Adapted for Cogitations from a paper I wrote as part of my sociology coursework.
Human beings almost never have to be cajoled into pairing. Instead, we do this naturally. We flirt. We feel infatuation. We fall in love. We marry. And the vast majority of us marry only one person at a time. Pair-bonding is a trademark of the human animal (Fisher, 1992). In our pair bonding society we find our other half, become dependent, and walk off into the sunset of the nuclear family.
Men and women depended on each other from the beginning. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin suggested that on average men are more aggressive, and that they excel at higher mathematical problems, and at completing several visual-spatial-quantitative tasks. Women, on average, do more nurturing and exhibit more verbal skills and memory ability than men (Fisher, 1992). These gender differences make evolutionary sense. Aggression would have served men well as they confronted their predators and enemies, and nurturing capabilities of women caused them to show interest in their infants and tolerance of their needs. As ancestral males began to scout, track, and surround animals millennia ago, those males who were good at maps and mazes would have prevailed. Ancestral women needed to locate vegetable foods within an elaborate matrix of vegetation, so they developed a superior ability to remember the locations of stationary objects (Fisher, 1992).
In preindustrial Europe farming couples still needed each other to survive. A woman living on a farm depended on her husband to move the rocks, fell the trees, and plow the land. Her husband needed her to sow, weed, pick, prepare, and store the vegetables. Together they worked the land. More important, whoever left the marriage left empty-handed. Women and men were tied to the soil, to each other, and to a network of stationary kin (Fisher, 1992).
The industrial revolution changed this economic relationship between men and women and helped stimulate modern patterns of divorce. When factories appeared beyond the barns of agricultural America, women and men began to leave the farm for work. During the 1800s most women still ran the house. But in the early decades of the twentieth century American middle-class women began to join the labor force in greater numbers, giving them economic autonomy. Not coincidentally, the American divorce rate started to rise steadily with the advent of the Industrial Revolution (Fisher, 1992).
Extended families living together were part of an organic whole. They all served the common good and shared every joy and every grief with each other. When they were weak, they found ready support; when they were sick or disabled, they found care and protection. However, in an extended family many freedoms were restricted, because a “wrong” choice would affect many relatives (Haeberle, 1983).
Beginning in the late 17th century, a trend toward “closeness” reduced the size of many larger households and changed the relationships between the remaining family members. They became more concerned about each other and needed each other more. Small, intimate, and mobile “nuclear” families were best suited to advance the cause of industrialization and, conversely, industrialization seemed to encourage the formation of small families (Haeberle, 1983). Members of this nuclear family were relatively isolated from the larger kindred, with stresses and pressures spread among fewer people; however they had greater emotional warmth inside the nuclear circle. A deep mutual love kept them together and boosted their morale as they competed economically with other small family units (Haeberle, 1983).
In the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible, God performs a surgical procedure that will yield a “fitting helper” for the man. The surgery begins with anesthesia as God casts a “deep sleep” upon Adam in order to open him up and extract one of his ribs (Genesis 1, verse 21). Then God closes up the patient’s flesh and proceeds to fashion the rib into a woman, Eve. The monolithic Church of the future, command center for social and religious life, will take from this operation exactly what it needs to promote and enforce its vividly convoluted teachings on marriage, sex, and women. This unassailable evidence that women are inferior to men nicely coincides with evolving Christian theology (Squire, 2008). Verse 23 reads “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” (Squire, 2008, p. 18) Marriage is presented as God’s mandate; it is not a matter of personal choice.
For most of Western history, marriage was not a mere personal matter concerning only husband and wife, but rather the business of their two families which brought them together. Most marriages, therefore, were arranged. Moreover, the wife usually had much fewer rights than her husband and was expected to be subservient to him. Often the wives were regarded as the property of their fathers or husbands and could do nothing without their consent. For their erotic needs, men often turned to prostitutes and concubines. There was little room for romantic love, and even simple affection was not considered essential. The main purpose of marriage was procreation and the perpetuation of a man’s name (Haeberle, 1983).
In the newly Christianized countries of Northern Europe marriage was essentially a business deal between the bridegroom and the bride’s father. The symbol of a successful “bride sale” was the ring (a form of down payment) which was given to the bride herself. Acceptance of the ring constituted betrothal. The full payment of the “bride price” was made on delivery, when the actual wedding took place. Since then, the ring has acquired many other symbolic meanings and is still used in our modern marriage ceremonies (Haeberle, 1983). It still signifies to me that a woman has been “bought,” the price of the ring indicating her value.
The Bible made the husband the “head” of his wife—his wife’s superior—as Christ was head of the church. The common laws turned the married pair legally into one person—the husband. The husband was enlarged, so to speak, by marriage, while the wife’s giving up her own name and being called by his symbolized her relinquishing her identity. This legal doctrine of marital unity was called coverture (Cott, 2002). This meant that a wife could not use legal avenues such as suits or contracts, own assets, or execute legal documents without her husband’s collaboration. The husband became the political as well as the legal representative of his wife, disenfranchising her. Upon marriage a woman’s assets became her husband’s property, as did her labor and future earnings. By consenting to marry, the husband pledged to protect and support his wife, the wife to serve and obey her husband. The wife’s marital dependency so compromised her ability to act for herself in public that single women, too, being potential wives, were often treated as lacking civic independence (Cott, 2002).
We take a surname to connect to our progenitors. While we are linked to our fathers, we have no connection by name to our mothers. I have a friend who did not take her husband’s last name. She did not keep her maiden name because it was another man’s name. Instead she picked a completely new name, and has received much criticism for this. I admire and applaud her for her ingenuity and resoluteness. She said, “We need to dig even deeper to find the remnants of misogynistic thinking in language and in cultural traditions.” The California Name Equality Act of 2007 allows marrying couples to change their last (or middle) name free of charge (CA…2009). Many couples are now combining their last names. I recently took back my maiden name, Uhler. When I got married, I simply followed tradition and took my husband’s family name without actually considering the significance. I now believe this custom is outmoded and misogynistic. My name represents my individuality, identity, and autonomy.
Theologians increasingly found religious significance in marriage and eventually included it among the sacraments. They saw divorce and remarriage as licentious actions through their interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. Suppression of obscenity was an indirect way for so-called purity reformers to defend Christian-model monogamy. They intended to thwart extramarital sexual relations and to make sure that sex stayed linked to monogamous marriage and childbearing, as fundamental Christian morality required (Cott, 2002). The Church abolished divorce by declaring marriage to be insoluble and greatly increased the number of marriage prohibitions. The 17th century English Puritans passed an Act of Parliament asserting “marriage to be no sacrament” and soon after made marriage purely secular (Haeberle, 1983).
When the colonies declared independence and joined together in a new nation, marital relations were re-envisioned in terms of reciprocal rights and responsibilities rather than formal hierarchy. Neither protection and obedience nor headship and subordination, but rather the “mutual return of conjugal love” and “the ties of reciprocal sincerity” between husband and wife defined a happy marriage (Cott, 2002).
Informal marriage, in which couples lived together as husband and wife without the requisite official license and ceremony—“self-marriage” or “common-law” marriage as it came to be called—eventually became common and validated among the white settlers from the colonial period on. Marriage frequently followed upon a sexual relationship between a man and a women proving fruitful, rather than preceding it (Cott, 2002). The United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.
By 1920 about one quarter of all women over fourteen was in the labor force. Women’s enfranchisement was often equated with total emancipation. By the mid 1930s virtually all the states had laws enabling a wife to own her own property and to inherit an estate free of her husband’s debts, to sue in court and make contracts, to write a will. Yet the modern wife’s freedom from economic and other constraints was incomplete. The New Deal remedies for economic depression assumed the male earner to be primary and granted entitlements of social or economic citizenship principally to men as providers and to women as their loyal dependents. In the 1940s heterosexual love still meant marriage. A middle-class girl and her boyfriend would hardly think of “living together” before marriage, even if they were in love, and sexually intimate. A sexual double standard still condemned women far more than men for extramarital sex. Divorce represented failure (Cott, 2002). In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners (Coontz, 2007).
Governments began relying on marriage licenses as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information (Coontz, 2007).
The end of WWII had brought with it a freeing up of society. There was a proliferation of new models of lifestyles. Because of this there was a turning inward among the more liberal and adventurous Americans, and a centering on relationships as they did so. This meant experimenting with communes, group marriage (polygynandry), swinging and swapping, the coming into the open of the gay and bisexual scenes, an “epidemic” of divorce, and the resurgence of single adulthood as an acceptable alternative to marriage. Many began to believe that marriage, as an institution, had outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced with other forms of relationships (Sammons, 1977).
People often join communes to escape the increasing alienation and individual isolation in our society. Communes offer an opportunity to be the whole self in a unified way. Frequently a prominent reason is to find a sanction for all kinds of sexual relationships (Sammons, 1977). Naturally, no group of human beings live together without all kinds of differences, frictions, jealousies, angers and all the emotional disturbances which can upset the sharing of lives. Deep communication would often be avoided, with intimacy being somewhat superficial.
