Despite the fondness among certain politicians and pundits for “traditional marriage,” a nostalgic-sounding concept that conjures a soft-focus Polaroid of grandma and grandpa, few consider the actual roots of our marital traditions, when matrimony was little more than a business deal among unequals. Even today, legal marriage isn’t measured by the affection between two people, but by the ability of a couple to share Social Security and tax benefits. In reality, it’s the idea of marrying for love that’s untraditional.
“Love was considered a reason not to get married. It was seen as lust, as something that would dissipate.”
For most of recorded human history, marriage was an arrangement designed to maximize financial stability. Elizabeth Abbott, the author of “A History of Marriage” explains that in ancient times, marriage was intended to unite various parts of a community, cementing beneficial economic relationships. “Because it was a financial arrangement, it was conceived of and operated as such. It was a contract between families. For example, let’s say I’m a printer and you make paper, we might want a marriage between our children because that will improve our businesses.” Even the honeymoon, often called the “bridal tour,” was a communal affair, with parents, siblings, and other close relatives traveling together to reinforce their new familial relationships.
By the Middle Ages, gender inequality was not only enshrined in social customs, but also common law. In most European countries, married women were forced to give up control over any personal wealth and property rights to their husbands. Eventually, the system became known as “coverture” (taken from “couverture,” which literally means “coverage” in French), whereby married couples became a single legal entity in which the husband had all power. The American practice of wives adopting their husbands’ surnames originated in England as a way to enforce patrilineal heritage, signifying that a woman belonged to her husband, thereby suspending any individual rights when she took her marital vows.
Under such laws, children were generally viewed as assets, in part because they were expected to work for the family business. “People saw their kids as pawns, literally,” says Abbott. “They might love them, but even if they did, their children had a function to further the family’s economic interests, which was thought to be good for the whole family.”
Abbott outlines a typical example of an arranged marriage in 15th century England, where the father of the intended bride had several daughters and didn’t choose which one would be betrothed until the morning of the wedding. Since husbands had all legal power, when a marriage ended in annulment, divorce, or separation, women almost never received custody of their children.
The idea of marriage as an economic necessity was also reinforced by social restrictions on personal independence. “Under the guild system in Europe during the Middle Ages, even if you’d passed all the apprenticeship and journeyman stages, you couldn’t become a master of your trade if you weren’t married,” says Abbott. “It was an essential part of adulthood. Marriage was the core of societies, and married people were always given more rights and seen as more responsible.” In no uncertain terms, being married conferred the rights of full citizenship, at least for men.
Despite their second-class status, women were still expected to bring their own assets to a marriage through their dowry, which could include money, land, and physical property. But above all else, a woman’s financial value was linked to her sexual purity. Before decent birth control or paternity tests, a bride’s virginity became the essential method for protecting the male bloodline. Women were undoubtedly related to the children they birthed, but fathers could guarantee lineage only if they were the sole male sex partner. Female promiscuity became taboo because of its potential to affect inheritance, instituting a double standard we’re still grappling with today.
While female chastity was revered, male infidelity was entirely acceptable, though it was most common among men wealthy enough to support various wives, mistresses, or male “companions.” Stephanie Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” says that even while the spread of Christianity worked to eliminate polygamy, there was little social reinforcement. “For centuries, monogamy was more theoretical than real, especially for men. Men were expected to have affairs. We have letters and diaries from the late 18th century of men bragging to their male in-laws about their sexual adventures in ways they could never do today.”
Despite the church’s staunch position on monogamy, in the late Middle Ages, a legal marriage was quite easy to obtain. However, as more couples attempted to elope or marry without consent, the old guard upped its game. To combat the spread of “clandestine” marriages, or those unapproved by parents, state officials began wresting the legal process of marriage from the church. “Aristocrats and patricians put pressure on the state to ensure that the family could control whom their children married,” says Abbott, ensuring that their wealth wouldn’t be mishandled.
France enacted its first marital edict in 1557, raising the age of majority to 25 for women and 30 for men, and requiring both parents’ consent for marriage before this age. Those who disobeyed could now be legally disinherited. It took another two centuries for Great Britain to raise the bar by passing the Marriage Act of 1753, which made certain marital procedures mandatory, including public “banns” or notices of impending nuptials, proof of age, and the explicit consent of family members.
“It’s contrary to all of our preconceptions, but a man could afford to give into his emotions more than a woman could. She paid a price when she did.”
