It’s only been in the past 200 years that people in the West married for love.  Before that, marriage was for purely practical reasons.  “But,” you’re wondering, “didn’t people fall in love?”  Sure they did.  Just not with their spouses.  Adultery used to be normal — at least for men.  In some cultures, women did it too.  (Despite what your high school history teacher told you, “courtly love” was not platonic.)  In most places, women were expected to be faithful while men had mistresses or multiple wives.

(I once tried to read Sarah Pomeroy’s  Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, and I couldn’t even finish chapter one because all the things men could legally do to their wives made me physically ill.  In many cultures, men could kill their wives and just pay a fine that was smaller than the fine for killing their neighbor’s goat.  I am not exaggerating. Of course, marital rape was legal in the US until at least the 1970’s…)

But back to the purposes of marriage.  Until recently, marriage was economic, political, and social.  The wants and needs of the spouses (particularly the women) wasn’t as important.  In the very beginning, marriage was about getting in-laws.  The more people you were related to, the more people there were to help you out.  Then it became about producing legitimate heirs.  Then it was about political connections for the wealthy, or a business deal for the lower classes.  Craftsmen got partners in their work; farmers got someone to help manage the land and their children.

Falling in love was considered a mental illness that was, in some cultures, thought curable by sex.  People who fell in love were putting themselves first, when they should be focused on obligations to God, family, and society.  Even falling in love with your spouse was selfish and destabilizing.  In China, a man who fell in love with his wife would be punished — his parents would send the woman back to her parents so the couple couldn’t be together.

It was the Victorians who changed Western views on the purpose of marriage.  Most people didn’t do farmwork, and men were making money in offices rather than fields.  The Victorians became obsessed with the idea of home as a sanctuary for those men.  The nuclear family as we know it, where one’s spouse and children are the first priority, really started then, with the white middle classes.  And if one’s spouse came first, then shouldn’t it be because of love?

I’m simplifying things a great deal, as always.  I’m not trying to rewrite the book I used as source material — Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz — but just provide some snippets to get you interested.  And this is worth reading.  I picked it up because I knew marriage wasn’t originally about love, so I wanted to know what people did when they fell in love.  And now I know some about it.  And you do too.

Random fact: The Greeks never even let their wives out of the house.  Good wives didn’t even show themselves when company came to visit.  And people idolize the Greeks… Ugh.

Categories: History


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