Like any sitcom or romantic comedy will tell you, love complicates things. History will tell you that love and these complications are the reason for the increase in divorce, but it wasn’t always like this. In fact for the majority of human history love didn’t complicate marriage because it wasn’t a major factor for getting married in the first place. About 300 years ago when people started making love the cornerstone for marriage is when love started to complicate everything. Today people’s standards for love are higher than ever before in history, which only makes relationships that much more complicated. One might think that holding love to a higher standard would only benefit a relationship, however holding love to a higher standard doesn’t inherently make people better at love. Look no further than the divorce rates and countless unhappy couples that stay together for the kids. Unfortunately, the perpetuation of unhealthy relationships in today’s society are to be expected. That’s because the concept of marrying exclusively for love is still in its infancy. People are still learning healthy ways to love, and a large part of peoples short comings in loving their partner rests in the heart of societies failures of just loving people.
Throughout history, the idea of marrying only for love was scoffed at. Love in marriage was considered a bonus, like sprinkles or a cherry on top of your ice cream, but it wasn’t viewed as a necessity or even a good reason. Some people could care less about sprinkles and cherries. Long ago marriage did the job that governments and markets do today. Political, economical, and military alliances were handled with marriage. Marriage set up the division of labor by age and gender. Most societies even made specific rules around marriage in order to set up personal rights, obligations, sexual relations, and the inheritance of property. Marriage was for socio and economic gain. People married to expand their land, build treaties, acquire more workers/children, and overall to make life easier. Before elites could buy politicians or ship their factories overseas they used marriage to accumulate more resources and consolidate wealth. That’s not to say spouses never learned to love each other, but it is to say that considering love was seldom the sole reason or a big one, for choosing a spouse. This can be hard for people to relate to nowadays where the idea of love rules supreme. However, the reality is that marriage wasn’t even an individual decision for the vast majority of history. Partners and marriages were formed by parents and family members on the basis of what was best for the family, not the individual. Marriage was too important a decision to leave it in the hands of young foolish kids that were trying to follow their heart. People couldn’t get heartbroken if they never followed their hearts, but they could get a wife/husband that was best for the family and their future if they listened to their elders, and they almost always did. I don’t mean always like how often Taylor Swift is on the radio, I mean always in the sense of everyone that associates the name Hitler with a terrible person. Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but everyone looked down on the people who didn’t listen to their family, just like people should (in light of recent events I had to add the word should, it's not the 2017 I hoped for) look down on white supremacists. Choosing their own spouse without the approval of their parents, for the sole purpose of love was considered a special kind of stupid. So they crossed their fingers and hoped whoever their parents were fixing them up with was attractive, and not a terrible person. Marrying for political or economic advancement went on for thousands of years, and for most of history, divorce was rare because there was not an expectation of marrying for love. The idea of getting divorced because you were unhappy with your relationship was considered nonsense. Outside of abuse or fertility there really wasn’t a reason for it. People didn’t marry for love and happiness, and they certainly didn’t divorce over it.
Marriage for love has been up against a lot over the course of history. Love was considered irrational and fragile, and it was so inconceivable that people would choose to marry someone on the shaky grounds of love that many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think that love was a recent invention of western civilization. When you scroll through history you can see why they thought that. During the middle ages the French described love as a “derangement of the mind”, fortunately, they knew the cure, and that was having sex with the person you were in love with, or well actually anyone else for that matter. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the aristocrats viewed adultery as the highest form of love. The Countess of Champagne even believed that is was impossible for love to “exert its powers between two people who are married to each other.” Ouch. Not to be out done, the French in the twelfth century held a common belief that any man who was in love with his wife was so dull that no one could possibly love him. Harsh, but fair (sarcasm). France Andreas Cappellanus who was the chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes wrote about the principles of courtly love and said that the first rule was “Marriage is no excuse for not loving.” Which sounds kind of sweet, that is until you examine the context and realize he meant someone outside of the marriage. Apparently, the French loved to sleep around, who knew? In the 1760’s in France, less than 10% supported the idea that marriage should be based on emotional attachment. Let me repeat that for emphasis, less than 10%. Which, with all things considered seems like a massive improvement. In China, a husband who displayed affection for his wife, even in his own home, was seen as having weak character. In Confucian philosophy, the strongest relationships are between a father and his son, and between an older brother and younger brother, not between husband and wife. In the thirteenth century China the relationship between father and son was valued higher than husband and wife. In fact, in one case where a father raped his daughter in law, they sent the wife back to her parent’s, and the father faced no charges because loyalty to parents was paramount. For 1,700 years in one Chinese providence, the women had a secret language they used to talk about the pitfalls of marriage.