But during the 18th century, increased globalization and the first Industrial Revolution were changing the world in ways even that the most affluent parents couldn’t control. “With the development of wage labor, young people started making more decisions independently from their parents,” says Coontz. “If I were a young woman, I could then go out and earn my own dowry, instead of waiting for my parents to bestow it on me after I married someone they approved of. Or, if I was a young man, I didn’t have to wait to inherit the farm; I could move somewhere else if I wanted to. This was greatly accelerated by the rise of the Enlightenment with its greater sense of personal freedom and, of course, the French and American revolutions of the 18th century, with the idea that people are entitled to the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”
As this philosophical support for individual choice spread, more young people wanted some say regarding their future spouses. “Demands for consent from the people actually getting married were thought to be quite radical,” says Abbott. Even more radical was the idea that marriage might be entered into for emotional, rather than financial, reasons.
Though the murky concept known as “love” has been recorded for all of human history, it was almost never a justification for marriage. “Love was considered a reason not to get married,” says Abbott. “It was seen as lust, as something that would dissipate. You could have love or lust for your mistress, if you’re a man, but if you’re a woman, you had to suppress it. It was condemned as a factor in marriage.”
In fact, for thousands of years, love was mostly seen as a hindrance to marriage, something that would inevitably cause problems. “Most societies have had romantic love, this combination of sexual passion, infatuation, and the romanticization of the partner,” says Coontz. “But very often, those things were seen as inappropriate when attached to marriage. The southern French aristocracy believed that true romantic love was only possible in an adulterous relationship, because marriage was a political, economic, and mercenary event. True love could only exist without it.”
By the 19th century, the friction between love and money had come to a head. As the Western world advanced towards a more modern, industrialized society built on wage labor, emotional bonds became more private, focused more on immediate family and friends than communal celebrations. Simultaneously, mass media helped make sentimental inclinations a larger part of popular culture, with the flourishing of holidays like Valentine’s Day and nostalgic hobbies like scrapbooking.
Culturally speaking, love was in the air, and the union of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840 only served to seal the deal. Though Victoria and Albert’s marriage was sanctioned by their royal families, it was also hailed as a true “love match,” cementing the new ideal of romantic partnership. Their nuptials also coincided with the proliferation of early print media, making the event visible to readers all across Europe and North America.
“With Victoria’s wedding, you had endless reporting and tons of illustrations,” Abbott says. “Between two and four weeks after Victoria was married, magazines reproduced every last aspect of her wedding. Queen Victoria chose orange blossoms for her wreath, and an elaborate, white dress with this ridiculously long train in the back, and every detail was sent across the ocean and read voraciously by women in ladies’ magazines. Her wedding became the model because everyone knew about it.” To this day, many stereotypical elements of American weddings are still drawn from Victoria’s, particularly the tradition of wearing a white dress.
However, outside of the insular world of nobility, women still had to view romance through a logical lens. “Women tried very hard to love the right person, to test their love, in the sense that many of them were quite rational about it,” says Coontz. “You have women writing in their diaries, ‘Well, my heart inclines to so and so, but I’m not sure that he’s worthy of my love,’ really trying to force themselves to love the right person.
“Men had less trouble with that because men were more powerful. A man could actually afford to fall in love, and once he was married, he wasn’t at the mercy of her whims the way a woman was at the mercy of a man’s. It’s contrary to all of our preconceptions about women’s more emotional nature, but a man could afford to give into his emotions more than a woman could. She paid a price when she did.”
Meanwhile, the surge in steel production during the 1860s, and the subsequent spread of railways, was permanently altering the landscape of the Western world. Twenty years later, this transformation was intensified with the birth of electric light. As America became increasingly industrialized and urban areas exploded in growth, men and women had more opportunities to live and work on their own, and to interact outside the protected familial environment.
While the search for a love match gave women a modicum of control during the courtship stage of a relationship, married women were still subject to their husbands’ legal authority. “In many loving marriages, husbands’ treatment of their wives improved, but on the other hand, it also made women more dependent on love and on ‘earning’ or sustaining that love,” says Coontz.
Just how did a wife earn her husband’s love? She became the perfect homemaker. Abbott refers to the period’s housewife-mania as the “cult of the domestic,” centering on a stereotype that desexualized women and made child-rearing their primary goal. In her role as a domestic angel, the perfect wife was completely pure in body and mind, submitting to her husband’s erotic advances, but never desiring or initiating sex herself. “This was the new take on women, the new hype,” says Abbott.
