Marriage: the oldest casualty of western civilization?

In my last post, I talked about how western civilization has seen institutions that put harsh restrictions on people replaced with looser restrictions. I don’t know any good exceptions to this trend, and I wanted to reiterate one additional example that is also very stark and instructive.

Take marriage. At the beginning, marriage was an extremely sacred and powerful social institution. In Europe, it was for a long time controlled by the church which had enormous power over those who ignored its dictates. This had to do with rights that a man had over his wife, who got property from the marriage, and also who inherited the name of the family. Even nobles were largely bound by these dictates. Henry IV had to create his own church to twist out of his marriage commitments.

As time went on though, the requirements softened in a variety of ways. Women began a painstaking campaign for equality within the marriage structure. Furthermore, divorce became easier, the penalties for infidelity less, and arranged marriages became less prevalent. All of these developments continued to the present day. For example as late as 1963, interracial marriages were forbidden in Virginia. More or less though, today, there is a high degree of choice that infuses the marriage institution. People can marry and divorce as they see fit and the stigmatization for being a “bastard” is as far as I know, quite low (though the effect of such a thing on the prospects of the bastards is still quite disastrous). There are STILL laws against adultery in the U.S. (it’s a court martial offense in the military and some states still have laws against it) but the penalties are very small and cases are rarely brought and prosecuted. Adultery is deemed to disrupt the social order in particularly egregious case or when some other angle intersects.

Then of course there is the issue of whether homosexual marriages will be allowed. I think it’s safe to say the day will come. Young people are hugely supportive of gay marriage (when the older generation dies off the issue will be largely dead I predict) and the whole force of European history seems to say that greater choice and flexibility will come, one way or another, into the institution.

What fewer people appreciate is that even as gay marriage is on the horizon of being accepted, it seems that marriage in general is on a slow decline. Less people are getting married, more people are getting divorced, and I’ve heard many people in my generation struggling to understand why it needs to have the social sanction and backing that it does.  The view (not yet in wide circulation, but growing) is something like this: If you’re with someone, then you’re with someone and if they know it, then why does anyone else need to know or care? Love, more than ever, more than class, more than a labor arrangements (women in the kitchen, men at work), religion, and government, is the arbiter of marriage. But as that happens, it seems that marriage will need to be reformulated again to survive. My point is just that the more reformulations it endures, the less urgent it becomes.

I’ll reiterate the point I made in my last point. If marriage continues on its trend to become less and less important, then we may see the end of one of the first and seemingly most powerful social institutions ever created. After something like 2000 years (at LEAST), we would have a conclusive case of society, over the long term, transforming one of the most fundamental human instincts toward a very radically new expression. Just as biologists look over history to understand the evolutionary arch of a species or ecosystem, it might very interesting for sociologists and historians to think broadly about what characteristics of our civilization created, and then over such a long time, destroyed, marriage as a social form.


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