I’ve been married for 28 years, but for the past four, my husband and I have been separated. The good news is we are trying to reconcile. During our estrangement, I continually told friends and family that I strongly believed in the institution of marriage. But what exactly is an institution? What does it represent? Merriam-Webster defines institution as “a custom, practice, relationship, or behavioral pattern of importance in the life of a community or society.” The word institution to me always conjured up visions of scary places where crazies were sent. In my 20s, there was an all-male house named “The Institute.” Like heli-skiing or base-jumping for extreme athletes, this was a place for “Extreme Partying.” You could behave insanely at Institute parties and everyone would still consider you normal. We had fun but thank God it was fleeting. I wonder if George Bernard Shaw partied at a similar hangout. He once described the institution of marriage as blending two people “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”
Where did this radical idea of marriage come from? In the Stone Age, women exchanged sex for food, and this was their way to secure a mate. According to some anthropologists, that is the reason women lost the estrus cycle that other mammals possess. Those mammals come into heat only during certain periods of the year. Human females evolved to become fertile year round. They were then able to attract males and keep them in long-term relationships through uninterrupted mating. Makes perfect sense to me. Many subscribe to the theory that this was the origin of the nuclear family. Man hunts and woman provides sex along with a few nuts and berries.
As far as the institution of marriage itself, our current culture believes that love is the basis of a long-lasting relationship. But as civilizations became more complex, the role of marriage was more akin to a business merger. Families consolidated finances, joined resources and drew up peace treaties by marrying off their sons and daughters to the right parties. The church and community policed these transactions.
From the Middle Ages through the 18th century, a wife’s dowry was often the biggest cash cow a man would ever receive in his life. Despite this, a woman was still considered a man’s property and he had the right to beat her if necessary, or at least mete out discipline. Even the lower classes had a sound economic strategy. Neighbors were often attractive mates as their fields would be next to one another’s. Families would often only approve if the in-laws and their extended family could be a help to their own as farms and small businesses needed extra skills and tools and these were more attractive than the compatibility of their offspring. In all but the elite class, two income families were the norm.
People certainly married because of love, but for thousands of years, this was not the impetus to tie the knot. Love was actually a serious threat to social order. Finally, during the late 18th century, mostly in Western Europe and North America, people began to allow two individuals free choice and marry for love. The pragmatism of marriage gave way to a new ideal in which the husband was the provider and the wife the home manager.
The 1950s saw the idealism of “Ozzie and Harriet” and marriage was seen as the only road to a happy adulthood and independence of extended family. Marriage was the gateway to a better life, along with a few new appliances to make home life better. People thought that marriage and family had finally come to full circle having a fair balance between love and social stability established. This was short-lived and began to unravel. It was soon to become part of a halcyon past.
Our modern belief is that the institution of marriage, whatever that is, is crumbling. Fifty percent of American unions end in divorce. Our European counterparts have only a slightly better record. Modern women are marrying later in life, if at all. According to the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau, women earn more than men in 39 out of the 50 biggest cities and match men in another eight. Women also surpass the number of men who graduate from college and are 1.5 times more likely to get an advanced degree. The Atlantic magazine, in its November 2011 issue said, “In today’s society, men are falling apart… recent years have seen an explosion in joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the romantic market in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options…”
With the aging of the world population, some countries are more concerned with young people actually getting married than staying married. In Japan, experts expect the population will decrease by one-third unless the birthrate kicks in. One Japanese magazine recently posted “Young People, Don’t Hate Sex.” In Spain, more than 50 percent of women in their 20s are single, stalling childbirth and the country’s economic growth. Rapid legalization of same sex marriages is also playing a role in embracing new ideas about marriage and the influence of both male and female counterparts on children. Public opinion is divided and only time will determine its effects on child rearing.
Life expectancy has increased tremendously. In the past, a marriage was expected to survive just 30 years until one spouse died, usually of natural causes. This was just enough time to settle in, find common ground and bear heirs before the onset of marriage doldrums set in. Now, we tack another 30 years onto the institution and the challenge is daunting.
I’m having enough problems defining my own marriage, but I wonder if this is not a question of romantic love but rather a good hard look at the changing face of the landscape of marriage as a whole. Perhaps it is time to discover new ways to remap yet keep intact, through love, this most sacred of institutions.