13 Facts on the History of Marriage

With our blog focusing on being a married couple and our journey together, we sometimes get readers that disagree with our ideas.  The biggest argument we seem to be faced with is the argument of marriage.   Here is an email from a reader that claims that if we wanted to have threesomes we should have never gotten married:

Nessa and Ryan, I wholeheartedly disagree with what you guys write about on your blog.  Your website almost cheapens the idea of marriage and shows how far our society has gone.  Originally marriage was about two people loving each other, having a family, and being exclusive to your partner for the rest of your lives.  What happen to those days?   Why would anyone get married when they still enjoy committing adultery?  Maybe you should spend more time reading about what marriage really means rather than writing about your adulterous adventures.”

Okay, I will take your advice and read about what marriage really means.  Let’s talk about the origins of marriage.

Below is an excerpt from an article written by Tia Ghose of livescience.com.  The facts themselves were sourced from Stephanie Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” (Penguin Books, 2006).

1. Arranged alliances

Marriage is a truly ancient institution that predates recorded history. But early marriage was seen as a strategic alliance between families, with the youngsters often having no say in the matter. In some cultures, parents even married one child to the spirit of a deceased child in order to strengthen familial bonds, Coontz said.

2. Family ties

Keeping alliances within the family was also quite common. In the Bible, the forefathers Isaac and Jacob married cousins and Abraham married his half-sister. Cousin marriages remain common throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East. In fact, Rutgers anthropologist Robin Fox has estimated 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 history. From Jacob, to Kings David and Solomon, Biblical men often had anywhere from two to thousands of wives. (Of course, though 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 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. However, the early Christian church was a trailblazer in arguing that marriage was not contingent on producing offspring.

“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,” Coontz told LiveScience.

5. Monogamy established

Monogamy became the guiding principle for Western marriages sometime between the sixth and the ninth centuries, Coontz said.

“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,'” Coontz said.

The Church eventually prevailed, with monogamy becoming central to the notion of marriage by the ninth century.

6. Monogamy lite

Still, monogamous marriage was very different from the modern conception of mutual fidelity. Though marriage was legally or sacramentally recognized between just one man and one woman, until the 19th century, men had wide latitude to engage in extramarital affairs, Coontz said. Any children resulting from those trysts, 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 said.

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 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. But mutual attraction in marriage wasn’t important until about a century ago. In fact, in Victorian England, many held that women didn’t have strong sexual urges at all, Coontz said.

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, Coontz said.

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 said. “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, which lead to their greater independence. And 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. For instance, in the United States, marital rape was legal in many states until the 1970s, and women often could not open credit cards in their own names, Coontz said. Women were entitled to support from their husbands, but didn’t have the right to decide on the distribution of community property. And if a wife was injured or killed, a man could sue the responsible party for depriving him of “services around the home,” whereas women didn’t have the same option, Coontz said.

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.

“One of the reasons for the stunningly rapid increase in acceptance of same sex marriage is because heterosexuals have completely changed their notion of what marriage is between a man and a woman,” Coontz said. “We now believe it is based on love, mutual sexual attraction, equality and a flexible division of labor.”

What is marriage?  Since the idea of marriage has been changing since our existence, there is no real definite answer.  My opinion?  Marriage is two people learning to work together, raise a family together, and live together happily for the rest of their life. Two people communicating, being best friends, having experiences together and both agreeing on what they want to try together, without close minded limits worrying about how other people view your marriage. Marriage is not about what other people think your marriage should be, it is about what you as a couple feel your marriage should be.  You don’t marry their opinions, you marry your spouses.  And if you and your spouse are happy, that is really all that matters.  Ryan and I are very happy.

Thanks for the email.

4 thoughts on “13 Facts on the History of Marriage

  1. I am so proud of you guys!! I follow you on a regular basis and love reading your blog. Kudos to such a professional response with a huge slap of in your face. Seriously people, why read if you are gonna criticize. I think when people complain it’s really because they are jealous.

  2. You might add that, until a hundred years ago or so, marriage was essentially a form of ownership, with women essentially being property. That is what changed, at least in the US, during feminism’s second wave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *