Marriage, a History

One of the strongest arguments for continuing to teach history is the incredible sense of freedom it gives an individual who’s grown up thinking that the cultural norms, the “reality” that they’ve grown up in is just “the way things are” or “the way things have always been.” Spent some time studying history, and every single one of your assumptions about the way people are, the way the world has to be, will change.

One of the big arguments you get from conservatives about the current US regulations regarding marriage is that marriage has, from time immemorable, been between ONE man and ONE woman. Even somebody who’s only ever read the Bible can tell you that that’s, well, not true. But it sure *sounds* really good. The kicker is that the sort of male breadwinner marriage “ideal” of ONE man and ONE woman, the nuclear family ideal, is actually only about 50 or 60 years old (and those narrow, aberrant expectations are, even now, changing).

In Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz tracks the history of Western conceptions of marriage from early hunter-gatherer societies to the present day, exploring not only the number and kinds of acceptable partners that made up marriages, but what “marriage” meant in a cultural and economic sense during different periods.

Her interest primarily centers on when and how marriage went from being a largely economic enterprise to one based almost exclusively on mutual affection and devotion; from a business merger between families to a partnering of individuals based exclusively on “love.”

Coontz isn’t a great writer, and I think that she sometimes tries too hard to appeal to a mainstream audience with all her little jokes and exclamation marks, but that also mean this isn’t dry as old toast like some of the history tomes you dust off about, say, ancient Assyria (which could be really fucking rad if written with some oomph). She’s entirely without theory, which also helps with the play-by-play reading.

What struck me, reading this history, is how successive women’s movements paired with technological advances were key in the shift from women and men partnering as purely economic helpmeets to making it possible for us to make partnering decisions based on something so fickle as love and affection.

Polygamous marriages, she explained, were highly valued not just because they 1) produced more heirs, in the case of one man with multiple wives or 2) in the case of multiple husbands, helped land stay in families, but also because marrying more than one person increased the number of inlaws an individual had. This wasn’t only a concern for the rich and powerful: powerful inlaws kept you alive. Without a strong kin network during hard times, you were a goner.

In a world of modern convienences, living wages, and social welfare programs, an extended kin network is no longer as vital, and instead of chiding men and women for putting affection for their partner above that of their kin, people are now often seen as a little loopy for dumping a partner based on what their mother thinks. Back in the day, your mother told you to drop somebody, and you dropped them. The saying went, “You have only one family, but you can always get another wife.”

That’s not to say, of course, that “love” never existed. Certainly there was lust and mutual affection, but the word “love” was rarely used as an expression of affection between husbands and wives until, I believe, the 19th century. In the early 18th centurey, American lovers said they were “in candor” with one another. The definition of “love” in 1828 was “to be pleased with, to regard with affection. We love a man who has done us a favor.”

It was also surprising to see that the more autonomy women had, the more independence, the more taboo homosexuality became among women *and* men. Sleeping in the same bed, women kissing each other, these weren’t big things until the 1920s, when women got the vote, a lot of guys died in the war, and women were setting up Boston marriages and fending for themselves. All the sudden, the idea that the sexes could get along without one another was a very real possibility, and marriage conservatives freaked out.

In fact, there’s a long history of conservative backlash every time divorce and marriage laws were liberalized. Predictably, we’re seeing the same thing now, with some of the same arguments. However, despite all of the doom and gloom, *more* people are actually getting married today than were getting married back in the 1800s when you needed to work up enough capital to start a family. A lot of people just never came up with the money they felt they needed in order to conduct a proper household.

The doom-and-gloom that *did* come true was the conservatives’ fear of divorce: yep, we do have a 50% divorce rate. That rate has saved a lot of people from bad marriages, but the ease of divorce has also convinced a lot of people who wouldn’t have otherwise gotten married to get married anyway. More people getting married hasn’t “destroyed” marriage. It just means more people get married. The same panic happened when people started pulling down the interracial marriage laws. There were more marriages, more divorces, but the world didn’t end. In fact, more marriages goes a long way toward improving the economy. I think expanding marriage rights would be a great economic strategy, really…

Because even with that 50% divorce rate, people still get married. Maybe cause we all keep hoping we can love forever, for longer, than any other group of folks in history. Believe me, the people living now are some of the first in the history of the world to have the opportunity to spend 70 years or more married. When we first thought up marriage, marriage was, at most, a commitment of 15-20 years. Usually more like 10.

I think what fascinates me is our expectation that we can live up to some far-off ideal, something that we think existed somewhere, somewhen, when everybody paired off perfectly and lived in harmony for 70 years with the love of their life.

No. You were lucky to end up with somebody who you respected and cared for and didn’t beat you for 15 years before one of you dropped dead of influenza.

Man, I’m such a romantic.

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