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
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.
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's history of marriage is worth pondering.