Politicians, scientists, and intellectuals began declaring women the “purer” gender, supposedly innately uninterested in sex. “People were very nervous about the potentially destabilizing impact of the love match and the increase in youthful independence, and I think that romantic sentimentalism helped to defuse the worry and paper over the contradictions and danger points,” explains Coontz. “There was a fear that love would, in fact, lead not only to divorce but to out-of-wedlock sex and childbirth. And the response was this idea of female purity. Real love wasn’t about sex primarily—sex was something that only bad girls like.” Many modern cliches about married women’s roles evolved from the Victorian homemaking trend and the new reliance on romance to find a suitable mate.
In the late 19th century, a new genre of marriage manuals and homemaking magazines proliferated, with extensive instructions to help wives maintain a happy union (Good Housekeeping debuted in 1885). These publications covered every aspect of a wife’s duties, from the Biblical view of women’s roles to cleaning tips to suggestions for dealing with an abusive husband. And often, the confusion between issues of love and money played out on their pages.
In Marion Harland’s 1889 book entitled “House and Home: A Complete Housewife’s Guide,” she writes: “A loveless marriage is legalized crime. Marriage entered upon without just appreciation of mutual relations and obligations is folly so grave as to approximate sin.” Though Harland asserts the supreme importance of love, at the time, this feeling implied respect and appreciation, rather than emotional infatuation. Harland also emphasized that the most problematic issue among married couples was the division of finances and firmly recommended splitting the husband’s income equitably. She recognized that romance could actually undermine the perception of women as contributors to a family’s financial well-being. “… consider that you two constitute a business firm, and pay over her share of equitable profits. The act is a just partition, not a gift.”
When Harland’s book was published, the change from smaller household production and barter systems to factory labor and wage-earning jobs had thoroughly divided the economic roles of husbands and wives. This split became embodied in the ideology of “separate spheres,” which created biological justifications for men to dominate the public realm and women the private world of domesticity. As the home became dissociated from the family income, women’s roles were no longer viewed as integral for economic survival. “It wasn’t called ‘working,’ but many women had paying boarders, raised chickens and sold their eggs, and made pies or jams and sold them,” says Abbott.
As Coontz explains, in “Marriage, A History,” these myriad tasks were no longer viewed as crucial economic activities. “In the older definition of housekeeping, women’s labor was recognized as a vital contribution to the family’s economic survival. Wives were regularly referred to as ‘helps-meet’ and ‘yoke mates.’ But as housekeeping became ‘homemaking,’ it came to be seen as an act of love rather than a contribution to survival.”
Gradually, as women achieved more freedom to find educational and professional opportunities outside the home, love became a more viable option for them, too. “Women became less likely to tolerate horrible relationships than in the past, where even abused spouses were supposed to grin and bear it,” says Abbott. Political movements of the 19th century, like abolition and women’s suffrage, brought the seeds of gender equality to the intellectual forefront, and the subservient status of women began to shift.
After thousands of years, the traditional goals of marriage were changing, from making ends meet to finding fulfillment—a much more elusive target. “The personal satisfaction that marriage brought to the spouses became very important,” Abbott continues. “Spouses expected their mates to be their primary source of emotional support. The marital home became the locus of romantic love, passion, emotional sustenance, and sexual satisfaction. Egalitarianism was still far off, but women increasingly demanded and slowly won more rights.” By the time that women won the right to vote, love had become inseparable from the concept of marriage, effectively stealing the spotlight from its patriarchal economic motives.
Since then, we’ve been steadily socialized to ignore this unpleasant history, even while retaining the system’s financial incentives. Much as we want to believe that marriage is a heartfelt validation of loving commitment, the legal definition of marriage still centers on income, inheritance, and other monetary rights. Nowhere is its economic value more clear than the debate over gay marriage, in which both sides often justify their position by touting the long list of federal benefits provided by a legal marriage license.
“I don’t think we’re headed toward the death of marriage,” says Coontz, “especially in the United States, where marriage remains the highest expression of commitment most people can imagine. But I do think that we’re moving toward more acceptance of a multiplicity of marital and non-marital models.”
Which raises an even more provocative question: With marriage rates on the decline, single-parenting on the rise, and the nuclear family becoming a minority, why do we still give married couples benefits denied to unmarried people? Perhaps greater awareness of the institution’s oppressive history will lead to policies that value all citizens equally, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or relationship status.