From the very first marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, marriage has meant many different things to many different people throughout the ages. Marriage of some kind occurs in pretty much every society in the world, but throughout the centuries, marriage has taken many different forms. There have been sweeping trends and shifts in the general view and understanding of marriage over the years, from polygamy to monogamy, and same-sex to interracial marriages. This article will explore some of these trends in the history of marriage and discuss what we can learn from them.
Trends in the History of Marriage
Monogamy – one man one woman
One man married to one woman was how it all began back in the garden, but pretty quickly the idea of one man and several women came into being (more about that later). It took about another six to nine hundred years before monogamy became the guiding principle for Western marriages, according to marriage expert Stephanie Coontz. Even though marriages were recognized as legally monogamous this did not always mean mutual fidelity. Until the nineteenth century men (but not women) were generally given a lot of leniency regarding extra marital affairs, although any children conceived outside of the marriage were considered illegitimate.
Polygamy, Polyandry and Polyamory
Polygamy has been a common occurrence throughout history with famous male characters such as King David and King Solomon having hundreds and even thousands of wives. Anthropologists have also discovered that in some cultures it occurs the other way around with one woman having two husbands. This is called polyandry. There are even some instances where group marriages take place involving several men and several women, which is called polyamory.
Since prehistoric times families have arranged the marriages of their children for strategic reasons in order to strengthen alliances or form a peace treaty. The couple involved would often have no say in the matter at all and in some cases did not even meet each other before the wedding day. It was also quite common for first or second cousins to marry. In this way the family wealth would stay intact.
Marrying for Love
In more recent times however (since about two hundred and fifty years ago) young people have been choosing to find their own marriage partners based on mutual love and attraction. This attraction has become especially important in the last century to the point where it may have become unthinkable to marry someone you have no feelings for and have not known for a little while at least.
Marriage between two people who come from different cultures or race groups has long been a controversial issue. It was only in 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the interracial marriage laws after a protracted struggle, finally stating that ‘the freedom to marry belongs to all Americans.’
The struggle for legalization of same-sex marriages was similar although different in some respects to the above mentioned struggle to legalize interracial marriages. In fact, with the changes in the general conception of marriage taking place, it seemed like a logical next step to accept gay marriages, according to Stephanie Coontz. Now the general understanding is that marriage is based on love, mutual sexual attraction and equality.
Views on divorce and cohabitation
Divorce has always been a touchy subject. In past centuries and decades, obtaining a divorce could be exceedingly difficult and usually resulted in a severe social stigma being attached to the divorcee. Nowadays divorce has become much more widely accepted. Statistics show that with the rising divorce rates there is a corresponding rise in cohabitation. Many couples are choosing to live together without getting married, or before getting married at some later stage. Living together without being legally married effectively avoids the risk of a possible divorce. Studies have shown that the number of cohabiting couples today is approximately fifteen times more than there were in 1960, and almost half of those couples have children together.
What We Can Learn from the History of Marriage
Listing and observing all these trends and changes regarding views and practices of marriage is all very well and interesting, and there are certainly a few things we can learn from the history of marriage, as follows:
Freedom of choice matters:
Nowadays both men and women have greater freedom of choice than they did even 50 years ago. These choices include who they marry and what kind of family they want to have, and are usually based on mutual attraction and companionship, rather than on gender-based roles and stereotypes.
Definition of family is flexible:
The way a family is defined has changed in many people’s perceptions to the extent that marriage is no longer the only way to form a family. These days many and varied formations are viewed as a family, from single parents to unmarried couples with children, or gay and lesbian couples raising a child.
Male and female roles vs personality and abilities:
Whereas in the past there were much more clearly defined roles for males and females as husbands and wives, now these boundaries have become blurred. Gender equality in the workplace and in education is a battle that has been raging for the past several decades to the point where near parity has been reached. In many marriages nowadays individual roles are based largely on the personalities and abilities of each partner, as together they seek to cover all the bases in the best possible way.
Reasons for getting married are personal:
Probably the main thing we can learn from the history of marriage is that it is important to be clear about your personal reasons for getting married. In the past with arranged marriages, the reasons for marriage ranged from making family alliances to expanding the family labor force, protection of bloodlines and perpetuating the species. Now both partners seek to have mutual goals and expectations, based on love, mutual attraction and companionship between equals.