Group marriages are arrangements in which three or more adults try to build a marital relationship; all involved feel and behave as though married to the rest. The tensions and strains in group marriages are probably greater than those of any of the other alternatives to a monogamous married relationship (Sammons, 1977). CEO and novelist Robert Rimmer maintained that in group marriage the male can never act in a true patriarchal sense, because his power is diluted. Jealousy has to be relearned in a whole new context. The only way a group relationship will work is if the original pair bonds are pretty strong (Playboy, 1973).
The Oneida community is a classic example of group wedlock, or polygynandry, in a sex commune. This colony was started in the 1830’s by religious zealot, John Humphrey Noyes, who wished to create a Christian, communist utopia. Over five hundred women, men, and children lived in one building, Mansion House, until 1881. Everything was shared, including the children they brought into the commune, their clothes, and their sex partners. Noyes ruled, and romantic love for a particular person was considered selfish and shameful. There was growing friction among the community members. Despite his dictatorial regulations Noyes was never able to keep men and women from falling in love and forming clandestine pair-bonds with one another. As Margaret Mead put it, “No matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back” (Fisher, 1992, p. 72). The human animal seems to be psychologically built to form a pair-bond with a single mate.
The kibbutz is a form of agricultural collective settlement now common in Israel. The members work for the collective and own everything in common. Married couples have their own living quarters, but take their meals in the common dining room. All children live together in a common “children’s house”. They are supervised and educated by trained personnel, but may visit their parents for a few hours in the evening, allowing room for a special relationship between them. Since even the unmarried adults work for the support of the children and thus consider them “their own”, there is a new, wider sense of family in a kibbutz than may be found in the outside world. Sexual intercourse between unmarried young people is tolerated, but eventually tends to lead to permanent unions. Women keep their maiden name and remain (or become) individual members of the kibbutz in their own right (Haeberle, 1983).
Swinging and swapping tend to place emphasis on the physical side of relationships. In swinging, the partners in a couple agree to have sexual relations with other couples without getting involved in emotional ties. They engage in sex for the fun and variety of it. The average swinger is very much against both commitment and involvement. But the people involved often find it is almost impossible to share physically without having feelings about it. Rimmer declared, “The male, particularly, doesn’t mind if you screw his wife and he screws yours, but he doesn’t want you to fall in love with her. He doesn’t want to have anyone find her interesting as a human being” (Playboy, 1973, p. 82). Swappers are couples who also want fun and variety in their sexual lives, but they seek it by switching partners. Here the people involved all know each other and intend to continue relating in ways other than sexual (Sammons, 1977). I believe it is crucial that all parties involved are completely in agreement, and that they are secure—both in their relationship and with themselves.
Many human societies permit a man to take more than one wife at once—polygyny. Men seek polygyny to spread their genes, while women join harems to acquire resources and ensure the survival of their young (Fisher, 1992). Polyandry is rare; only five percent of all societies permit a woman to take several husbands simultaneously. But it does occur under peculiar circumstances—such as when the women are very rich (Fisher, 1992). Joseph Smith, leader of the Mormon Church, had received a revelation mandating “plural marriage” in 1843 when the group lived in Illinois, but it was kept secret. Polygamy in Utah quickly evolved from a local scourge to a national embarrassment (Cott, 2002).
To make a multi-centered relationship work all those involved must share both an equal commitment to the relationship and an equal love and respect for each other. Clergyman David Sammons stated, “Not only does this seem unlikely, but I doubt as to whether the depth achieved in the relationships would match the depth possible for two partners who choose to center their relational lives.” (Sammons, 1977, p. 21) Most of us seek to be involved with some one else in a way that is consistent, predictable, responsive, and affirming. Without such a relationship we feel incomplete—something less than the whole persons we would like to be.
“No one person can fully meet another’s needs and desires, however,” Sammons said. “No one personality can ever fully satisfy another. Unless two people can enter into a relationship assuming that they cannot and should not be all things to each other, they are compounding the risks of a marriage.“ (Sammons, 1977, p. 23) Much of what is within us we want to share with the person we choose to know best—and we do so. But some things are better shared with others. This is not a defect. It follows from our humanness. To be fully human we have to be both centered and mutirelational at the same time. We are not naturally monogamous, yet most of us are in monogamous relationships. There is great emphasis placed on sexual fidelity, and with it often comes jealously, insecurity, and possessiveness.
Scholars have suggested that marriage and family are natural and inevitable institutions which provide for the proper raising of children, ultimately for the survival of the human species (Haeberle, 1983). Both have been found to serve many additional useful functions, such as providing sexual satisfaction and companionship for the spouses and economic cooperation between all family members. A stable family life has often been seen as the best guarantee of social peace. German social scientist Dr. Erwin Haeberle argued that societies, states, or nations are not composed of people, but of relationships. Society survives precisely because they are continuously being formed, broken up, and formed again by marriages (Haeberle, 1983). From a functionalist perspective, this would be a benefit to society as a whole.
