2006 July 09 Sunday
Supposed Traditional Views Of Marriage Ahistorical

Stephanie Coontz, history and family studies professor at The Evergreen State College and author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, says defenders of a supposedly traditional view of marriage do not appreciate just how much the rules and customs around marriage have changed over the last couple thousand years.

Nor did the early church establish elaborate rules about what made a marriage legitimate. One pope proposed that a marriage ought to take place in church to be valid. But his bishops pointed out that such a change would immediately render most of Europe's children illegitimate. So the church decided that a man and woman were married if they had exchanged "words of consent," even if they had done so out by the haystack, without any witnesses or involvement by a priest.

Not until 1215 did the Catholic Church make marriage a sacrament, and not until 1563 did it begin to enforce rules mandating that certain ceremonies had to be performed to make a marriage legitimate.

Sixteenth-century Protestant reformers had a much more positive attitude toward the blessedness of marriage than Catholics. But Protestant clerics were stricter than Catholics in enforcing the tradition that marriage should be governed by considerations of patriarchal authority and property rather than free choice based on love. In many Protestant regions, authorities forbade impoverished individuals from marrying at all. And Protestant officials often stepped in to dissolve marriages that had been made without parental consent, even if both parties were adult and children had already been born to their union.

It is also not "traditional" to insist that the state should have the final say over what constitutes a valid marriage. In the Roman tradition, which served as the basis for Western European law, the only difference between marriage and unmarried cohabitation was if the partners thought of themselves as married. It wasn't until 1754 that the English state required a license for a marriage to be valid. And even after that, "self-marriage" and "self-divorce" remained commonplace, especially in the early decades of the United States. In 1833, Pennsylvania's chief justice warned that a strict legal interpretation of rules governing marriage validity would render "the vast majority" of births in that state illegitimate.

I've had arguments with people who maintained that marriage is a creation of the state and that therefore the state can define it anyway the state wants to. But marriage as a state-licensed legal institution is a fairly modern invention.

In reaction to the gay marriage debate I question whether government recognition of marriage should even be an option for those who do not have children. What is society's major stake in individual marriages? Marriage is an institution which helps to protect and raise children (at least some of them). Why should we support legal benefits and divorce courts for people who do not have children?

Maybe couples should instead enter legal partnerships for property ownership issues and then only be able to graduate to marriage when they've either given birth to a kid or legally adopted one. With genetic testing becoming so affordable perhaps even birth as a basis for marriage should be dependent on either a genetic test or a formal signed avowal on the man's part that he recognizes a baby as his own.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 July 09 11:01 AM  Cultural Wars Western

kurt said at July 9, 2006 12:28 PM:


Your suggestion that couples should enter into legal partnerships and the marriage should be reserved for only if they have kids is both sensible as well as logically consistant. It would also meet the self-proclaimed goals the those conservatives who believe that the purpose of marriage is to protect kids.

However, the social conservatives are unlikely to recognize your proposal. Despite all of thier bleating about protecting kids, their stance on "marriage is about protecting kids" is more of a pose rather than a legitimate stance. Their real hang-up and obsession is limited the social lives of those who choose not to have kids.

Randall Parker said at July 9, 2006 1:05 PM:


Let me also note that this proposal of mine does not force Christians to live in sin. They can always get married in the eyes of God in their own ceremony in a church or however else they wish to do so. The state won't recognize the marriage. But why should that matter? If God recognizes the marriage they won't be sinners when they proceed to hop into bed.

Lepidus said at July 9, 2006 2:24 PM:

A very interesting perspective, Randall. I'm one of the many ex-liberals who today, has come to the belief that the US, Britain, Anglophone Canada and Australia are on the verge of committing whole-scale societal suicide through their divorce laws and practices, which reward parasitism and unproductivity at the expense of wealth-creators and productive people. In my days as a liberal, I once attended a sort of feminist-leaning meeting for liberal Democrats, with >75% women, in which one of the speakers actually went out-and-out trashing productive husbands and urging the women in the audience (who almost always earned less than their husbands) to divorce their "boys" and take the house, their money and the kids (if they had them), thus removing a father figure from couples that was especially damaging to young boys growing up. (BTW, I know I'm writing this in the wake of that recent BS New York Times article by Tamar Lewin on how women are outperfoming men at 4-year colleges, but please don't believe the hype. The only reason fewer men attend 4-year colleges than women, is that they've figured out that it's much more sensible to spend 1 year and less than $5,000 getting technical training as an electrician or a mechanic, and start earning good money right away with nice prospects for advancement, than to piss away 4+ years and go into six figure debt earning a BS bachelor's degree, the way most of the women going to college do today. Even men who do go to college, tend to go into the sciences and other technical degrees where they pick up valuable skills for jobs. Even in my old liberal circles, the men were overwhelmingly the breadwinners.)

