Marriage: The state of our unions

Fall in love.

Get married.

Have sex.

Bear children.

All four — and specifically in that order — comprise what many Christians believe is “traditional marriage,” unchanged since the Garden of Eden.

And yet for most societies throughout history, including most Christian ones, the expectation that all four — love, marriage, sex and parenting — could be contained and confined in one relationship would be considered impractical, irrational or at best undesirable.

Indeed, marriage without love, as dismal as it sounds to modern American romantics, was historically considered not just preferable but more safe, reliable and virtuous.

And believe it or not, even some Christian authorities a few centuries ago decreed that allowing your love of spouse to infiltrate the marriage was “impure,” adulterous or even insane, because following the fickle human heart was an unreliable basis for a stable marriage.

So how did we get where we are?
In her influential book Unhitched, Judith Stacey surveys cultures across the globe and throughout history to demonstrate that “the nuclear family that most Americans think of as ‘normal’ — one man, one woman in a lifelong, faithful relationship, usually producing children — is quite the cultural exception rather than the rule.”

“Every culture develops family and kinship forms to negotiate inescapable human conflicts between unruly romantic and sexual desires, on the one hand, and timeless human (and social) needs for durable, dependable, intimate relationships and care, on the other,” she says. … “[B]ut the families they design are by no means all alike.”

“In history, more marriage systems have been polygamous than monogamous,” Stacey notes, and arranged marriage systems far out-numbered cultures in which couples trusted love to lead them to the altar.

Here is a sampling from the global buffet of marriage models, identified by historians Stacey and Stephanie Coontz.

Many cultures — from ancient China and Greece to parts of modern Africa and Asia — see strong love of a husband for his wife as a threat to the social order or a sign of personal weakness. Catholic and Protestant theologians in the past called love of wife adultery or insanity. Hindu, Muslim and plenty of Christian cultures have said love is a fickle or fatal basis for marriage. A European axiom says, “He who marries for love has good nights and bad days.”

Throughout history, and in the Christian West until a couple centuries ago, parents arranged marriages to gain wealth or stability for the family. In early modern Europe, a family chose a bride with a dowry or a groom with good income because it was the best way to ensure “love would flower” after the wedding. Children usually accepted or welcomed the involvement of parents in arranging their marriages.

Polygamy has been common worldwide. In parts of India, a woman might be married to several men at once. In parts of the Indian sub-continent, a woman could marry a husband and his brothers, with full conjugal rights for all, as a system of social security. A spouse in ancient China could bring her sisters to her marriage bed as backup wives. An Eskimo couple often had a spouse-swapping agreement with another couple, and society viewed all their children as co-siblings. Among the Taita people of Kenya, men marry several “practical wives” for everyday life before they dare marry a “love wife.”

Many past cultures allowed husbands, and sometimes wives, to seek sexual gratification outside marriage without threatening the marital bond. In a study of 109 societies, anthropologists found that only 48 forbade extramarital sex to both husbands and wives. At least two African tribes, the Dagon and Rukuba, encouraged young brides to publicly pursue extramarital relationships.

Current South African law has liberal provisions for polygamy and same-sex marriage, although social tradition and political pressures keep many people from doing so publicly.

“All these examples of marital and sexual norms make it difficult to claim there is some universal model for success or happiness in marriage,” writes Coontz in Marriage, A History.

Nonetheless, in the era of globalization, the West continues successfully to export its ideal of marriage to many other developed countries, despite its unusual and countercultural nature.

“For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage,” Coontz says. But that’s exactly what happened in the West, largely because of a dominant Christian interpretation of parts of the Bible.

“About two centuries ago, Western Europe and North America developed a whole set of new values about the way to organize marriage and sexuality …,” writes Coontz. As a result, “individuals [now] want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex.”
“Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable,” Coontz says.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the matrimonial turmoil that has rocked America from the 1960s to today.

Powerful cultural factors are reshaping marriage in the West — cohabitation, delayed marriage and child-rearing, parenthood with-out marriage, female economic freedom, same-sex marriage, and the legacy of divorce.

In one way or another, each car on America’s “love train” has been decoupled from the others — love, marriage, sex and parenting.

Love without marriage: More than half of American adults cohabit at one time or another, according to numerous government and private studies, and more of those relationships are producing children. Approximately 60 percent of Americans believe the best way to establish a successful marriage is to cohabit first, but research suggests otherwise. About 40 percent of first cohabitations lead to a wedding, but those who marry after cohabiting more than once are more likely to divorce. The average cohabiting couple stays together only 22 months and is five times more likely to break up than if they married, and one third as likely to reconcile.

Sex without marriage: Premarital sex is almost universal in America. Even a decade ago, 95 percent of Americans said they had sex before marriage. More than 80 percent of teens are sexually active, despite government-funded abstinence programs, and at least 90 percent of Americans under 30 have had pre-marital sex, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. Extramarital sex counts here too. It’s estimated that between one fourth and half of all marriages experience infidelity.

Parenthood without marriage: About 40 percent of all births now occur outside marriage, including more than half of all births to Millennials (age 18 to 29). Marriage is considered obsolete by 40 percent of Americans and more than half of Millennials. As a group, Millennials place more value on being a good parent than having a successful marriage.

Sex without love: The Sexual Revolution rejected marriage-only sex in favor of “free love.” But casual sex has morphed into the nearly anonymous sexual rituals of today’s “hookup” culture, which dispenses with dating in favor of brief, uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of college students report having hookups in the previous year, according to the American Psychological Association. Loveless sex also encompasses sex as recreation, virgin-shaming, bartering sex for attention, and perhaps sexual violence — much of it delivered to our homes at the speed of the Internet.

Maybe Stacey and Coontz are right. Did an unrealistic model of marriage sow the seeds of its own destruction?

If the marriage ideal is still alive in America, it may be twisted and shrunk beyond recognition. The Western concept that combines romance, sex and friendship in one blissful relationship had “unanticipated and revolutionary consequences,” Coontz notes, ones that now threaten the survival of marriage itself.

Current shifts in modern Western societies, including harsh economic pressures, globalization and job instability, “have increasingly rendered marriage neither sustainable nor even suitable for many individuals,” Coontz adds.

It’s the economy, stupid!

So who really defines marriage?

The practice of marriage has always bent to the winds of economic factors. Anthropologists report this has always been the case — and today is no exception. In virtually every society in every place and time, social structures like marriage have been shaped by money.

That historic truism accounts for much of the incredible variety of matrimonial customs around the world— and even in the Bible.

The most obvious example is the long-standing tradition of arranging marriage for the financial benefit of the family, clan or community, which Stacey calls the bottom-line reason marriage is ubiquitous in human history.



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