Monday, January 02, 2006


Wanna Destroy The Institution Of Marriage? Easy -- Marry For Love.

In this month's issue of the Twin Cities magazine The Rake, Jeannine Ouellette has an article on marriage, how it has changed over the years, and how the Frothing Fundies have spent decades trying to "save" it, first from interracial couplings, then from gay unions. Towards the end of the article, she reveals that, yes, indeed, the institution of marriage is being destablized -- but not in the way the Fundies believe it to be:

When I first got married in 1989, I did so smack in the middle of a thirty-year period in which marriage was undergoing more change than it had in the previous three thousand years. In Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz retraces the evolution of marriage from the beginnings of recorded history through today. [...] As she consulted with colleagues around the world, she gradually determined that the current rearrangements in both married and single life are in fact without historical precedent. But the seed for all this tumult wasn’t the oft-blamed sexual revolution, says Coontz. The trouble got started much, much earlier, in the late eighteenth century, in the form of an idea so radical it immediately began destabilizing marriage on a cultural and individual level: That people should be free to choose a marriage partner based, first and foremost, on love.
"Whaaaaat?!?!" shout a zillion wingnuts. Read on, my friends, read on:
Before love entered into it, marriage had been seen by societies around the globe as primarily a vital economic and political institution. Some cultures considered love a potential side effect to marriage, and others frowned on its presence in marriage altogether. But either way, it was deemed highly unacceptable for marriage “to be left entirely to the free choice of the two individuals involved, especially if they were going to base their decision on something as unreasoning and transitory as love.” If people went around marrying for love, they were going to demand to leave their marriages when love failed. The same notion that could make marriage such an extraordinary relationship could also render it optional and fragile. For thousands of years, the aim of marriage had been to establish beneficial kinship bonds and to pool or transfer resources for maximum economic and political advantage. Then suddenly, Europeans and Americans started expecting and even demanding emotional and sexual fulfillment from their marriages. Crises were bound to erupt. But this attitudinal shift alone, however cataclysmic, could not have brought us to where we are today. Coontz points to four key factors that made the difference: First, changes in the 1920s blurred boundaries between male and female spheres, and introduced the notion that sexual satisfaction was important for women as well as men. Second, urbanization increased anonymity and made it tougher to control individual behavior and punish nonconformity. Third, advances in birth control and abolishment of “illegitimacy” as a legal designation weakened the sway that pregnancy and childbearing held over marital choices. Finally, the legal autonomy and economic self-sufficiency achieved by women in the seventies and eighties opened up many alternatives to traditional marriage for both sexes. In a breathtakingly short time, society’s ability to push people into marriage or keep them there disintegrated. Writes Coontz: “People no longer needed to marry in order to construct successful lives or long-lasting sexual relationships. With that, thousands of years of tradition came to an end.”
I will point out that the four key factors Coontz mentions would not have been possible without the attitudinal shift that turned marriage into a romantic institution instead of a commercial and/or diplomatic transaction. Also, this attitudinal shift would not have been possible without the increasing willingness of men to accept women not as chattel, but as beings with thoughts and feelings deserving of consideration. Love is a two-way street, and it's a lot easier for that two-way action to occur when both partners are of similar status. Too bad the people who most need to see this will never do so, unless it's smuggled onto a message board or some such.

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