In the 1880’s religious authorities spread the good word that married couples who engaged in sex more than once a week would sell their souls to the devil. Okay maybe not that, but they did warn that indulging more than once a week could make you a slave to your sexual passions. Even in the cultures that saw love as a desirable outcome still didn’t think it was a good reason for getting married in the first place. Love and marriage didn’t mix, but as society changed, so did the roles, and expectations of love and marriage.
In the 1800’s the theory of the separate spheres took hold. People believed that men and women were part of two different spheres; the men were rational and had ideals, where the women were compassionate and humanitarian. Without marriage they were incomplete but together they were whole. This belief became popular real quick and during this time people held on to the hope of romantic love. However, women's inequality at the time put the fairy tale love story out of reach because women had to get married in order to survive. On top of that, the oppressing gender roles of the time made it harder to attain the intimacy and romantic love people craved. The gender roles of the time proclaimed that people married to be one person, and of course that person was the husband. Women were supposed to be entirely dependent on their husband and any attempt at developing independence was discouraged. The separate spheres also made it so women would stay at home and not questions their husband’s authority. With men conceding that women were more moral, it kept them at home instead of seeking public roles because they were able to establish the moral conscious of the home and influence their husbands at home. Hooray gender roles (more sarcasm)!
To understand the sexual revolution that would take place in the 20’s, you have to understand the standards that were held over women. In the middle ages, people believed that women were the more sexual craving gender and were unable to control their sexual desires. However, this changed dramatically in the nineteenth century when that idea was replaced with the mindset that women were uninterested in sex. Which is quite the switch. Women became the golden standard for sexual innocence. They had no interest in sex and their purity and righteousness were supposed to inspire men to be pure and keep it in their pants, and they did, well you know aside from prostitutes of course. One reason for this new found title of sexual innocence related to the theory of the separate spheres mindset. The title of women being righteous and pure not only made it so men didn’t have to hold themselves accountable because it wasn’t in their nature, it also worked as compensation towards women for excluding them from the political, legal and economic opportunities that were going on at that time. Don’t worry, it gets better (I'm trusting you are catching the sarcasm now). At the time it was also common knowledge amongst writers and physicians that woman didn’t really have a sex drive. One physician wrote, “love of home, of children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.” The belief that woman had no sex drive was so common that many men actually believed it was unnatural if a woman enjoyed sex “too much.” In 1890 a survey found that 25 percent of women were actually “repelled” by sex, and even among the women that did enjoy it many of them had feelings of shame and guilt for enjoying it. The pressure of sexual innocence was so strong at the time that woman felt like the passion during sex was degrading. Sure the men of that time would open the door for their women and say “ladies first.” But unfortunately, that phrase never made it into the bedroom. That combined with the pressure to not enjoy sex actually led to the invention of the vibrator. Go ahead google it! I told you it got better.
In the late 18th century, thanks to advancements in society, jobs, and culture, people started to believe that love should be the fundamental reason for marriage. This is because for the first time in history the spread of wage labor made it possible for young people to become independent without the help of their family. I can’t stress enough how much of a big deal this was. Now that they could support themselves they no longer needed their parent’s rules or expectations. Their new-found independence led them to overthrow the idea that they needed their parents to arrange and approve of marriages for them. This led to the choice of marriage being made by two individuals instead of a larger system. Marrying for love finally made its way to the forefront. Now two individuals could finally follow their hearts and marry whoever they wanted. Well, as long as it was a man and a woman and they were the same race. Hooray, progress? It was a dream come true, yet experts of the time believed that marrying for love would undermine the stability of marriage, and they were right. Because as soon as marrying for love became a cultural idea, so did the demand for divorce. Remember people did not divorce because love wasn’t a major reason for getting married. Now that love was the main reason for getting married, lack of love became a major reason for divorce. From 1880-1890 there was a 70% increase in divorce, that’s higher than a Rastafarian in a plane on April 20 at 20 past four… Really. Freaking. High.
