A History of Marriage — and How It’s Drastically Changed
When you think of marriage, a very specific image likely pops into your mind, but depending on who you are, where you’re from and what era you were born in, this image will vary. For some, marriage is represented by a young, glowing couple full of love and hope for the future. For others, marriage may look like two people who barely speak to each other.
While our perception of marriage may vary slightly, love (or a lack thereof) is typically considered to be the foundation of a modern marriage. But if you waxed poetic about the role of love in marriage to someone in ancient times, they’d look at you like you were insane. That’s because the origin of marriage is significantly different than the way we view the union today.
Curious? Read on as we explore the history of marriage and how it impacts our understanding of modern society.
The First Recorded Marriage
According to The Week, the first recorded evidence of a marriage ceremony between one woman and one man was in Mesopotamia and was dated around 2350 B.C.
It is thought that several-thousand years before this “recorded” marriage, there existed loosely organized groups of “families” made up of several male leaders, multiple women and children.
Marriage in the Ancient Near East
In ancient Hebrew tradition, a marriage was based on economic and social considerations, and there were tendencies to keep it in the family. In fact, biblical texts make it clear that marriage between family members was considered ideal, particularly between cousins.
While this mindset doesn’t reflect common marriage practices today, the expectations of women in those days do reflect the male-dominated tendencies of marriage that still remain today. For example, a woman was expected to be a virgin when she married, while men were permitted to marry several women. Perhaps because of this, it is commonly assumed that women were married off around puberty, while men were typically older.
Marriage in Ancient Greece
It is believed that in Ancient Greece marriages were arranged by a couple’s parents and that the agreement was financially based. The marriage ceremony was really just a series of rituals: a dowry, baths, feasts, approval from parents and eventually, to seal the deal, a child.
Divorce was easily arranged and required the husband to pay his wife’s family back the dowry that was given to him when they wed. Common reasons for divorce were a woman’s inability to conceive or a wife’s adultery. It is thought that most women in Ancient Greece were married off between the ages of 14 and 18, while men waited until their 20s or 30s.
Marriage in Ancient Roman Times
Similar to the traditions of Ancient Greece, marriage in Roman times lacked any romance and was simply an agreement between families. The parents of suitable, of-age children would consult with family friends to come up with a pairing that would increase their wealth or status. The wedding day included a formal ceremony between the couple and their families, gifts, the exchange of a dowry and a kiss.
Like that of Ancient Greece, divorce in Roman times was as simple as the act of marriage and was common in the upper classes.
The Impact of Religion on Marriage
At one time, marriage had been a private, non-religious matter, but as the Roman Catholic Church became more powerful in Europe, the understanding of marriage in the West shifted. The blessings of a priest became a necessary part of the marriage ceremony and was required for the marriage to be legally recognized.
This tradition continues today with many couples opting for a religious marriage ceremony under the guidance of a religious leader. However, other couples opt to get married at the courthouse or have a friend or family member officiate their nuptials.
Religion and the Treatment of Women
As marriage became integrated with religion and the Roman Catholic Church, the treatment of women improved — at least compared to ancient times. Previously, a woman could be discarded because she couldn’t conceive, but the church taught men to respect their wives and was anti-divorce. The religious doctrine also required couples to be sexually exclusive, meaning men, who had previously been free to sleep around and have multiple wives, were asked to be faithful to their spouse.
However, even with these steps toward equality between husband and wife, the church still saw men as the head of the home, and women were expected to defer to their husbands.
Love Comes Into Play
Although even in history there were stories of marriages born out of love, the concept of two people getting married on the basis of mutual love and attraction is still a relatively new concept. Love as the primary reason for marriage started to spread during the Age of Enlightenment, which was a European intellectual movement that promoted individualism rather than tradition — leading to the idea that people had the right to seek out personal happiness. This new mentality led to a major shift in the way people thought about marriage and chose life partners.
Marilyn Yalom, author of “A History of the Wife,” believes that the role of love in a marriage made the union more equal between sexes and classes, as couples were married because they loved each other rather than because the partnership was socially or financially advantageous.
Women Take a Giant Step Toward Equality
When women won the right to vote in August 1920, they became “complete” American citizens with the right to own and inherit property, serve on juries and sign contracts. Once fully reliant on their husbands, women suddenly had many of the same rights as men, although men were still seen as the head of the home.
With the right to vote, women were able to cast their vote and raise their voices to support issues that were important to them such as job opportunities for women and family-planning services. This moment in history provided women with a newfound independence and voice, which ignited their quest for equality in all areas, including marriage.
Interracial Marriage in History
In the 1660s, laws against interracial marriage popped up in several states. These laws prohibited people of different races from getting married, or even sleeping together. In 1878, a black man and a white woman who wanted to get married in Virginia took their case to the Supreme Court. They lost their case, but the revolution was far from over.
Over the years, several similar disputes were filed, including the famous Loving v. Virginia case. The Lovings were an interracial couple who got married in Washington, D.C., in 1958, at a time when interracial marriage was newly legalized. One month after getting married, the couple was arrested in their Virginia home and underwent years of hardship and legal discord. It wasn’t until 1967 that a judge finally ruled in favor of the Lovings, lifting the ban on interracial marriage and allowing the married couple to live in peace in Virginia.
Same-Sex Marriage in History
In ancient history, records of same sex marriage are rare, but do exist. Nero, a Roman emperor who ruled from 54 to 68 A.D., married men in formal wedding ceremonies and required the court to treat them as his wives. Formal same-sex unions continued into Second and Third Century Rome, but were outlawed for the most part in 342 A.D.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s, though, that the first lawsuits seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriage took place. And even still, it wasn’t until 2004, after the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health case, that the state of Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. In June 2015, the Supreme Court struck down all bans against same-sex marriage and legalized the act in all 50 states.
When talking about marriage, it’s also important to address the fact that not everyone chooses one person with which to dedicate their life. Some modern couples are polyamorous, meaning they mutually consent to have intimate relationships with more than one partner. These open relationships reject the notion that being exclusive is a necessary component of a committed, loving relationship.
Other non-monogamous relationship styles include polygamy, a marriage between more than two people, and swingers, where committed couples exchange sexual partners. A 2016 study found that 20 percent of people are exploring multiple relationships with multiple people.
Today, marriage is the legal or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a relationship. It doesn’t matter if the union is between two people of different races or two people of the same sex. Still, as more and more couples have the legal right to wed, the number of people getting married in the U.S. is dropping.
The number of legal wedding ceremonies peaked in the early 1980s, but has declined since. Researchers blame the decline of religious adherence, the ease of divorce, a growing wealth and income inequality, and the education and rising wages of women, among other factors.
Others believe that, as the driving force of marriage shifted from financial and status to love and attraction, the pressure has increased. Today, married couples expect their partners to fulfill them emotionally, spiritually and sexually — which is not an easy ask. As these expectations increase, so does the likelihood that we’ll end up disappointed.
Rising Divorce Rates
For better or worse, these new expectations and social shifts have redefined marriage today. Statistically, 42 to 45 percent of marriages end in divorce, with those numbers climbing to 60 percent and 73 percent for second and third marriages, respectively. In the U.S. alone, these numbers account for 100 divorces per hour.
Then, there’s the fact that people are living longer. Marriage used to be a commitment to one person for maybe 30 or 40 years, whereas now it could be a 60-year commitment. An unintended consequence of increased longevity is higher divorce rates. According to a Pew Research Center report, the divorce rate in people aged 50 or older has practically doubled since the 1990s.
Needless to say, only time will tell where the future of marriage lies.