All of these worthy goals can also be accomplished without marriages and families, however. Children do not have to depend on their parents, but can be raised by other adults or institutions. Sexual satisfaction and companionship can be found outside of marriage, and economic cooperation can be achieved in all sorts of ways between all sorts of people. Haeberle suggested that social peace can be preserved even in societies which downgrade the family as an institution and subject everyone directly to some totalitarian control (Haeberle, 1983). I believe structure, stabilization, security, and consistency can be achieved without a legal marriage contract. A stable “family unit” can exist in a non-traditional sense.
No matter what the age, many people seem to begin marriages immaturely and to continue them in the same way. Sammons discovered through his counseling that troubled marriages are often begun on a basis other than depth of love, understanding, and commitment (Sammons, 1977). One or both of the partners may have sought marriage as a way of demonstrating adulthood, attractiveness, or virility/femininity. Marriage may have been sought after as a substitute for the lost security of one’s childhood family or as independence from it. Marriage can be the result of the lingering social pressures to keep sex and living together within the confines of a legal relationship. It can be a cover-up for pregnancy or a way of giving legality and some sense of security to a child. There is also the pull of romance.
Sammons maintained that a marital relationship must include a decision to do everything necessary to sustain the relationship, a decision which must be reaffirmed over and over again (Sammons, 1977). Marriage should not be hard work. I think this “commitment” forces couples to stay together, when they might not otherwise. When the partners involved discover they are not compatible or happy together, they often remain together because they promised they would. Certainly partners who cannot resolve conflicts are better off separated.
When Dr. Laura Schlesinger asked her clients what they thought the benefits to marriage were, many of the men and women responded: Their spouse makes them want to be a better person; they have their best friend with them; they share burdens; they are not lonely and have someone to make history with; they have safe, fulfilling sex; they learn to be less selfish; they learn responsibility; they can raise kids together; and life is more complete and fulfilling (Schlesinger, 2007). I believe these are all benefits to any strong and committed relationship; marriage is not required.
These men and women also disclosed the drawbacks to marriage. They acknowledged they must make sacrifices and compromises—and that not everything can be compromised; they have to be selfless; their spouses get possessive; they must deal with gender and personality differences; the marriage can get stale; free time is cut down; extended family can be destructive; they have money arguments; and they must constantly get approval from their spouse (Schlesinger, 2007). Although these problems may exist in any committed relationship, they are certainly more pronounced in a marriage.
In the form of the law and state enforcement, the public sets the terms of marriage, says who can and cannot marry, who can officiate, what obligations and rights the agreement involves, whether it can be ended, and if so, why and how. Marriage prescribes duties and dispenses privileges. The governmental apparatus in the United States has packed into marriage many benefits and obligations, spanning from immigration and citizenship to military service, tax policy, and property rules (Cott, 2002).
A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn’t married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner’s wrongful death. But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments (Coontz, 2007).
Marriage has been instrumental in articulating and structuring distinctions grouped under the name of “race.” Marriage law constructed racial difference and punished (or in some instances, more simply refused to legitimize) “race mixture.” By incriminating some marriages and encouraging others, marital regulations have drawn lines among the citizenry and defined what kinds of sexual relations and which families will be legitimate (Cott, 2002).
Minority groups such as same-sex couples have to struggle for equal status on the terrain of marital regulation. The majority, meanwhile, can parade the field, taking public affirmation for granted. Lesbians and gay men seek legal marriage for some of the same reasons ex-slaves did after the Civil War—to show that they have access to basic civil rights. The exclusion of same-sex partners from free choice in marriage stigmatizes their relationship, and reinforces caste supremacy of heterosexuality over homosexuality just as laws banning marriages across the color line exhibited and reinforced white supremacy (Cott, 2002).
In 2008 the state of California passed Proposition 8, which stated: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” (ProtectMarriage, 2008) Proponents of Prop 8 lament that the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage overturned the will of California voters and redefined marriage for the rest of society. They argue that the court decision to define marriage as between “any two persons” has opened the door to any kind of marriage, undermining the value of marriage altogether at a time when we should be restoring it. They believe Prop 8 protects their children from being taught in public schools that “same-sex marriage” is the same as traditional marriage, and prevents other consequences to Californians who will be forced to not just be tolerant of gay lifestyles, but face mandatory compliance regardless of their personal beliefs (ProtectMarriage, 2008). This proposition is very questionable constitutionally; it is bigoted, hateful, and irrational.
