‘Marriage is a great institution,’ said Groucho Marx, ‘But who wants to live in an institution?’ Groucho was wrong, of course. Nearly 100 million people around the world volunteer to be incarcerated into the marital asylum every year. In some countries, the popularity of marriage is dropping slightly. In the UK, for instance, the number of single adults exceeded the number of married adults for the first time in 2007, but more than a third of singles had been married previously (divorcees and widows). But for most people, everywhere in the world, marriage is still the normal experience.
A hundred years or so ago, many anthropologists believed that marriage was quite a new thing. They believed that in prehistoric times sexual relations were a free-for-all, and some even argued that this was the ‘natural’ way for men and women to behave. Who knows if this was some kind of wish-fulfilment, but there is actually no evidence to suggest that this was so at all. Marriage is the norm in all recorded history, and so it seems to be in most ‘primitive’ tribes around the world. Of course, marriage takes different forms, but it always involves a publicly recognised union between a couple who undertake to live together for life.
Anthropologists have various explanations as to why people would marry even in the simplest of societies, but there are several powerful benefits. First of all, it’s good for the stability of society if people get married. If people remain unattached, there’s potential for at least a lot of stress, if not conflict, as people continually compete for sexual partners. Once two people are married, it’s clear they have made their choice and other single people must look elsewhere. That doesn’t prevent married couples ‘having a fling’, of course, but at least it sends a clear message. It also makes it clear who is responsible for looking after any children and, in theory, assures women that the burden is going to be shared.
Then there are also powerful personal reasons. People want to make a choice and demonstrate their commitment to one person. Lifelong pair bonding is common in many animal species and it seems that this is how we humans like it, too. We want to have the kind of emotional bond that marriage provides and also the close companionship through life. Of course we can survive by ourselves, but the boon of a constant partner to share both troubles and joys is something few people would want to miss out on. The statistics in modern society are telling. Single people suffer far more from illness, far more from depression, and die younger than married people. Marriage is not a guarantee against loneliness but it certainly helps.
Of course, our perception of what marriage means has been hugely coloured by history. As soon as people began to live in settled societies, it became entangled in legalities. To avoid disputes over property ownership, for instance, it was vital that it was clear who the legitimate offspring were. Marriage provided a simple framework for legitimacy. For the same reason, adultery, especially by a woman, became deeply problematic, and often criminalised. Gradually, as society became more and more complex, marriage gathered an increasing burden of problems, tied mostly to the protection of property. Among the upper classes in particular, the high stakes involved in property meant that in many cases couples couldn’t be free to make their own romantic choice, but marriages had to be arranged for them, along with very elaborate financial agreements. The result is that marriage, for many people, became a business deal rather than a personal and emotional choice.
People used to modern Western attitudes to marriage as, essentially, a romantic union would be surprised by how pragmatic couples were about this. For a woman, marriage provided security and the reassurance that she and her children were going to be recognised and provided for. For a man, it was a reassurance that any children were his own, and also offered the comfort of a companion and helpmeet to look after the house. It didn’t necessarily matter that your spouse wasn’t the target of your romantic dreams. Countless men had mistresses and concubines to satisfy that side of their nature, without necessarily leading to the divorce courts. It was more of a problem for women, of course, because extra-marital relations could muddy the inheritance waters. Women became increasingly disadvantaged as the need to preserve legitimacy placed more and more control in the man’s hands, eventually often making even the woman herself his property.
All of this, though, was essentially a problem for the moneyed classes. Among poorer people in the West, property wasn’t such an issue. Men and women married, or had their marriages arranged for them, and generally lived well together. The husband husbanded the land and their meagre resources outside the house; the housewife looked after things in the house, and brought up the children. It was, on the whole, companionable and practical. There were surely many problems and times of stress, but people rarely divorced over romantic difficulties; couples were too dependent on each other and the stakes were far too high.
The Enlightenment, however, saw attitudes and circumstances beginning to change. Among the upper classes in England, for instance, young people began to want to make their own choices in marriage and to look at it more as a romantic attachment than a business partnership. This, ironically, was what made the actual wedding a far more formal, legalistic event. In former times, a word and exchange of hands before witnesses was enough to make a marriage. But in 1753, Lord Hardwicke was persuaded to bring in a marriage law because increasing numbers of couples were running off by themselves to get married without their families knowing. Hardwicke’s law meant that for the first time, people were obliged to get married in church. If they were old enough, they did not need parental consent – but the announcement of banns and all the arrangements for the wedding meant that the parents had plenty of time to intervene. So the romantic church wedding is actually something quite new.
The romantic idea of marriage now so dominates the Western mindset that it is hard to think of it in any other way. Contact with other cultures is making people more aware of arranged marriages and even forced marriages, but for most people in the West it is all about love. Amazingly, the majority of people do manage to find ‘the one’ and make their own choice freely and lovingly. The downside of this, of course, is that when love goes, most people feel that the marriage must go, with distressing consequences not just for the couple but for any children involved.
Most romantic marriages are actually successful. Considering how easy it is to get divorced, it is remarkable how many not just survive but thrive. Banner headlines may alarm you with the statistic that 45 per cent of marriages in the UK end in divorce. That means, of course, that 55 per cent last a lifetime. For 1 in 10, marriage lasts for more than 60 years. Couples who stay together a lifetime mostly confirm that their spouse is the best and most important thing in their life by far. Most of those marriages that fail, fail quite quickly, but the failure does not put the divorcees off marriage. In the USA, three out of every four divorcees remarry within four years, and one in three within a year.
So marriage brings immense happiness to many millions of people, even though it has been the butt of countless jokes. Yet it has come in for a great deal of criticism beyond the jokes, which are essentially affectionate and almost always come from men who love to make a meal out of how hen-pecked they are. Feminists have been particularly strident in their condemnation of marriage. ‘The institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women,’ Marlene Dixon wrote. ‘It is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained.’
It wasn’t just that many wives were made to suffer a life of drudgery and isolation by their husbands; they were legally at a disadvantage in many ways. In the UK, for instance, a wife used not to be allowed to own property; any property she had at the wedding immediately became not jointly held but solely her husband’s. This finally changed with the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882. Much more distressingly, it was a husband’s legal right to rape his wife until shockingly recently. Indeed, Andrea Dworkin scathingly asserted that: ‘Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice.’ In most countries, spousal rape, as it is called, wasn’t made illegal until the 1980s and 1990s; and in many countries, such as Pakistan and Sudan, it is still permitted.
Fortunately, the weight of the law in Western countries has been gradually putting right some of these wrongs, and the pressure of feminist arguments has dramatically changed the way many husbands behave in the home. Since the middle of the last century, though, the stigma of ‘living in sin’ has gradually weakened, and numerous couples are choosing to cohabit rather than get married. As a result, the number of marriages has declined steadily. Yet it has not declined nearly as dramatically as some people predicted in the 1970s, when it seemed that all young couples were simply living together. In fact, the number of marriages in the UK is little more than 20 per cent down on its highpoint in the 1960s.
It seems that for all its drawbacks, for all the ease of simply living together, most people still want the bigger commitment of a formal marriage. Just how important it remains is borne out by the expenditure on the wedding itself. A survey in 2007 showed that the average cost of a wedding in the UK has soared to £25,000 and although many people try unusual ceremonies and locations, such as scuba diving weddings and camel-mounted weddings, millions still opt for a full-blown ‘traditional’ wedding. The Victorian novelist, George Eliot, explains it all very simply in Silas Marner: ‘That quiet mutual gaze of a trusting husband and wife is like the first moment of rest or refuge from a great weariness or a great danger.’