Ooh, baby.

According to the song, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.  But when it comes to the history of marriage, pairing marriage with love is putting the cart before the horse.  If we look at why people used to get married, traditionally, we’ll quickly see why marriages today are less stable.  And why that may not be a terrible thing.

The phrase “traditional marriage” [1] is currently in vogue to describe opponents of gay marriage.  Just what does marriage look like over time?  Why do people marry and why is marriage changing so much?

I recently read an interesting book called Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephenie Coontz.  The book explains some of the global marriage practices that currently exist and have existed through time.  It also describes what the author considers the real cause of the downfall of marriage:  connecting love and marriage.

Protection vs. Oppression Theory

Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name?

Depending on whom you ask, marriage was either invented by men to protect or to oppress women.  And some men would argue that marriage was invented by women to domesticate men (a pouty version of the protection argument).  Let’s take a look at those arguments briefly.

The protection theory is similar to the argument that biology is destiny:  because of the long human female gestation period, women need someone to protect them while they are physically vulnerable during pregnancy and nursing. Therefore, marriage was invented so that women would have a male (not vulnerable during pregnancy and nursing) to protect her and her offspring as a biological imperative to promote the species.  The world must be peopled.  Here are the holes in this theory:  1) historically, communities do a better job protecting females than do husbands (specifically other women do), 2) infant mortality rates were high throughout human history with or without marriage, so marriage was hardly ineffective if this was its aim, and 3) women aren’t as physically vulnerable during these times as this theory implies.  Women are physically capable to continuing their normal work during nursing and pregnancy.

The oppression theory states that men historically used marriage to enslave women, and that perhaps it was even invented for this aim. Historically, women were not allowed to divorce, marital rape was legal and condoned, and in many societies, women who were unfaithful could (and still can be) killed.  Female children were essentially traded property from a father to a husband, used to create ties between families with large properties.  Women who dislike taking their husband’s last name have the equally patriarchal alternative of keeping their father’s last name.  Feminist win!

When marriage became about personal happiness, it became wrong to exclude people from it. Traditionally, gay people married heterosexuals to protect lands or produce heirs.

A kinder version of the oppression theory posits that marriage was invented to harness the female workforce; wealthy men required women to handle their domestic affairs and protect their hearth and home so they could go to war, travel, conduct business, or pursue political gain.  Some wealthy men had so much land that they even required a domestic workforce of multiple wives.  Wives follow wealth, chronologically. [2]

Traditionally, Why Did People Marry?

Today people usually list the following reasons for people to marry:  1) companionship and love, and 2) to have children.  But these reasons are relatively new, and often lead to divorce as we have more choices available to us.  If you marry for love, when the honeymoon’s over or the companion becomes irritating, why not divorce and try your luck again?  The ties that bind us are much less strong than they used to be now that we have more rights, more education, more ability for spouses to earn independently, and more choice.

Historically, people married for entirely different reasons:

  • To share labor.  It was much easier to run a farm or a family business as a married couple than it was to run it as an individual.  And children were often the best way to increase the family workforce.  Even in the wake of urbanization, children were required to get jobs to contribute to the family income.  In today’s world, breeding to gain wealth has become the provenance of welfare queens, but historically it was a time honored tradition for children and spouses to increase the family’s wealth through direct labor contributions, unlike the 1950s model in which the husband became a sole breadwinner.  A thrifty wife who could clip coupons replaced a hardy wife who could fell trees or cobble shoes, and the home became a refuge from the economic world, not an extension of the economic world.
  • To connect to other families.  Rather than marrying for spouses, most historical marriages were designed to connect in-laws to each other through the union of their children.  Those getting married usually had no say in the matter. [3]
  • To protect lands and investments.  As families grew in wealth, they began to use marriage to privilege children born within a marriage as “legitimate” and able to inherit so that lands, titles and estates would not be divided.  Thus marriage was a way to ensure one’s financial legacy would remain intact.  The right of primogeniture (eldest sons inheriting) is an extension of this concept that figures into both Downton Abbey (in the pilot episode, Lady Mary is to be disinherited because the estate is entailed to a male heir, dreamy but dull cousin Matthew) and Pride & Prejudice (the unlucky Bennets have five daughters, meaning the reviled Mr. Collins will inherit their family home on the father’s death, leaving his widow and daughters penniless).
Don’t say I never did anything for you, Douglas.

Why marry at all?  Interestingly, most people who married were wealthy.  Peasants often had no need to marry unless it was to pool resources, and when they did marry, it was generally a casual agreement, not sanctioned by the state or the church, just recognized by neighbors and family members.  They had  no wealth to protect.  Marriage was by the wealthy, for the wealthy, a materialistic endeavor through and through.

We recently attended a family wedding in which the vows included the idea that the marriage was uniting two families.  Given that both of the new spouses are independent adults in their 30s, and that the extended families mostly met for the first time at the wedding (if then), this notion seemed ridiculous.  If they divorced, I would never see those people again.  And yet, historically, these ties were often the primary reason for the marriage.  These vows were a reminder of the history of marriage and the fact that “love” didn’t used to be what bound the couple together; it was their extended families.

When Love Came to Town

One reason Jane Austen’s books endure is that they capture the era in which love and personal happiness were first becoming accepted as a valid and preferred reason to marry.  Her heroines are proposed to by relative strangers (compared to the familiarity of our relationships today), and they do the unthinkable in refusing to marry someone who can offer them financial security solely on the basis that they don’t love that person or believe the match will make them happy, even though they have no other immediate prospects.  Their actions are normal to us today, but for that time, they were somewhat new and far riskier.  Unmarried women had to rely on the kindness of relatives for financial support.