Madeline Davis, past president of a homophile civil-rights organization said: “I don’t think the fact that two people love each other needs to be formalized. Being married means being blessed by the power structure, by the establishment, and I don’t want that. I don’t want this fucked-up society to say my relationship is OK. I’d feel weird if they said to me, ‘OK, within the framework of our beliefs, we will allow you to love each other.’” (Playboy, 1973, p. 76)
The unique personal relationship that exists between partners cannot be created, shaped, and maintained by written provisions, clauses, or codicils, or by signatures on some dotted line. This relationship is so intimate that no comprehensive and binding contract could possibly be devised for it. Marriage is too complex for easy generalizations. The precise nature of the marital union itself is elusive, and its role in society varies with changing conditions (Haeberle, 1983). This one-size-fits-all concept of marriage does not fit for many people.
Today women are continuing to have fewer children. Large families are contrary to human nature, and have begun to space their children farther apart as well. More women (mothers) are going to work. They still tend to marry men with higher salaries, because men generally make more money (Fisher, 1992). But women no longer need to marry up to get ahead. They can choose partners for companionship and not for financial and social gain.
I believe marriage encourages—even pressures—people to have children. But there are many parents who should not have had children. To decide to conceive a child involves an unshirkable responsibility on the part of parents. Children conceived by a couple are entitled to parents who will love them and provide them with a good environment in which to grow. Parents should provide children with appropriate ways to accumulate the experience they need to be able to make good decisions. Adults who are around children should try to create a climate of acceptance and trust so that the children will feel able to talk with them. These are all things that can be accomplished without a formal conventional marriage.
Dr. Schlesinger believes that women want a man they can lean on, one who can provide financial security so that she will be able to take care of their children at home. She stated, “Feminism has brainwashed women to believe that all men are inconsiderate beasts you can’t rely on. Therefore, the threat goes, never give up your independence. This mentality has confused and frightened women into an avoidance of becoming dependent on their men.” (Schlesinger, 2007, p. 36) I don’t think feminism has brainwashed women at all. Women need to have a sense of autonomy. They need to stop being overpowered by the male machismo.
Many women in their forties and fifties are divorced, widowed, or suddenly thrust into the role of breadwinner, and consequently cannot find a decent job. Millions of women work, put dinner on the table for their kids at night, and manage to keep their families together and bring in a second income—increasingly one that represents the major share. Journalist Leslie Bennetts asserts that working women are happier and healthier. There are now more American women living without a partner than there are living with one. Bennetts stated, “Marriage is no longer the normative state for women in this country, and yet we’re still bringing girls up to believe that it is and that there’s always going to be a man around to take care of them, which, in fact, isn’t the case. Moreover, women are living longer these days, so that marriage is coming to represent just a segment of a woman’s life. It’s a very scary prospect for society as well as for individuals if women don’t take responsibility for ensuring that they can support themselves throughout life, not just a part of it.” (Bruggink, 2007, p. 32)
Traditional marriage as a male-dominated, chauvinistic institution is breaking down. Now that people are freer to get divorced, the ones who stay married don’t have to; they stay married because they’re happy. I am in a wonderful relationship with Brent. We are only married to receive the legal benefits we would not otherwise have. We are still together because we make each other happy. We have history together. We have insight into each other. We agree on important philosophies and values. We enrich each other and affirm the best in each other. We challenge each other and make each other want to be a better person. We communicate; we’re open and honest with each other. We appreciate each other’s uniqueness and value. We have regular and exciting sex. We show affection. We don’t keep score or compete with each other. We share responsibilities. We have children together and agree on parenting styles. And we are best friends. All these things keep us together and happy. Our marriage does not.
Living together has advantages over getting married. Either partner can get up and leave at any time, so they have to remain in more of a courtship. With marriage comes complacency. People stop doing the things that attracted their spouse to them. They take each other for granted and become resentful. People do not grow at the same rate and direction throughout their lives, yet they still often expect their relationships to continue at the same level. Divorce has a social stigma; many see it as failure or “giving up.” But I see it as a couple’s prudent decision to end an unloving or unfulfilling relationship. People often equate the duration of their marriage to success. But if their married years have not been happy, there is nothing of which to boast. I would not want Brent to stay with me if he weren’t happy. And I am with Brent because I want to be; not because I made a commitment. I don’t need my relationship to be formalized, nor do I need society to tell me it’s OK. It is time to question customs and end the outmoded, confining, misogynistic institution of traditional marriage.
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ProtectMarriage.com. (2008). Proposition 8: The California marriage protection amendment. Retrieved February 25, 2009, from http://www.protectmarriage.com
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