Americans are obsessed with marriage, we marry and get divorced at an alarming rate compared to most other countries. Just by living in the U.S. the chance that you will get married before the age of 40 is 81% if you are a man or 86% if you are a woman.
The words “institution of marriage” might conjure images of your parents watching TV in separate rooms, or a DJ introducing the new couple while the song “Ya’ll Ready for This” blares inside a crowded hotel ballroom, but marriage actually has meant many different things in cultures throughout time.
Here are eight things you should know about the institution of marriage…
1. Everybody Does It…Almost
Marriage historian, Stephanie Coontz found only one culture that does not marry — the Na or Mosu, a matriarchal society near Tibet, where children are raised by the Mother’s side of the family (like MTV’s Teen Mom, except with a lot less bickering).
2. It Used to be Strictly Business
No matter where you are, no matter how your people perform the ritual of marriage, one common characteristic combines all marriages from every corner of the world. That, of course, is that they create in-laws. “The anglo-saxon word for wife is peace-maker” explains Coontz.
Marriage has historically been about about bringing two families together, this was especially true before the Industrial Revolution when work was done in the home. So, say if you came from a family of cobblers, your wife would also be working in the business, taking care of the books, or customers. Marriage was in large part a business transaction.
And if you were entering into this business, there was one major catch involved…
3. The Parents Were in Charge
Author and Journalist, EJ Graff has identified the repeating reasons people marry throughout time, she says it’s a mix of Kin, Money, Property, Order and Heart. But that “heart” part is relatively new, and came post Industrial Revolution. Before this parents had the largest say in who their children married, but there was now the idea that human beings had a right to pursue happiness and in this ideal, young people began choosing their own partners. It’s a change that plenty of parents today likely wish never happened.
And speaking of changes we wish never happened…
4. Monogamy is Relatively New
Most Americans disprove of infidelity, yet monogamy in marriage is a pretty new concept. Pamela Haag argues in her new book “Marriage Confidential“ that in the 1950’s we were more tolerant of affairs than say in the 1980’s. “There was a fair amount of ‘wink wink’ tolerance for a gap between the monogamy ideal and reality” she says. This was more associated with men, who were often allowed to covertly take a Mistress or lover, however Kinsey also found that a fair percentage of wives of the era were having affairs as well.
Haag also looks at the current incarnations of non-monogamy in marriage. She thinks we are headed toward more discussion around open non-monogamy in marriage in general: “The popular image of the non-monogamous marriage is still stubbornly rooted in the 1970s caricature of a ‘swinging’ couple in the suburbs. But today there are non-monogamous marriages that are very much defined by having intimate attachments to more than one person where consent, truth-telling, integrity and boundaries are the most important things. If you are at a cocktail party with 20 married couples, chances are 1 or 3 are in openly non-monogamous marriages” says Haag. Sounds like good news to us!
Also, speaking of that monogamy thing…
5. We’re the Weirdos
Social conservatives argue for the “sanctity” of marriage, but this is a bit confusing, looking at marriage’s somewhat sordid history. “I think it’s worth asking exactly what kind of marriage people define as sanctified” says Coontz. She points out that through much of history, polygamy (having many wives) was the go-to model. And according to Coontz, the New Testament was somewhat suspicious of marriage — “celibacy was considered a holier state than marriage, people were encouraged to leave their families and spread the word of God.”
6. But We’ve Come a Long Way
Even in American culture there have been many different kinds of marriage. Until the 1960’s many states prevented people from different races from marrying. And before the 1970’s most states had “head and master laws” that allowed husbands to decide if their wives could take a job, open a business or get a credit card. And until the 80’s, the legal definition of marriage assigned different duties to husband and wife, “for example a wife owed her husband services around the home, including sex. That’s why there was no such thing as ‘marital rape’ and also why a husband could sue for loss of those services” explains Coontz.
Sounds pretty horrifying, which might soften the blow of the next point…
7. Divorce Is a Privilege
Divorce, birth control and the sexual revolution had a major impact on the freedoms of young people in the U.S. and especially women. According to marriage historian, Rebecca Davis, the seeds of this were planted in the 1920’s, when we began to see the idea that marriage should be about personal happiness. In the 1970’s “divorce was celebrated as a kind of liberation, especially for women” says Davis.
And in many ways it was a liberation. Women were long unable to file for divorce, now women are the highest initiators of divorces in the U.S. and some stats show in among college educated couples women are the initiators of divorce at a rate of 90%.
At other times in history, divorce was illegal. There was a period in England when divorce was reserved for the rich and the custom of “wife selling” was something of a phenomenon. Men would lead a partner around by a rope on her wrist or neck and auction her off to the highest bidder.
8. America Marries the Most!
Americans have been called “the most marrying kind.” In the U.S. many rights and benefits are attached to marriage, which isn’t the case in most of the World.
And yet, are we moving towards more or less marriage? “A smaller percentage of Americans today will ever get married than any other time in history. And yet, marriage is everywhere in the news: with gay men, lesbians and allies fighting fiercely for marriage rights” says Davis.
Some have theorized that marriage is becoming an institution preserved by the elite upper middle class. And as marriage rates are on decline, other studies show people do want to marry, but they are waiting for when they have more money, or when they have found someone worth marrying. As Americans are marrying less, it seems they are still valuing marriage — maybe even more.
“We marry later in life, so we’re more likely to marry in ‘mid plot’ of our lives, rather than building a whole life together. Many of us have already had a big love affair, so we’re not necessarily settling down with the big romantic love of our lives. We marry people who are much more like us than ever before, so we’re more likely to have a ‘best friend’ as a partner” says Haag. “For friendship” is the fastest growing reason people give for getting married these days.
Marrying for friendship is the latest change in the face of marriage, and it seems to be another offshoot of marrying for love. But perhaps the biggest change is Marriage equality (with laws recently passed in New York, Illinois and other states promising to follow). “Changing marriage from Boy + Girl = Babies to Girl + Girl = love doesn’t seem to be a huge shift…because it’s already happened” explains Graff.
When asked if they think marriage is becoming obsolete, 40% of Americans replied that it is — and that number jumps to 50% of younger Americans. But it seems that overall we still believe in marriage. And yet marriage is again changing, “I think marriage is in a brainstorming phase. It’s trying to find its footing in the realities of the 21st century. We still believe in marriage, but we don’t always do it to spec, we’re improvising.
And cheers to improvising instead of doing the choreographed dance of smashing cake in each others face to the soundtrack of Jock Jams II and growing bored in the suburbs.