I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while, but more pressing personal and work events have intervened. So here it goes; it's a bit long, but believe me, there are lots of other interesting details I'm leaving out in the interest of coherence.
Marriage has been even more of a political issue lately than usual; marriage equality has become the focus of the gay rights movement. In particular, it has been argued by conservatives that marriage between one man and one woman who love each other and produce children is an age-old tradition essential to a stable society. While I’ve always suspected this to be a specious argument, I realized I didn’t really know anything about the history of marriage, so I decided to read Stephanie Coontz’s 2005 book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Reading it reinforced an aspect of history that a fantastic college professor of mine was the first to make me realize: history is not an upward or downward line of progress. It goes in cycles, and what is valued by society depends on that society and how it's organized. The same goes for marriage.
Coontz details how marriage, for much of history, had a lot more to do with economics than legal standing, religion, or morality. People married in medieval Europe to bring together families and resources. "Women's work" like growing food, tending animals, cooking, and making clothes, were valued as economic contributions as long as the barter system was around; when cash became more prevalent, the idea of the separate domestic sphere came about. The idea of each household being its own economic unit, instead of being connected to larger families and communities, is inseparable from capitalism.
Coontz traces marriage through many different societies and iterations, and the last paragraph of her book sums up:
Over the past century, marriage has steadily become more fair, more fulfilling, and more effective at fostering the well-being of both adults and children than ever before in history. It has also become more optional and more fragile. The historical record suggests that these two seemingly contradictory changes are inextricably intertwined.” (p. 301)
To me, this suggests that you can’t have it both ways; you can't insist both that the nuclear, child-producing family is the only acceptable arrangement, and that marriage should be based only on love. Coontz paraphrases a psychiatrist whose voice was a dissenting one in the 1950s, who said that "people were loading too many ‘psychological and symbolic functions’ on the nuclear family, an institution too fragile to bear such weight.” (p. 234) It's my opinion that people should be allowed to come up with whatever households or arrangements work for them. I think you should be able to designate whomever you want to visit you in the hospital, or inherit your property. Right now in the U.S., you literally get a tax credit for being heterosexually married or having a child. Our government exclusively rewards the nuclear family structure, even when a large part of its population is living outside it - and this reward doesn't seem to be motivating anyone to buy in.
Meanwhile, "manufactured nostalgia" (Coontz's phrase) is nothing new - she cites the Roman emperor Augustus, who, to boost the birth rate, ushered in a raft of pro-family government policies, nostalgic for the days when women were more obedient, industrious, and weren't allowed to drink wine. All this contributes to my mixed feelings about marriage equality as a goal for the gay rights movement. As things stand right now, legal marriage is the only door to many rights that I think same-sex couples should have, so I think it is a worthy goal. In the long run, however, I think it shortchanges everyone with more complex situations.
The government and the church weren't always so up in marriage's business. Coontz points out, as did Dan Savage in his book The Commitment, that in twelfth-century Europe, even the Catholic Church operated by a doctrine that "if a couple said, using the present tense, ‘I take thee as my husband’ and ‘I take thee as my wife,' they were married." (p. 107) No witnesses were required, no clergy, no legal documentation. Their personal commitment was what mattered to them and the world. That's the kind of marriage I could believe in.
All quotes from Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking, 2005.