The History of Marriage
“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, with the same person.” -Mignon Mclaughlin
The argument of whether marriage is an outdated system is an ongoing debate.‘The House believes that marriage is outdated.’ So said the motion at a University College London Union debating society. On its Facebook page leading up to the event, ‘the House’ said: “Over recent decades, the rate of marriages in the UK has fallen markedly, while the divorce rate has steadily increased. With more and more couples opting for domestic partnerships rather than tying the knot, is there still a case for getting married in the 21st century? Or is marriage merely a defunct symbol belonging to a society we no longer live in?”
The institution has been in constant evolution, through different eras and cultures. “Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands,” said Steven Mintz, a history professor at Columbia University. “We say, ‘When and where?'”.
The first recorded evidence of marriage contracts and ceremonies dates to 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. In the ancient world, marriage served primarily as a means of preserving power, with kings and other members of the ruling class marrying off daughters to forge alliances, acquire land, and produce legitimate heirs. Even in the lower classes, women had little say over whom they married. The purpose of marriage was the production of heirs, as implied by the Latin word matrimonium, which is derived from mater (mother).
One of the most important questions, however, is how important a role was love in marriage? For the majority of human history, almost none at all. In fact, love and marriage were deemed incompatible to one another. A Roman politician was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd century B.C. for kissing his wife in public — behavior the essayist Plutarch condemned as “disgraceful.”
The most interesting fact, in my opinion, was that love itself only became a reason for marriage within the 17th and 18th century. This was when Enlightenment thinkers pioneered the idea that life was about the pursuit of happiness. As people took more control of their love lives, they began to demand the right to end unhappy unions. Divorce became much more commonplace.
Changes In the 20th Century
For thousands of years, law and custom enforced the subordination of wives to husbands. But as the women’s-rights movement gained strength in the late 19th and 20th centuries, wives slowly began to insist on being regarded as their husbands’ equals, rather than their property. “By 1970,” said Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife, “marriage law had become gender-neutral in Western democracy.” At the same time, the rise of effective contraception fundamentally transformed marriage: Couples could choose how many children to have, and even to have no children at all. If they were unhappy with each other, they could divorce — and nearly half of all couples did.
Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness. This new definition opened the door to gays and lesbians claiming a right to be married, too. “We now fit under the Western philosophy of marriage,” said E.J. Graff, a lesbian and the author of What Is Marriage For? In one very real sense, Coontz says, opponents of gay marriage are correct when they say traditional marriage has been undermined. “But, for better and for worse, traditional marriage has already been destroyed,” she says, “and the process began long before anyone even dreamed of legalizing same-sex marriage.”
Marriage to many people, including me, simply means celebrating your love, cementing your relationship and locking together your lives. It brings security, the sense of us vs. the world. The sense that people can get through anything together. They make a public commitment to care for one another, to look out for each other. They are on the same team.
I think that is important to highlight the fact that people no longer need to marry, but instead want to be married. Marriage itself – the simple coming together of two people in love – will always have a place in modern society.