Evolution of Marriage

I really liked Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Her thesis, that marriage has become more personal and more egalitarian, seems to be both historically supported and charismatic.

Coontz has an editorial up at the Washington Post, in which she presents this thesis and some of the major arguments: Gay marriage isn’t revolutionary. It’s just the next step in marriage’s evolution.

We are near the end of a two-stage revolution in the social understanding and legal definition of marriage. This revolution has overturned the most traditional functions of the institution: to reinforce differences in wealth and power and to establish distinct and unequal roles for men and women under the law.

For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than love. Parents arranged their children’s unions to expand the family labor force, gain well-connected in-laws and seal business deals. Sometimes, to consolidate inheritances, parents prevented their younger children from marrying at all. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Often, servants, slaves and paupers were forbidden to wed.

But a little more than two centuries ago, people began to believe that they had a right to choose their partners on the basis of love rather than having their marriages arranged to suit the interests of parents or the state.

Critics will say that this is simplistic, which is probably true. A theory is just a model of reality, and it will always leave out parts of the whole that some people find important. But on balance, I think that Coontz is right.

Nancy Cott, Harvard historian and author of Public Vows, seems to agree. She wrote an expert report for the court in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger. An extract from this report has been adapted into an article at the Boston Review: No Objections: What history tells us about gay marriage. Because of the context, it’s much more focused on American legal history than Coontz’s work.

Many features of marriage that were once considered essential have been remade, often in the face of strong resistance, by courts and legislatures. Economic and social changes have led to increasing legal equality for the marriage partners, gender-neutrality of spousal roles, and control of marital role-definition by spouses themselves rather than by state prescription. Yet marriage itself has lasted, despite these dramatic changes. Not only that: it retains vast appeal.

Why? The core of marriage as an intimate and supportive voluntary bond has been preserved. Today constitutional law sees marriage as a fundamental right. Most Americans are legally allowed to marry as they see fit. But same-sex couples remain excluded in most jurisdictions. This exclusion stands at odds with the direction of historical change toward gender equality and neutrality in the legal treatment of marital roles.

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  • Michael

    This sounds like a pretty good thesis. Of course, it’s a big exaggeration to say love played no role at all in older marriages, but it is true that it was not the focus. I have felt this way about marriage for a long time. Our concept of marriage barely resembles the tradition anything more than superficially. And gay marriage isn’t the only reform to marriage laws I would like to see either, though it is by far the most important. Honestly there is no reason polygamy (and the religiously-charged “plural marriage”) should be illegal anymore assuming it doesn’t involve anything otherwise already against the law, and ffs divorce should not be so difficult and expensive. People have to accept the fact that for most people, marriage is not naturally permanent nor exclusive.

  • drax

    I used to have a very romantic view of marriage, until mine ended. After much thought and a bunch of years it occurs to me that outside of what the marriage means to the people in it, it is no more than a legal contract.

  • mikespeir

    I read Coontz’ book some months ago. It was an eye-opener (although I wish she had devoted more space to non-Western marriage customs).

    I’m not sure gay marriage is really the next evolutionary stage, although it’s inevitable. In other words, I don’t think anyone following the trajectory of marriage 100 years ago could have predicted gay marriage. In fact, I’m not sure gays aren’t boarding the bus almost too late. Marriage by some definition may not be on its last legs, but a wholesale revolution is occurring. Fifty years from now I suspect the majority of people won’t opt for legal marriage, even within strict conservative traditions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Evangelical, even Fundamentalist, Christians won’t often just live together and call the arrangement “marriage.”

  • L.Long

    Reading a few good social-history books covering the dark-medieval time has always shown Coontz is correct. Marriage was primarily a religious activity to consolidate power and influence. It was when people decided to stop schiting on women that it was regulated, slowly over time, by the state.
    Everyone knows that it is religion that did not want the races/religions mixed and it is the religious that don’t want the gays involved.
    The religious HATE it when others are living happy good lives without their direct influence, so they will continue to try to stop the next gay stage in marriage with all their power.

    • dyoung

      i agree, and wish that the church would stay out of the debate. i understand that many people want to get married in a church and too many think it IS a religious pact, but in this country without a marriage license (issued by the state) no church ceremony can legally declare a couple married. but alas, you can go to the magistrate (of course still with said license) and get married without any religious doctrine or the blessing of god or church. for some reason the church does not argue that this is wrong. the gov. needs to step up and put and end to it. gays may want to get married in a church but that is too bad if their respective religion doesn’t allow it. we cannot force them to just as they should not have any say in what our gov. does. so the gov. should just say (the church has no place governing the people) and if gays want to unite for life they are welcome to come to the courthouse where religion cannot decide for them.
      i guess i rambled a little but have not the time to edit and rewrite. hope my point is mostly clear, sorry.

  • http://lydiafromtexas.wordpress.com/ LRA

    I’m not sure I’ll ever marry again. I found out the hard way that marriage sucks. But if people want to get married (or create any other kinds of legal agreements that constitute them as family and the protections that it affords), I have no problem with that.

    I hope that when the legal decision comes down to allow gay marriage, it will also include gay divorce. I wouldn’t wish an unhappy marriage on my worst enemy.

    • WarbVIII

      LRA I would it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Granted all things being equal marriage,at least a monagomous one, is not the normal way humans would live if the last say 2000 years,out of 50-100,000 years was discounted. It is generaly at it’s best either a commitment between two people(again within the last 2000 years and in the west) whom love eachother or can find a mutal benifit for the union at worst it’s a way to use the law to take away anothers rights and property. I would even go so far as to suggest that a two person marraige/a one man many women marraige and the insistance of family bonds,as opposed to say those of tribe or comunity have gone a long way too making those bonds weak and vulnerable to those that would manipulate us humans.

    • UrsaMinor

      I’m ready to take my chances. After twenty years with my partner, I’m pretty damned sure that I want to keep him.

      Gay divorce is currently very problematic if one or both of you leave the state where you got married and move to another that doesn’t recognize it. To grant a divorce to a same-sex couple would be to acknowledge that the marriage is valid in the first place…hence, no divorce allowed in most places. This is why we need protections at the federal level.