Thursday, January 22, 2009

Marriage: what is it?

Since I'm doing some work on winning LGBT civil marriage rights, I figured I had better learn something about the history of the institution. I'm enough of an historian to be sure that Rick Warren was full of it when he told Beliefnet:

For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion - this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews - historically, marriage is a man and a woman.

I assumed that marriage had historically been mostly about organizing property and inheritance (think Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.) But clearly I had much more to learn.

So I picked up what seems at present to be the popular U.S. book on the institution: Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Coontz certainly documents that whatever else marriage has been -- polygamous, polygynous, polyandrous, or monogamous -- until fairly recently, it has been far more about creating links between families than between individuals.

Coontz finds the origin of what we think of as "marriage" -- two partners who choose each other themselves -- in cultural and economic arrangements peculiar to northwestern Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Polygamy was prohibited by the Church and unlike most of the world, the offspring of concubines could not inherit. With divorce religiously prohibited, marriage was a one shot deal for both parties who were expected to at least consent to the match. Upon marriage, couples set up their own household rather than joining an extended family group. This expectation meant that instead of marrying right after puberty, both members of the couple had to become self-supporting, as servants or in a skilled trade, before marrying at a median age of 26. All of these factors, unique in the world at that time, seem to have placed a strong emphasis on the couple bond.

In most of the world at that time, very young girls were married off by their fathers to husbands who were subordinate members of families ruled by their own fathers. The northwestern European couple, off by itself and well advanced into responsible adulthood, was a novel pattern.

Coontz contends that this pattern had features that

not only made it very different from marriage anywhere else in the world, but also made it capable of very rapid transformation. ... During the eighteenth century, the spread of the market economy and the advent of the Enlightment wrought profound changes in record time. By the end of the 1700s personal choice of partners had replaced arranged marriage as a social ideal and individuals were encouraged to marry for love.

For the first time in five thousand years, marriage had come to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances. The measure of a successful marriage was no longer how big a financial settlement was involved, how many useful in-laws were acquired, or how many children were produced, but how well a family met the emotional needs of its individual members. Where once marriage had been seen as the fundamental unit of work and politics, it was now viewed as a place of refuge from work, politics and community obligations.

None of this meant that people yet married primarily for love. Love was seen a dangerous emotion, likely to lead to bad judgment and trouble. Critics feared that the new definition of a good marriage would lead to unwise decisions and to women demanding equality. By the early nineteenth century, moralists worried that marriage was being undermined in terms quite familiar today. The French revolution redefined marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament, introducing another element of subversion into old patterns. The Victorian idealization of love and intimacy in marriage was actually an attempt to shore up an institution that was seen a threatened. Through the mid-twentieth century, at least in prosperous times, a successful expanding economy in northern Europe and the United States made what Coontz calls the "love-based, male breadwinner marriage" the dominant model.

And then -- the 1960s and 1970s brought to fruition all the trends conservative moralists had feared for over 100 years in evolving marriage patterns. Married women would no longer let their husband run the couple -- and had the economic clout to enforce their independence. People expected emotional fulfillment from marriage -- if they didn't get it, they divorced. One in three of couples who married in the 1950s eventually divorced.

Coontz is sure there is no going back.

For better or for worse, people decide what they will or won't put up with in a relationship today on a totally different basis from before. ...never before in history have so many women been capable of supporting themselves and their children without a husband.

Many forces rendered enduring marriages precarious. With longer life expectancies, couples face long lives together after children are grown -- sometimes that can spur divorce as people believe they've earned their long-delayed chance at individual fulfillment. Coontz speculates that some of the rise in births to unwed mothers in the 1970s and 80s was a practical response on the part of poor women who knew their male partners would not be able to support the family -- a husband looked like more of a burden than a help. Nowadays marriage is not closely tied to the possibility of sex, so new patterns of co-habitation have become commonplace. Individuals not only are free to work out for themselves what balance of responsibility and freedom marriage implies, they have to. Society provides a cacophony of voices trying to define what marriage means, but no universally respected paradigm rules all responsible coupled relationships.

In this context, objections to gay civil marriage seem almost absurd. Everyone else is cast adrift in the cultural stew, defining their partnerships as they go along. How can LGBT people be excluded from this option?

I do not believe we will be excluded for much longer. Tough economic times may rein in some of most individualistic contemporary patterns; when there is less to go around, we are likely to be more willing to accept some restraints for the sake of community. But our entire society is working this out. LGBT people will be included in that process.

Coontz concludes:

We can certainly create more healthy marriages than we currently do, and we can save more marriages that are in trouble. But just as we cannot organize modern political alliances through kinship ties or put the farmers' and skilled craftsmen's households back as the centerpiece of the modern economy, we can never reinstate marriage as the primary source of commitment and caregiving in the modern world. For better or worse, we must adjust our personal expectations and social support systems to this new reality.

Coontz's history of marriage is worth pondering.


Damon said...


I think the entire ongoing debate is absurd. The problem is the word "marriage" itself. It seems to me that we need a complete separation between what a church calls a marriage and what the law calls a marriage. While it technically exists now through the marriage "license", it's not a true separation.

I think that the government simply needs to say that anyone can marry anyone else, as long as both parties are "of age" and both consent. That's a civil issue.

People can have their marriages sanctioned by a church or religion if they want, but the government needs to have nothing to do with that.

Living in a state where the civil union thing got started, I still see lots of injustice. There are still many in Vermont fighting for civil unions to be replaced by marriage, because the whole "separate but equal" argument just doesn't work. Separate never equals equal.

On Tuesday, while watching the inauguration at work, I kept shaking my head "no" while Warren was talking. A co-worker asked me why I was doing that. I said "because he's a hate-mongering a**hole."

I don't think many of the so-called Christians in this country, especially the "fundamentalists" have ever bothered to read the New Testament of their Bible. They are living in an Old Testament mindset - where they are ruled by a vengeful God who demands strict obedience rather than a loving God of forgiveness.

janinsanfran said...

Damon: I completely agree with you about this: civil marriage and religious marriage need to be separate matters. Some will have both, some may have one or the other.

A New Jersey State Commission studied whether civil unions really provided equality for LGBT couples (they have civil unions there, like Vermont) and concluded a resounding "no." It's great that someone has done some actual research.

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