The story of marriage begins millions of years ago. Immediately some of us have the vision of a cave man bonking a cave woman over the head and dragging her away by the hair. Not so romantic in our eyes. Anthropological studies have revealed the relationship between early males and females was not monogamous. They had sex with many partners. Fruit, nuts and insects were shared as a predominant exchange for favors.
As climates changed and migrations began, humans started to forage for vegetation and meat left behind by predators. When hunters learned to use tools and killed for their own supper, it is likely that bartering expanded to include meat and protection, possibly leading to the very first arranged marriages negotiated by families or an entire tribe.
Such social bonding might have contributed economically to a tribe or family, or alliances were created to strengthen obligations or connect families. Whatever the reasons, couples began to stay together for longer stretches of time, perhaps three to four years before moving on to another partner or starting another family.
The next chapter in this story happens when humans began to grow their food, and that’s when relationships changed. Agriculture rooted people to the land and couples remained together longer to provide for their children. As communities grew, they recognized these unions and determined what constituted marriage. In turn, laws were created, the first legally binding contracts between couples. Eventually, as time passed, legal doctrines encompassed more complicated issues as responsibility, obligations, fidelity and more. Religious and legal institutions have governed marriages over the years, but one fact remains clear — marriage has evolved many times, and most likely, it will again.
In this time-travel study of marriage, several interesting facts emerged that took us quickly through the ages. In ancient Greece, inheritance was of great importance, feelings not so much — love was an honorable thing, but it was mostly between men. Wife-swapping was prevalent in Rome, mostly as inventive career moves. Political polygamy was deemed appropriate in 6th century Europe, and by the 12th century arranged marriages were commonplace, often settled before the couple even met. It was in this century that women were obligated to take the name of their husbands. Love was considered incompatible with marriage.
By the time the 14th century rolled around, most ordinary people couldn’t choose who they wanted to marry. If they did wish to pick their spouse, they had to pay a fee. A couple hundred years passed and love was still considered of little import. During the Victorian era, passion and love between a husband and wife was actually thought improper. When Queen Victoria ruled, good wives were supposedly pure and chaste, and the “normal” wife was taught to regard sex as a tiresome obligation for procreation purposes, rather than mutually pleasurable. Hence the expression, “Think of England” arose when young wives were advised to lay back and reproduce out of patriotic duty for their country. The consequence was many men preferred sex with prostitutes than with frigid wives.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century in the US that honeymoons replaced the old custom of bridal tours and love became the primary reason to marry. Dating was the newest fad, and without the all-seeing eye of the family, sex became prevalent. By the 1950s marriage was now the norm, to remain single thought unnatural. Then we hit our stride in the ’70s and all we needed was love. Women were more independent, self-sufficient, and all the social rules changed. It became easier to divorce than stay in a querulous marriage.
So, where are we headed? Is marriage on the rocks or are we merely enduring another shift in the concept? Divorce rates are up, but the business of marriage is still booming. Today many people get married and get divorced, and turn around and get married again. Divorce is not seen as the same shocking or shameful event it was just a few decades ago.
Do we still believe that marriage is a lifetime commitment? Look at how different it is today — we are living longer and our lifestyle is vastly different than it was 50 years ago, even 25 years ago. Is it practical to assume we are going to be married to one person until death do us part? If not, isn’t it time to change the process of transitioning between relationships, to develop a new paradigm that fits today’s lifestyle without so much destruction and angst?
Only time will tell how this long-time institution morphs to eventually reveal a New-Age commitment between couples. Will love conquer all, or will a return to practicality win the day? We’ll just have to wait and see.