Though marriage has ancient roots, until recently love had little to do with it. I am glad times have changed. Today my wife and I celebrate forty-five years of marriage; and we are still in love! Today as well, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for all Americans, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, to marry the people they love.
Some reflections about marriage milestones.
Stephanie Coontz, marriage and family life historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, (whom I had to good fortune of meeting a few years ago) sees thirteen marriage milestones. I strongly recommend her book: Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, (Penguin Books, 2006).
From polygamy to same-sex marriage: the 13 milestones in the history of marriage.
1. Arranged alliances
Marriage is a truly ancient institution; but early marriage was seen as a strategic alliance between families, with the young-to-be-married often having absolutely no say in the matter. In some cultures, parents even married a child to the spirit of a deceased child in order to strengthen familial bonds.
2. Family ties
Keeping alliances WITHIN the family was also important. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we see for instance that Isaac and Jacob married cousins; and Abraham married his half-sister. Cousin marriages remain common throughout today’s world, particularly in the Middle East. Rutgers University anthropologist Robin Fox estimates that the majority of all marriages, throughout history, were between first and second cousins.
3. Polygamy preferred
Monogamy may seem central to marriage now, but in fact, polygamy was common throughout much of human history. Several prominent men in the Hebrew Scriptures were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and others all had multiple wives. In 2 Samuel 12:8, God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, said that if David’s wives and concubines were not enough, God would have given David even more. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1 Kings 11:3.
In fact, although polygamy may have been an ideal that high-status men aspired to, for purely mathematical reasons most men likely had at most one wife. In a few cultures, one woman married multiple men; and anthropologists point out there have even been some rare instances of group marriages.
4. Babies optional
In many early cultures, men could dissolve a marriage or take another wife if a woman was infertile. The early Christian church was a trailblazer in arguing that marriage was not contingent on producing offspring. Stephanie Coontz points out: “The early Christian Church held the position that if you can procreate you must not refuse to procreate. But they always took the position that they would annul a marriage if a man could not have sex with his wife, but not if they could not conceive.”
5. Monogamy established
Monogamy became the guiding principle for Western marriages sometime between the sixth and the ninth centuries. Once again Coontz observes: “There was a protracted battle between the Catholic Church and the old nobility and kings who wanted to say ‘I can take a second wife.”
In Charlemagne’s seventy-odd years of life, he had four wives, six concubines and at least seventeen children. Less is generally known about Charlemagne’s illegitimate children, but contemporary sources indicate that he greatly loved all his children. Many of his illegitimate children attained prominent positions within the Catholic Church.
The Church eventually prevailed, with monogamy becoming central to the notion of marriage by the ninth century.
6. Monogamy lite
Nevertheless, monogamous marriage was very different from the modern conception of mutual fidelity. Although marriage was legally or sacramentally recognized between just one man and one woman, up until the 19th century, Coontz asserts, men were in fact given wide latitude to engage in extramarital affairs. Any children resulting from those affairs, however, would be illegitimate, with no claim to the man’s inheritance. “Men’s promiscuity was quite protected by the dual laws of legal monogamy but tolerance — basically enabling — of informal promiscuity,” Coontz observes. Women caught stepping out, by contrast, faced serious risk and censure.
7. State or church?
Marriages in the West were originally contracts between the families of two partners, with the Catholic Church and the state staying out of it. In 1215, the Catholic Church decreed that partners had to publicly post banns, or notices of an impending marriage in a local parish, to cut down on the frequency of invalid marriages (the Catholic Church eliminated that requirement in the 1980s). Still, until the 1500s, the Church accepted a couple’s word that they had exchanged marriage vows, with no witnesses or corroborating evidence needed.
8. Civil marriage
In the last several hundred years, the state has played a greater role in marriage. For instance, Massachusetts began requiring marriage licenses in 1639, and by the 19th-century marriage licenses were common in the United States.
9. Love matches
By about 250 years ago, the notion of love matches gained traction, Coontz said, meaning marriage was based on love and possibly sexual desire. Mutual attraction in marriage wasn’t considered important, however, until about a century ago. In fact, in Victorian England for instance, many held that women didn’t have strong sexual urges at all.
10. Market economics
Around the world, family-arranged alliances have gradually given way to love matches, and a transition from an agricultural to a market economy plays a big role in that transition, as Coontz points out in her book. Parents historically controlled access to inheritance of agricultural land. But with the spread of a market economy, “it’s less important for people to have permission of their parents to wait to give them an inheritance or to work on their parents’ land,” Coontz observes. “So it’s more possible for young people to say, ‘heck, I’m going to marry who I want.'”
Modern markets also allow women to play a greater economic role, leading to their greater independence. The expansion of democracy, with its emphasis on liberty and individual choice, may also have stacked the deck for love matches.
11. Different spheres
Still, marriage wasn’t about equality until about 50 years ago. At that time, women and men had unique rights and responsibilities within marriage. Marital rape was legal in many states until the 1970s; and married women often could not have credit cards in their own names. Women were entitled to support from their husbands, but didn’t have the right to decide on the distribution of community property. If a wife was injured or killed, a man could sue the responsible party for depriving him of “services around the home;” but women didn’t have the same option.
12. Partnership of equals
By about 50 years ago, the notion that men and women had identical obligations within marriage began to take root. Instead of being about unique, gender-based roles, most partners conceived of their unions in terms of flexible divisions of labor, companionship, and mutual sexual attraction.
13. “Gay marriage” gains ground
Changes in straight marriage paved the way for gay marriage. Once marriage was not legally based on complementary, gender-based roles, gay marriage seemed like a logical next step.
Today, June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for all Americans, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, to marry the people they love.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored today’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States, managed to close his opinion with one of the most beautiful passages about marriage that you’ll likely read in any court case:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embod- ies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people be- come something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be con- demned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.