In the US, I can't keep count of the number of hard-working men who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps from poor or working-class families, accumulated wealth, but then went bankrupt because they had gold-digger wives who stayed home and watched Oprah, then took their husbands' accumulated earnings in BS divorce courts in which the husband is almost always seen as guilty no matter what. One guy spent decades, in rags-to-riches style, patiently building up a company from a small dry goods business and becoming a multimillionaire. But his wife, a prima donna if I've ever met one, who was too damn lazy to even work as a receptionist, got the idea that she could get rich and live easy by divorcing her husband and playing "the helpless woman" in divorce court. Of course she won and got to keep the house, the car and most of the money that *he* had earned the hard way, while he got bubkus and very nearly fell into bankruptcy. WTF? Why even bust your tail to make a living, if divorce courts reward unproductive spouses so blatantly and stupidly? In Britain, it's even worse-- wives can now get the majority of their husbands' future earnings as well as what they have at the time of the divorce.

The result of this in the US, UK, Canada and Australia? Highly predictable-- high-earning, well-educated, productive men (especially Caucasian White men) don't want to marry and have very few kids, since marriage represents such an unbelievably dangerous financial risk. So the best-educated and capable men in society don't have kids, or have relatively few of them.

IOW, the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, are literally killing ourselves through our idiotic, feminazi, ultra-left-wing divorce policies that are so harsh on productive spouses. 30 years ago the laws were more sensible, and provided less-productive divorced spouses with enough money to make it on their own and have a boost at starting a new life, while the husbands would lose 25-30% of their income but be able to make good and recover in nice fashion after that.

The odd thing about this is, the European Continent and many East Asian countries often have their own Socialist lunacies. But for some reason, most of them have much more sensible divorce laws that are more in tune with economic realities, show far more respect to productive spouses (especially husbands), and don't cause so much damage or turn marriage into such a tremendous financial risk. They still help the divorced woman to get on her feet economically, but they're just less adversarial, there's less of this "stick it to him" crap that I heard at that conference many years ago with the feminist speaker, and they show more deference to the economic contributions and educational and work attainment of the productive husband. So, the educated classes in these countries aren't placed in such a high-risk position from the basic act of marriage.

For various reasons even the happiest marriages sometimes wind up in divorce, it's just too hard to predict the stresses that will hit a marriage years from its inception. I've been lucky enough to avoid this so far, but too many of my productive male friends have been driven close to bankruptcy in the USA due to the divorce court racket. In most other countries, while they may have their own flaws and Socialist tendencies in some respects, they're much better at both helping less-productive spouses earn a living after a divorce while also respecting the attainments of the more productive spouses (generally the husbands) and not hitting them so hard financially, so that they don't have to worry about bankruptcy and can continue to be highly economically productive individuals and contribute to their societies, which should be a basic objective of this sort of law in general.

Dave said at July 10, 2006 8:40 AM:

Lepidus, its getting even worse in Britain. The liberal elite have now realised many people are not getting married because of the reasons you mentioned so they are trying to push for a 'divorce' settlement for unmarried live in couples where the women will be able to claim money and proportion of assets from their 'boyfriends'.


(ofcouse they claim its a two way thing and sometimes the man will walk away better off)

Kurt said at July 10, 2006 9:20 AM:

Dave and Lepidus,

Your postings are one of the reason (along with the financial burdens of having kids today in the U.S.) why I consider it an act of monumental insanity to get married and have kids in today's society. It is simply an irrational act and assumption of unlimited risk. As Remo would say, "Why take a chance? Thats how I look at it".

Derek Copold said at July 10, 2006 10:59 AM:


The biggest concern for social conservatives, like myself, is have the government redefine a traditional institution. Yes, as the article notes, the procedures for "getting hitched" in the West have changed, but that's essentially all that's changed: procedure, not the substance. The last substantial change that took place in the West, millenia ago, was the general abolition of polygamy, and even that was a man/woman affair.

So, if the state were to be taken out of the equation, and state marriage granted only to heterosexual couples with kids, I wouldn't grumble. But it really isn't heading that way. The left side of the debate won't stand for it, and even if it got to the point of recognizing only couples with kids, we'd be having debates about Heather and her two mommies.

Kurt said at July 10, 2006 11:51 AM:


Social conservatives often argue that marriage should not be "redefined" to allow same-sex marriage because the purpose of marriage to provide a stable environment for kids and that the recognition of same-sex marriage would undermine that purpose. I'm not sure I accept this line of reasoning, but for the purposes of argument, I accept it here.

