Marriage: What Is It For?

Excerpted from What Is Marriage For?

Why has the 20th century seen such a dramatic rise in "living together" without state-sanctioned marriage? Why, after millennia in which marriage has meant Boy+Girl=Babies, is every Western country considering Girl+Girl=Love? Is this the beginning of the end of marriage? Is civilization about to crash down around our ears?

My book takes a careful look at the Big Lie of the family values debates: the idea that marriage is a solid-state pillar of society, that what we see on 1950s reruns is what marriage has always been. That idea is utter fantasy. In fact, marriage has always been a social battleground, its rules in violent flux throughout history. Marriage is a kind of Jerusalem, an archaeological site on which the present is constantly building over the past, letting history's many layers twist and tilt into today's walls and floors. Many people believe theirs is the one true claim to this holy ground. But like Jerusalem, marriage has always been a battleground, owned and defined first by one group and then another.

What we now think of as "traditional" marriage was invented about one hundred years ago. Before then, if anything could be called "traditional" marriage, it would have to be marriage for money. Through most of history, the engagement feast was the moment two families finished negotiations and finally signed, witnessed, and notarized the marriage contract (and maybe the pair started living together). The marriage ceremony was when property actually changed hands, often overseen by a notary rather than a priest. If you worked-if your ancestors were butchers, bakers, candlestick makers-marriage was your complete plan of labor. The farmer required a farmwife; the fisherman required a fishwife. As one historian wrote, "For many centuries marriage for love was the dubious privilege of those without property"-those near starvation, who didn't even have a cookpot and dresses to write down as a dowry.

Of course the "traditional" pair cared for each other, unless they irritated each other to death-don't you care for, or hate, your coworkers? But everyone expected you to talk about the important thing-money-first, and trusted that afterwards you could work out such details as affection, sex, maybe even love.

But a funny thing happened to marriage on the way to the 20th century. Marriage stopped being the way you exchanged those limited resources, land or labor. Today Westerners are work-units as mobile as cellular phones, making a living (or failing to) by making our own decisions about which talents or inclinations to trust. And once you can make your own living, you can also make your own bed.

Capitalism, in other words, pushed marriage through the looking glass: now we expect people to talk about love first, and money last. That led to some very nasty 19th and 20th century battles over marriage's rules. For instance, contraception is now legal-which means we believe that marriage and sex are justified by intimacy, not just by making babies. Divorce is legal for other causes than adultery and attempted murder-which means we believe the heart makes and unmakes a marriage. And our societies now consider men and women to be formally equal, so that late 20th century women can have custody of their children, own property, get an education, and work independently. Add that up-sex for intimacy, marriage for love, gender equality-and wht does it lead to? It leads to informal or private marriage (surprisingly enough, more traditional than the state-sanctioned kind), or what we call cohabitation-like my friends who've lived together for 16 years. And it leads to wedding bells for me and my gal.

So who needs marriage today, and why? There's the important question of raising children, of course, which takes up its own chapter in my book. But marriage matters even for nonparents. The purpose of the civil institution of marriage in Western democracies is to apply a just consensus to private disputes. Unfortunately, the history of humanity is the history of disagreement. Without some supervision-whether sending your heavily armed brothers to demand your dower from your dead husband's clan, or having the state instruct a landlord to let a widowed spouse stay in his apartment of twenty years although the lease was in his dead husband's name-disagreements are won not by justice but by strength. Human beings-of whatever sexes-tend to squabble over inheritances, breakups, custody, epitaphs, and much, much more. Given that all human beings occasionally need law's Solomonic intervention, Madeline and I belong.

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