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.

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