History of Marriage

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Unite anthropologists, sociologists and historians!

Those who love to look back into history will observe that marriage – whether as an institution or social contract – has a colorful history. But the picture would not be as accurate if we traced the history of marriage from the perspective of western civilization, tribal and clan factions, or the rise of the maternal / paternal household. Taken from these perspectives, the history of marriage can differ depending on which parameters a historian or anthropologist would use.

For example, pre-historic societies needed to establish a secure milieu to allow the species to multiply, a system to distribute property, and the protection of one’s kin. Marriage, according to historians, made these possible. But because the world is an agglomeration of different races with their own survival instincts and social mores and codes of conduct, the view of marriage takes on a diversity in hue and meaning.

History of Marriage - Early Promiscuity

While some theorists believe that promiscuity was the name of the game in early historical periods, it was non-existent in some cultures. If it did exist, the practice was confined to a few, small groups.

In ancient cultures, marrying for love was a rare commodity. In India, falling in love before marriage was considered anti-social. The Greeks thought love was the equivalent of insanity and Stephanie Coontz wrote that in the Middle Ages, the French people described love as sort of a mental illness that could be cured only by sexual relations either with the loved one or with a different partner (Marriage, a History, 2005). So promiscuity, then, meant different things to different people. In China, too much love between husband and wife signified that family solidarity was threatened. Chinese parents could force their son to take a concubine if his wife could not produce a son.

In Europe, Coontz said that adultery was held in high esteem, especially among the aristocratic classes.

The idea of sexual fidelity in the good old days was not a high priority. In fact expecting your partner to be faithful to you physically is a fairly recent invention. Did you know, for example, that back then when a woman had sex with another man and her husband did not object, this situation was called “wife loaning?” If it was the man who sought another partner, it was called “male privilege.”

Two centuries ago, western Europe and North America began to develop a whole new set of values to organize marriage and sexuality. These values have of course gained acceptance in many parts of the world. The western concept of marriage is for human beings to satisfy their psychological and social needs through marriage, and that marriage must be free of coercion, violence and inequality among sexes.

History of Marriage - Other Developments

What followed polygamy, as years passed, were the phenomena of polyandry and polygamy.

Polyandry referred to the union of several husbands with one wife. This was practiced at various historical periods among the early British, primitive Arabs, groups of people living in the Canary Islands, the Aborigines of America, the Hottentots, and certain people from Ceylon, Tibet, and New Zealand, just to mention a few. Even if polyandry did exist, however, it was more the exception than the rule, because monogamy and polygamy were more prevalent, although with the passage of time, the pattern was towards monogamy. And even if a woman had several husbands, many times those husbands were either brothers or were closely related to the husband. A clear illustration is found in the custom called Levirate where the brother of a deceased husband had to marry his widow, which simply demonstrated that the wife was inherited by the nearest heir, in this case, her brother-in-law.

As for polygamy, this was a practice that only the moneyed class could afford. The ritual was confined to kings, chiefs, strong men and wealthy men of the community. But even polygamy sometimes went into the direction of monogamy because the first wife usually held a higher position over subsequent wives and enjoyed certain privileges from her husband.

What made polygamy a common practice among those who could afford it? For starters, males were scarce (they still are, we “modernites” cry), they went away to fight in wars, and the predominance of female births. There was also the economic argument which states that during pre-industrial times, very few men actually had the means to have more than one wife.

Monogamy Still Rules

The history of marriage, especially during the dawn of the industrial period, has a lot of evidence for monogamy. It is generally the recognized and allowed type of marriage. One writer promotes the view that races have approved monogamy “because it is in harmony with the essential and immutable elements of human nature.” It has therefore come to be adopted as the only natural form of marriage. Monogamy reinforces the parental role of people, seals the fate of children and regulates the human tendencies of jealousy and undue passion. The children’s welfare depends on the 100% dedication of mother and father and therefore necessitates that couples remain monogamous for this purpose alone. Monogamy serves many purposes, but love and care of children is of paramount importance.

History of Marriage - Where Does Divorce Fit In?

Just as polygamy was modified into monogamy over the centuries, monogamy also underwent a modification. This explains why societies have divorce. Divorce has been viewed by some profound thinkers as the violation of monogamy and the rupture in the union of male and female.

Catholicism ensured that marriages could not be dissolved and this was immediately reflected in civil legislation of all Catholic countries. In non-Catholic countries, divorce appears to be an extremely easy way out and as one writer put it, “scandalously frequent.” During the period 1890 and 1900, the US granted 73 divorces per 100,000 marriages a year – twice the rate of any other western country.

Because divorces seem to be the most frequent solution, Americans are trying to curb the practice by supporting a stricter policy. Many of the arguments against divorce focus on the children and the moral fiber of the nation.

History of Marriage - Abstention also an Issue

Once upon a time there were reports that it will cost a couple at least $300,000 to raise a child until the child reaches the age of independence. This has scared many future spouses who would rather take the no-marriage alternative for fear of not being able to provide adequately for any children that are produced during the marriage.

Another situation might explain this desire to abstain from marriage: instead of setting up a pre-nuptial agreement, couples would prefer not to get involved legally in any way, shape or form. To them, emotional entanglements are a full-time preoccupation, so legal entanglements represent an added burden and are therefore to be avoided. The fact that couples can co-habit without the benefit of marriage also explains abstention; the older and more educated a person is, the less he or she is inclined to tie the knot, at least early in life. Careers take precedence.

In her book, Marriage, a History, Coontz says that “what is true for individual marriages is also true for society. As a result of centuries of social change, most people in the western world have a choice about whether or not to enter marriage, and, if they do marry, whether or not to stay in it for the rest of their lives.”

As we trace the history of marriage, it becomes apparent that during earlier eras, marriage was a society decision where tribesmen and clansmen established rules for men and women. Today, that is no longer the case. The decision to marry depends on you and me, and not what the laws or mores dictate.

Ready for a riddle? What are the four types of “rings” that a man has to come up with in marriage?:

  • Engagement ring
  • Wedding ring
  • Suffe-ring
  • Endu-ring

If you think we made that up, you’re mistaken. We actually saw it on the internet but the author’s name was not given.

The history of marriage is an education itself – it opens our eyes to things we were not aware of before. Speaking of education, ready for another joke? It goes something like this: “marriage is an institution in which a man loses his Bachelor’s Degree and the woman gets her Master’s.”

We hope that produced a chuckle!

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