Fast forward a bit to the 1920’s, when women started to pursue personal liberation, cast aside the image of purity society cast on them and brought forth the sexual revolution. Sex became so widespread that men actually began losing their virginity to woman their own age instead of prostitutes, true story (not sarcasm). 25 percent of people in a marriage admitted to affairs, and divorce rose from 1 in 12 in 1880 to 1 in 6 in the 20’s. Despite all of the sex and cheating, couples became focused on greater emotional intimacy that wasn’t really possible in the past. In fact, the idea of focusing on emotional and physical intimacy was a completely new concept, and just like a man driving an over-sized lifted truck, overcompensation took hold. Experts started to proclaim that sex was the glue that held a marriage together. Sex appeal kicked submission to the curb and women everywhere were empowered to throw on sleeveless shirts, and improve their dance moves instead of their minds. Not exactly the feminist ideal, but hundreds of years of sexual repression can have that effect. Men also felt the effects of the times and began to face the stigma of being labeled a homosexual if they didn’t throw out the overly masculine vibes. This new behavior had been considered ungentlemanly, but all of a sudden being an over-masculine homophobic tool was the new prince charming. However, the great depression and World War II would put that on hold for 20 years.
After the Great Depression and World War II un-paused marital progress, the long decade of 1947-1960 brought forth what people would call the golden age of marriage. In the USA and Western, Europe marriage became the be all end all, and 95 percent of all persons married. That’s like a Pixar movie on Rotten Tomatoes, just an absurdly high percent. Speaking of an absurdly high percent, 80 percent of people thought that those who preferred to be single were “sick”, “neurotic”, or “immoral”, which coincidentally are the same words people use to describe film critics who gave Toy Story 3 bad reviews. It’s the perfect movie. Anyway, advancements in technology and a booming economy gave birth to the male breadwinner model that has been distorting the views of marriage roles since. Social scientists of the time believed the breadwinner model was a result of modernization. However, it was nothing more than an anomaly in time. The vast majority of families throughout history have always depended on multiple incomes. In short, in the 30’s child labor was prohibited, from 1947 to the 60’s people got the idea that one income was enough, and then wages dropped and the economy came back down to earth and sent women back into the work force. Which they were actually happy to do, and their daughters even more so at the encouragement of their mothers who wanted them to be more than just house wives.
The long decade may have been considered the golden age of marriage but it was also an age of discrimination. Maybe not the golden age, but they tried their hardest. In the 1920’s interracial marriages were banned and went on until 1965 when only the south had laws prohibiting interracial marriages. Of course, it’s the south, first in line for discrimination or still at home waving the confederate flag when it comes to equality. God help them or send locusts, whatever works. In this case, God sent Richard and Mildred Loving. An interracial couple that fell in love and got married against God’s will. Well at least according to the judge who said “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents…. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix” in regards to the case. Fortunately, the south lost another battle of discrimination, and the U.S Supreme Court overturned the Loving’s conviction on the basis that marriage was “one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Granted, it took them two years to overturn it, but to make it up to everyone they also made it so airline companies could not fire flight attendants for getting married. Again, true story. Isn’t history bonkers and by bonkers I mean depressing?
After the Loving’s case gay and lesbian partners made their voices heard that they too were deserving of “basic human rights.” In 1970 President Nixon dodged that bullet of equality by saying something incredibly accurate, and unfortunate, “I can’t go that far, that’s for the year 2000.” Shockingly he was almost spot on, and equality for gays and lesbians would have to wait for the new millennium. Fighting against legalizing gay and lesbian marriage were those with deep religious conviction. I imagine the same type of conviction theologians had over a hundred years ago when they warned that having sex more than once a week would make you a slave to your sexual desires. In 2004 the founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson said, “the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization on itself.” Dobson had absolutely zero chill. Aside from being over dramatic, he was wrong about the family crumbling and was wrong in his assumption that the family he was envisioning had been the same for five millennia. Aside from religious conviction, others believed that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would send a message to everyone that it was okay to raise a child without a mother or father in the home. However, it was heterosexuals who sent that message by creating alternative relationships where children were growing up with single or separated parents. The rise of single and separated parents made it easier for people to buy into the idea that two people who loved each other and were committed to each other might actually make good parents. Same sex marriage still faces a lot of discrimination but thankfully that is literally dying away. In 2004 a poll showed that half of 18 and 19-year-olds supported gay marriage, compared to 19 percent of people over sixty-five. That was 12 years ago and the tolerance and acceptance of same sex marriage continues to grow.
