Same-sex marriage, cohabitation, common-law, monogamy, polygamy, the “sanctity of marriage” – all hot topics for those who qualify the union of two persons as a contract which necessitates the intervention of the government to decide how Americans should live their lives. In an era in which our existence is regulated to the point of leaving no personal choices available to us, there are many who want the government to define who and how we should love, and with whom we will be allowed to form that ancient contract, the institution of marriage.
“Through most of Western civilization, marriage has been more a matter of money, power and survival than of delicate sentiments.” (Psychology Today) The idea that marriage has been based on love or mutual attraction is a relatively recent one; the unvarnished truth is that it has historically had more to do with establishing paternity, legal rights, familial connections and the accumulation of wealth than with the “sanctity” of the union. The relationship of the couple had little to do with pre-modern marriage, rather, “it was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force.” (Coontz)
The Western concept of marriage within the last hundred years has changed considerably. The majority of marriages today in Europe, North and South America, are based on love matches and attraction, not typically contracted as family alliances or financial mergers. But this is a recent development in most Western societies. “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love …” (Coontz) It was assumed that love would develop slowly, after marriage and family obligations had been satisfied. “Good character” was thought to be a determining factor of the success of marriage and the subsequent development of affection; and if not affection, shared goals and a sense of mutual respect.
The main requirements for a couple in a marriage were a dowry for the woman and a substantive income for the man. If the union could promote increased status by uniting two wealthy families, then so much the better. It was preferable to make a “good marriage” than a loving one. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wealthy American heiresses made marriages of prestige with European gentlemen, while the aim of the European peer was to obtain a fortune sufficient to support his impoverished title and lands. Sometimes the spouses came to love one another, sometimes they were miserable. Though the fictional series “Downton Abbey” is based on just such a union, there is a real-life counterpart. Almina Wombwell married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895 and became Lady Almina, mistress of Highclere Castle. As Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, of the fabulously wealthy banking family, her husband, Lord Carnarvon, had access to funds for supporting his estates and subsequent hobby as an Egyptologist. Though the couple seem to have had a real affection for one another, this was not always the happy result.
The source so often quoted by those who seek to restrict modern marriage to that “between a man and a woman” is the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, the Bible sends decidedly mixed messages when it comes to marriage. Do we pick and choose which portions of the Bible relating to marriage are acceptable? After all, it does endorse polygamy, counsels a woman to marry her brother-in-law if her spouse dies, mandates automatic marriage in cases of rape and condones exploitation of slaves for their master’s sexual purposes. These are not applicable to our (hopefully) enlightened times. Marriage in biblical times was more a matter of survival of the tribe and making alliances. And the inequality of the sexes in the Bible is painfully evident. Penalties for violating the marital vows are drastically more severe for women than men (usually death). Why, then, do we continually seek to legitimize our modern prejudices by pointing to Biblical references?
As a heterosexual married woman, I don’t feel threatened in the least by same-sex marriage, but that’s just me I guess. I also see no “threat” to the nuclear family from permitting same-sex couples to marry. Frankly, I find that to be just so much political-speak. Whether the same-sex marriage initiatives succeed in this country remains to be seen, however, I feel no threat or moral compunction to oppose them. It’s time Americans stopped applying antiquated decrees to modern disputes. The Bible teaches tolerance and an equitable dispensation of justice; let’s try applying those teachings instead.
Carey, Greg, Huffington Post, “What does the Bible Actually Say About Marriage?” (July 7, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/bible-weddings_b_887979.html
Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin Books, 2006)
Countess of Carnarvon (8th), Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, Random House 2011
Live Science, “History of Marriage”, http://www.livescience.com/37777-history-of-marriage.html
Psychology Today, “Marriage, A History”, pub. May 1, 2005, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200505/marriage-history
Stritof, Sheri and Bob, About.com, “How Marriage Has Evolved”, http://marriage.about.com/cs/generalhistory/a/marriagehistory.htm
Wikipedia, definition of “Marriage”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage