Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Marriage Matters

Marriage is at the heart of what makes a family. This traditional union between two people is a very old one.  To many, the institution of marriage is under threat. Historically and in our time we have been and will continue to transform the nature and definition of marriage. Where will it take us? Will marriage as we know it survive? Probably not. Something similar and different will take its place.

Queen Victoria Gets Hitched
Marriage has meant different things.  Marriage changes meaning with cultures and time. It changes slowly enough that we see multiple generations living through similar interpretations of marriage and consider our current definition to be the only one. Let us examine societies and eras in history to see how this is so.

Ancient Women as Property

Marriage in old Jewish tradition was about procreation to perpetuate a a tribe. Weddings were a celebration of the daughter's family accepting a father's purchase of her. The bride price was not paid by the potential husband, but rather the groom's father.

The Sultan's Harem
Women in this time were considered property. Men were economically responsible for women. Women gave all their labors in service to their man. Divorce, the sale of your female property, was not allowed

Men could have many wives and even concubines. As property, women could be considered a sign of prosperity and wealth. Strict hierarchies of wives were maintained with one woman being in charge of the others.

Sex outside of marriage was forbidden by law. Relationships between men were supposed to be brotherly only. Sex between members of the same gender could be punished by death.

Greek Domestic Bliss
Roman Patriarchy

In ancient western civilizations like Greece and Rome, marriage was a basic social unit. It was not considered a romantic union. Marriage was considered a mark of citizenship and coming of age. Men who were not married were treated with scorn as not fulfilling their civic duty.

Marriage was neither a government or religious institution in Europe at this time. It was a contract between large family units. Fathers arranged their marriages for their sons and daughters. Choosing one's own partner was considered rebellious and could even be punished by death. The contract of marriage was signed between two fathers, not the son and daughter. Typically men were ten years older than women at the time of contract. Breaking the contract ended the marriage.

Giving of a Roman wife
Prostitution, male homosexuality, and concubines were common in some areas, especially ancient Greece. Intense emotional relationships between men were considered a normal part of life. Sleeping with someone else's wife however was taboo universally as it made identifying the father of a child difficult.

Dark Ages Church Law

The biggest change in the European marriage customs occurred as Christianity became a state religion. Over several generations divorce laws were tightened until almost it became almost impossible to leave one's betrothed. Marriage was a gift from God. Divorce was only possible by the death of one's spouse.

Church controlled society through marriage.
Simultaneously the Catholic church, as the state governmental authority, became the arbiter of marriage by requiring the ceremony of a church sanctioned wedding. Permission to marry was the church's to decide. Catholic law required that accurate records be kept so that no marriage could occur by blood up to seven generations back. Marriage was the uniting of families by God. With marriage the two united families became one.

Romantic love was not an issue in this time and place. Love was something God gave to your marriage as time passed. While no longer property, brides were expected to be subservient to their grooms for life.

During this time having multiple wives, visiting prostitutes, concubinage, and homosexuality were banned as sin.

Reformation Divorce

When Martin Luther nailed his new ideas to the door of his church, the institution of marriage under went slow but serious change. Protestants saw marriage as a secular activity, not having to be ordained by God. English Puritans even passed a law stating “Marriage to be no sacrament”. They brought this view to America when they migrated, developing the concept of “common law” marriages.

Martin Luther thought marriage
needed no church
With the French Revolution, main land Europe declared that marriage was a purely civil institution. Religious weddings were allowed only after a civil ceremony in front of a government official.

Divorce was also considered no longer sinful with the Protestant reformation. Some sects even believed that marriage could be broken by the couple at anytime for their own reasons without the law or church involved.

With the arrival into Maryland of a large number of Catholics a diversity of opinion spread through the colonies. Each American colony made their own laws about what constituted a marriage and divorce.

With no legal or church sanction,
slaves "jumped the broom".
Love Rules

In Victorian England, our modern sense of romantic marriage came about. Choosing one's own true love after courtship was enshrined in tradition mimicking the Queen and Prince Albert's inspiration. The virginal white dresses of brides became all the latest fashion and have continued as a symbol of union ever since.

With the Victorians, divorce was seen as a betrayal of love. While legally possible, it was highly frowned upon and rarely happened due to its stigma as failure.

It was during this time frame that the novel as a literary form spread across Europe. Books by authors extolling romance were widely read.  Novels about love generated a new thoughts of passion related to courtship and marriage. These appeals to emotion brought down the idea that parents should choose their child's life partner.  Love came before marriage.

Dating and Divorce

With modern technologies came a new sense of marriage. Dating started spreading as a social institution as late as 1920. In heavily commercial societies, some even began advocating "try before you buy", putting sex before marriage.  During this period, all parental controls on marriage where abandoned.  Laws came into being governing the "age of consent" protected children from being caught up in marriage too early.

During the 19th century divorce in the United States required finding of fault in either the husband or wife. One party must be injured by the other by abuse, desertion, adultery, inebriation or impotence. Without proving in court that these things had happened, marriage continued until death.

Prior to becoming a place to elope to, Nevada was the haven for an easy, no-fault divorce. Starting in the mid-1950's rules across the United States began to change, allowing simple divorces without placing blame. It wasn't until the early 1970's that these laws changed federally and divorce became easy.

The liberalization of divorce law had a major impact on marriage. Unhappy couples could now break and make marriages as they wished. Women with newly won freedoms and economic independence no longer were kept bound to house and husband.

Threats to Marriage?

Recently we are struggling with the idea of allowing gender-less marriage. This effort has been an attempt by gay and lesbian couples to gain legal privileges, freedoms, and rights. Against them are arrayed largely religious groups who see their activity as a threat to the institution of marriage.

Sulu's special day.
Saying that marriage is about bringing together men and women so children can have mothers and fathers, some think allowing these non-traditional marriages will cause a break in the fabric of society.  Same sex marriage is declared an "untested social experiment" on children.

Research indicates that parents' financial, psychological and physical well-being is enhanced by marriage and that children benefit from being raised by two parents within a legally recognized union. 

Science has been generally consistent in showing that lesbian and gay parents are as fit and capable as heterosexual parents, and their children are as psychologically healthy and well-adjusted as children reared by heterosexual parents. 

In 1996 the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed in both houses of congress by large majorities. DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes. DOMA has since been found unconstitutional in eight federal courts, including the First and Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In response, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives instructed the House General Counsel to defend the law using taxpayer dollars


Ron and Nancy cut the cake.
Definitions of who can get married, how they can get married, and when they can divorce has changed with time. The relationship between marriage, law, and church has evolved. The rules for divorce morph.

What we grew-up understanding as "marriage" is about our culture. What we know as children is what we see as “normal”.  Marriage has not always been one way or another.

I am neither advocating or denying any particular change to the institution of marriage. Rather, I am claiming that we should not “stay the course” just because it is familiar. Embracing new understandings can enrich us all.

Changes to the definition of marriage have had affects on society. We need to consider them and choose wisely.  Change can be positive. 

While we may dislike or fear changes to marriage, we can not claim that we are the first to modify it's definition. In fact, we are irresponsible if we do not continue to modify marriage's meaning.  We have an obligation to climb the ladder of freedom for future generations.

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1 comment:

  1. Just a few thoughts. Also during many ages, like the Renaissance, if a woman did not produce an heir within one year of the marriage, often the husband could return her.

    Before modern times (and still in some other countries) children of a marriage are considered property of the man, and if a woman divorces she loses her rights to them.

    Even when I was younger, a friend's parents split, and were excommunicated by their church because of their divorce. That wasn't all that long ago. Heck, it's only been since the 1970s that a woman could get credit or loans in her own name, and didn't require a male relative to cosign for her.

    The idea that marriage has remained the same for any period of time is ridiculous. The Christian religion has no corner on marriage as a social construct and should not be used to define marriage. Just my opinion, but there it is.