This also hints at why marriage is more unstable than ever.

If we go back to the very dawn of time, communities often provided the kind of support that we now equate with marriage.  Communities protected and raised children, divided labor, took care of the infirm, and assisted with wet nursing and childbearing.  Marriage wasn’t required to do those things.  Over time, people entered a marriage when it was a financial advantage, particularly when individual property rights came to exist, and when the couple was financially ready to make that happen.  They often didn’t even have to marry due to pregnancy, and monogamy wasn’t necessarily the norm.  Affairs were tolerated throughout the history of marriage, and only became less tolerated for women when men were wealthy enough to care more about splitting their inheritance than splitting labor. [4]

What has changed?

  • Marrying for love is the norm, even among most western “traditional” marriage proponents (although not so in other cultures which prize family and community obligations more than individual choice).
  • Urbanization has led to fewer family or couple-run businesses.  Working spouses work completely independently from each other.
  • Bastardization is now seen as unfair and wrong; primogeniture has all but died by Season 3 of Downton Abbey.
  • Child labor laws exist, so having children has become a financial drain, not a boon. [5]
  • Divorce is easy to get and not stigmatized as in the past.  Sociologist Paul Amato reports that while divorce lowers the well-being of 55-60% of children it actually raises the well-being of the other 40-45%.
  • Birth control allows women to limit how many children they have and when.
  • Women can support themselves financially, and the wage gap has greatly narrowed.  Stay at home mothers only predominate in the richest 5% (where their social skills can enhance earning power) and poorest 25% (where they literally can’t afford to work due to marketability and costs of child care).
  • Low income women are finding that remaining single is financially smarter because low-income men are often a financial drain on their already limited resources.
  • Benefits that used to be restricted to married couples had to be extended to non-married people in alternative arrangements due to market demands.
  • People are living longer than ever.  Marriages, as a result, are lasting far, far longer than they ever did before.

When divorce laws are stringent and it’s difficult to get out of bad marriages, not only does domestic abuse flourish, but so does spousal homicide and suicide.  According to economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, states that adopted unilateral divorce laws consistently saw a 20% drop in suicides among wives and significant drops in domestic abuse.  The real “threat” to marriage is choice, particularly female choice, but choice is also what makes marriage more likely to be happy and healthy and not result in death.

Marriage has become more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history.  At the same time it has become optional and more brittle.  These two strands of change cannot be disentangled.

Marrying for love is short-sighted and frequently ends in divorce if spouses grow apart, don’t treat each other well, or are unhappy in their marriages over time, but marrying someone you respect and are friends with creates a different type of marriage, a longer lasting one.  One thing that really drives a wedge in marital understanding is strict gender roles.  The more couples see their spouse as greatly different from them in terms of needs, feelings, abilities, or desires, the less likely intimacy is.  Relating to others as gender stereotypes is superficial and reduces empathy.

Most contemporary couples expect to share bread-winning and child-rearing roles more equally than their parents or grandparents did.  When they adopt a more “traditional” division of labor after the birth of a child, this often destabilizes their relationship and increases their stress rather than relieving it.  A wife who formerly worked outside the home feels isolated, lonely, and undervalued.  Her husband doesn’t understand why she isn’t more grateful that he is putting in extra hours at work to support the new addition to the family.  When such a couple adopts a traditional division of labor after the birth of a child, both parents usually end up dissatisfied.  The more traditional the roles, the more dissatisfaction. [6]

What do you think about the future of marriage?  How should we strengthen marriages?

  • What is the best measure of marital success?  Self-reported happiness?  Divorce rates?  Number of children?  Is it impossible to measure?
  • Is ready access to divorce positive or negative for individuals and society?
  • Would arranged marriages, with the support and insight of both families, be stronger than marrying for love, which is often mere infatuation?  Or are parents too prone to exploit their children in these types of matches (e.g. dowries or connections over their child’s happiness)?
  • Are traditional gender roles helpful or harmful to marriage in your experience?  Defend your answer.
  • Should we quit idealizing the love match in order to strengthen marriages or is the love match essential to helping people want to marry and want to find happiness in marriage?


This is Part 1 of a 2 part post on marriage and is a reprint of a post I did at BCC.  Next week’s post will review Susan Pease Gadoua’s book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.

[1] Obviously, polygamy isn’t included in what Mormons are calling “traditional marriage” so precedent isn’t the only thing to define “traditional” marriage.

[2] I’m not saying she’s a gold digger.

[3]   Even in contemporary India, many unions remain arranged marriages under the assumption that the elders know their children best and can make the best decisions about their child’s future happiness.  Love and companionship will follow if the parents choose well:  “Some people still prefer the arranged marriage, especially in the countryside where tradition is still strong. The thought is that your parents know you very well, and will make the decision based on experience and not emotion. The divorce rate with arranged marriages is lower, because both families are heavily involved and there are many people committed to making the match work. But the tradition is on the way out. . . . Many families still choose to uphold the appearance of an arrangement. Their children will come to them and say: ‘I fell in love.’ And they’ll say: ‘OK, let us arrange it.'” Jammu, India

[4] These are northern European norms, the basis for the American marriage tradition.  Norms in Asia, even today, are very different.  People still marry when they are financially dependent on parents.  The bride moves in with the groom’s family and has specific duties she must perform in the extended family.  If they are displeased with her, she may be at real risk because she is entirely in their charge and often living away from her own familial support network.  Bride burning in India is one of the horrible outcomes of this traditional marriage arrangement.

[5] $7 for a “field trip” to the school’s gymnasium??  Who are they kidding?

[6] Philip Cown and Carolyn Pape Cowan, “New Families:  Modern Couples as New Pioneers.”