Many proclaim that the institution of marriage today is in a state of crisis. But, hasn’t this always been the case for marriage? I mean, historically-speaking, hasn’t marriage always been in a process of constant evolution? Or shall I say, revolution? Always adapting to change, be it socially, culturally, economically or politically? Think back to ancient Greece & Rome where
<in marriage> patriarchy, polygamy, politics and money ruled the day. Love had very little to do with it and if it did, it was mostly revered or sanctioned between men. During the middle ages, when the Church took over, marriage was still viewed as a means of property exchange but likewise elevated to the status of a holy union, whereupon the regulation of sexual activity and carnal desire was also now strictly supervised. Missionary…two thumbs up …….anal…well, that will cost you 10 Hail Mary’s:-) Yes, Sin and Shame now entered the marital picture. Or the Victorian era, where intimate or passionate love between a married husband and wife wasn’t even expected, let alone tolerated, implying that it was somehow unbecoming (considered too chaste and too pure), but wait for this: deemed very acceptable and even en rigeur if one turned toward one’s friends or lovers, instead. Talk about “Love thy neighbour”, or what! And how about the sexual revolution of the 1960’s? Make Love, Not War….and in marriage, too, please:-). Although in the Western world marriage wasn’t quite yet about equality, both men and women sought to reshape and redefine marriage by promoting both Pleasure and the Pill. Premarital sex was gaining acceptance, and so were other radical and unorthodox institutions, such as “swinging” and open marriages, eventually paving the way for same-sex marriages, slowly but surely loosening the moral underpinnings of marriage in favour of personal fulfillment. So there we have it…the foregone conclusion of the endless Marital Crisis: shifts in attitude toward marriage brought about by the perpetual confusion between personal choice and cultural commotion. Now truly, isn’t this always the case anytime there are new societal practices and customs still under construction?
Or, maybe it’s just that there has never been much room for expressive individualism in an institution? Maybe the two just butt heads! Believe me, I don’t mean to make light of this but, when people are forced or coerced into making mandatory choices- because they really didn’t have much choice in the matter to begin with- they are less likely to be happy and fulfilled. Personal agency is important. We, as human beings, need to feel like the decisions we are making are truly coming from us. Personally, I know I’ve always disliked the two words <Marriage & Institution> together: Sorry, but I’m with Groucho Marx on this one: Somehow “marriage & institution” always makes me think of a couple sitting in a jail cell….as in solitary confinement?
Fortunately, I think we are at a time in history where most people believe that a marriage recognizes a commitment between adults as much as it exists for the happiness and benefits between adults. The notion today is that marriage is about love. In the past, men and women mostly thought of marriage as a business-like relationship but today it’s central purpose has more to do with personal fulfillment and self actualization. I think, if given a choice, most people today would want –and expect– to marry for love. And for sexual attraction. And for companionship. And for mutual interests. Marriage today is mostly about having a relationship and also embracing one’s sense of personal identity and agency. A human being’s ability to make effective choices and exercise control over one’s life is a key aspect of well-being, let alone a mutually-gratifying marriage. We can’t turn a blind eye to this. Patriarchal structures and unequal gender relations no longer hold court in society. Marriage is no longer so much an essential institution as it is an interpersonal one based on individual freedom.
As Stephanie Coontz notes in her book: Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage: “the main things that have weakened marriage as an institution are the same things that have strengthened marriage as a relationship. Because marriage is now more optional, because for the first time ever, men and women have equal rights in marriage and outside it. Because women have economic independence. This means that you can negotiate a marriage, and make it more flexible and individualized than ever before. So a marriage when it works is better for people, it’s fairer, it’s more satisfying, it’s more loving and fulfilling than ever before in history.” [sic]
But my question for you is, despite all the changes and progress made, do you think it’s any easier? Or, do you think couples have to deal with a new form of disappointment when it comes to marriage? After all, high (and often unmet) expectations can cause disappointment. True, the marital tables may have turned: instead of society expecting a lot from its married couples, couples today expect much more from each other, instead. What do you think: Are couples’ expectations of marriage today more unrealistic than not?
I guess, in the end, the “institution” resolutely endures, though never without controversy or change.
Hope you are enjoying your summer and as always, would love to hear back from you, too:-)
Hi, I'm Lydia- a modern-day warrior of the heart with a mission to reconcile the mystery and mastery of Love.