Marriage: What Is It For?

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.

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