If this is the case, Randall's proposal does make marriage more logically consistant with this purpose by making it an institution applicable only to couples who choose to have kids. This is logical consistancy. You seem to be objecting to this proposal simply on the basis that it represents a "change" even though it would make marriage an institution more logically consistant with your supposed arguments.

If you oppose Randall's proposal, it cannot be because it would fail to make marriage into an institution that more protects kids, but because you want to preserve marriage in its current form for some reason OTHER than to provide a stable environment to raise kids.

Randall Parker said at July 10, 2006 6:02 PM:


Can you say "pre-nuptial agreement"? Sure. Sign a contract in advance. Spelling out obligations, eventual settlement conditiosn for a divorce, child custody, the whole works. A very wealthy guy I know has been making this argument to me for years. Makes sense.

Engineer-Poet said at July 11, 2006 8:15 AM:

That assumes the courts will respect such agreements.  I recall reading that many do not, considering them "contrary to public policy" and thus void.

I'm wondering if one can write an agreement which is governed by the laws of another country, in order to get away from the "man is always wrong, faithlessness is irrelevant to property rights or fitness for custody" US courts.

Nimadan said at July 11, 2006 9:43 PM:

I really appreciated your article, especially this part:

"In reaction to the gay marriage debate I question whether government recognition of marriage should even be an option for those who do not have children."

I have been saying for ages that except where children are concerned, Government has no business being involved in marriage to begin with. The involvement of the State in such an intimate area of our lives violates both common sense and the US Constitution. People's personal relationships are their own affair not the government's. Likewise for religion and doubly so for the confluence of the two, "Marriage". What rituals someone uses or doesn't use to dramatize he, she or it's relationships with however many people of whatever gender, real or imagined, is simply none of my business, your business, or Uncle Sam's....

Why is this so hard for so many people to understand?

This is not a difficult concept. There have times in fact in when I suspect it would have been considered self-obvious, times such as Philly in 1787 when the Bill of Rights was written or Sanfran in the 60s when the gay rights movement began. But apparently all of that is way over the heads of the combatants of the Kulturkampf. What's a dreary, mundane thing like Civil Liberties to people addicted to the rush of self-righteous anger? Nothing apparently....

Derek Copold said at July 11, 2006 10:33 PM:

"If you oppose Randall's proposal, it cannot be because it would fail to make marriage into an institution that more protects kids, but because you want to preserve marriage in its current form for some reason OTHER than to provide a stable environment to raise kids."

Which is true. Monogamous heterosexual marriage provides a stable environment for everyone. It's an ideal and a glue that holds a society together by encouraging healthy social behavior. Now, marriage does not depend on the force of the state. If the state were to disappear, marriage would still exist. So I'm fine with taking the state out of it. In fact, I'd like to do that because they state has a tendency to use its power to corrupt and coopt non-state institutions like marriage.

The problem with Randall's proposal is that it's only kicking the can down the road. When two gays adopt a kid and demand a "marriage" license, were back in the same argument we had before.

Kurt said at July 19, 2006 9:31 AM:


Although necessary for having kids, I do not believe that marriage is essential for single people who choose not to have kids. In fact, I do not believe that any fixed social order is necessary for people who choose not to have kids. The ONLY legitimate function for marriage in modern society is to provide a stable environment for kids.

There is both scientific and anecdotal evidence that marriage may not be useful for people who choose not to have kids and may in fact be harmful. Most of the entreprenuerial sucess storys that we know of (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc.) are the result of accomplishments while these people were single. Same is true for many scientists, athletes, and chess players. This is no coincidence. Marriage (especially accompanied by kids) reduces some of the hormones believed responsible for drive and ambition.

It may also be possible that marriage is useful for people on the lower end of the bell curve, but not for those at the higher end. The same hormones that drive some people to be successful entrepreneurs and scientists may also drive others to become criminals and to engage in violent, anti-social behavior.

The "men of mind" (high intelligent people who have drive and focus) do not need any form of "social conservatism". We certainly have no need for anything kind of "religion". We are quite capable of creating our own meaning in life and creating and fulfilling our own dreams and goals. Many of these dreams and goals can be quite big. Social conservatism is a partial response to the recognition of socio-biological reality of most people. The problem with the religious faction of social conservatism is their failure to recognize socio-biology as THE driving force of human nature and character. This, I think, is partly due to their inability to properly understand causality as well as that physical phenonmenon have physical causes.

The failure of science education is as applicable to the right as it is to the left (i.e. conventional religion is as flaky as "new age" stuff).

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