companionship go away. And it doesn’t make the social stigma attached to being divorced go away, either.

What is this thing called marriage? The timeless bonding of two people who always and forever will be in love? A business arrangement? Some bizarre and archaic form of slavery? A religious statement? The core of civilization? A bond between a man and a woman? A man and a man? A woman and a woman? A celebration? A renouncement of individuality in favor of a joint identity? Ultimate happiness or unhappiness? Has the idealization and commodification of marriage outpaced the reality?

It’s evident to me that some partnerships work. Some of them work because of the friendship and support. Some of them work because of the conflict and challenge. Some of them are comfortable. Some are always changing. Some are disappointing. The marriages I’ve witnessed have been as diverse as the people in them, and none of them are statistics - they’re relationships between individuals. For some people, the decision to be married is effortless. For others, agonizing. Some of the best people I know are products of marriages that didn’t work, and they wouldn’t have been here if that partnership hadn’t occurred. Recently, I’ve been presented with the possibility that I might be one of those people too. To me, that indicates amazing success, even if it was a death in love, and not of life, that parted them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is really beautiful and persuasive. --charlie