Thanks to the 70’s marriage changed more in the last 40 years than it has in the last 3,000. Women returned to the work force and their mothers encouraged them to do so. With their mothers’ encouragement and the political and economic change, women were able to make dramatic leaps in equality. Science also did their best to chip in and introduced the pill. The pill's importance can not be stressed enough. Before if an unwanted pregnancy happened most women had to raise children on their own because men were not held accountable. It’s also worth noting that because of men not supporting their children and the low wages for women in the work place, many women had to resort to being mistresses or turned to prostitution to care for their kids. History sure is depressing if you’re not an old white man. With all that in mind, the pill is a modern marvel. Thanks, science. Pressure from women also brought massive reform. Work place discrimination started to be enforced, federal aid for school and women's athletics became more accessible. In 1975 woman no longer needed permission to get a loan or a credit card. Women took their mothers’ advice and sought out personal fulfillment, and with access to decent jobs, they no longer had to stay in loveless marriages, and the change in society made it easier to leave. The cultural mindset was changing and in 1978 only 25 percent of people that people who wanted to be single were “sick” “neurotic” or “immoral” compared to most of the population in the 50’s. The stance on movie critics who disliked Toy Story 3 however, remains the same. In 20 years women were able to set massive strides in equality. Being a smart, achieving woman used to be a liability, now it is considered an asset. In societies where women are approaching equality, they are less likely to seek out older higher earner husbands. Now modern men want women who are on a similar level. Because of all of this and more, the age difference for marriage is also at a historic low. Women would rather marry someone who can talk about their feelings instead of someone who made a good living. Marital equality is now associated with greater marital satisfaction, and working women get more respect from their husbands and their family. The last forty years have changed the dynamics of marriage like no other time in history, hopefully, the trend will continue.
Marriage has come a long way since its creation, and love has come just as far in a few short 300 years. Today the percentage of people who think it is okay to lie, cheat, or keep secrets from their spouse has gone down over the past forty years. Standards for what a good marriage is have changed dramatically and for the better. Which is good with how much longer people are living these days. Society has gotten better at this idea of marriage for love, but it still has a long way to go. To understand how to get there it is important to know that society directly affects marriage, and when society changes, so does the concept of marriage. Love was never the driving force behind marriage until advancements in society made it possible for people to become independent without the help of their parents, and when it did, marriage changed. When the war ended and the economy was booming, marriage changed. When the economy came back down to earth and women were able to pursue their own passions and stand up for their basic freedoms, marriage changed. When the south suffered another defeat and interracial marriage became legal, marriage changed. And when society recognized that marriage was a basic civil right regardless of whom you love, marriage changed again. Society influences marriage and a big reason why healthy relationships are not the norm is that society has been bad, and continues to be bad at loving other people. A lot of people are bad at love, and with love now being the cornerstone of marriage it's no surprise that around 45% of marriages fail. People say that love is a choice, or that it’s a feeling, but people often don’t recognize that love is also a skill. A skill a lot of people are not good at, in large part because society has been bad at it for thousands of years. Society is getting better at it, but equality and love go hand and hand, and we are still fighting against sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination in general. If society wants to get better at building healthier and lasting relationships then it needs to look no further than just loving people.
*All statistics and general information was taken from the book Marriage, A History. By Stephanie Coontz. It was a great read and incredibly informative. You should have bought this book yesterday, but today will do. Also, full disclosure if you click the link and buy the book or anything else I make money. Like, making it rain pennies, and maybe even a few nickels kind of money.