Sunday, 10 May 2015

Loveless Marriages.

Marriage has a history. It is mostly a loveless history. Before the 19th century, marriage was about anything but love. Maybe the couples grew in love after they tied the knot, but love was neither the reason for nor the attraction to getting married. In the Indian tradition, the understanding between match-made couples was this: "First we marry, then we fall in love." It almost seemed like an afterthought.

In other words, love was not even the deal maker or the deal sweetener. In some countries like ancient China, love 
may even be the deal breaker. During those times, sons generally listened to their parents and their wife would just have to accept their status as lady in waiting for her husband's affection. Even the love between siblings took precedence over spousal passion. So love in a marriage was like the metaphorical orphan who had to wait on hands and feet in bonded servitude to familial affection.

In fact, love was a dirty word before the time of the scientific revolution. To the Greeks, it was 
even ridiculed as a form of insanity. And the French called it a "derangement of the mind". For this reason, a Roman could be expelled from the Senate should he be caught kissing his wife in front of his daughter. In the Catholic faith, any expression of marital intimacy before the Reformation was deemed as a form of idolatry. In Europe, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the highest form of love was adultery because true love could never be achieved when a man is married to a woman. If anything, love was largely a spectator looking forlornly at the union of a man and a woman from the other side of the fence.

During that time, most marriages were about acquiring the right in-laws, establishing political alliances, securing peace treaties, merging resources and estates, and consolidating wealth. Even amongst peasants, they married off their daughters for the expressed purpose of combining their respective land plots to increase harvest output. So Tina Turner was right after all, love's got nothing to do with it.

The case of Marcus Porcius Cato (234 - 149 B.C.) would be most instructive here. He divorced his wife Marcia and arranged for her to marry his friend Hortensius so as to strengthen the friendship and family connection. Thereafter, when his friend died, he remarried Marcia back. At this point, I cannot blame Marcia if she ever had this impression that she was a marital pawn in the whole chess game of convenience, opportunity and wealth creation.

Essentially, marriage was a political and economic institution with rigid rules and there was no room or time for love, romance and candle-light dinners. These are all modern day supplements and niceties. In fact, today's marital union between two love birds would seem strange, even weird, in the eyes of the not-too-long-ago history. Not only was love mostly out of the equation, even monogamy would be viewed with surprise, if not bewilderment.

In the informative book, Marriage, a History, the author Stephenie Coontz wrote, "A women in ancient China might bring one or more of her sisters to her 
husband's home as backup wives. Eskimo couples often had co-spousal arrangements, in which each partner had sexual relations with the other's spouse. In Tibet and parts of India, Kashmir, and Nepal, a woman may be married to two or more brothers, all of whom share sexual access to her." While we modern folks would squirm at such arrangement since a marriage is a private, love-exclusive affair between a man and a woman, it should be noted that such multi-partnership union in the past were widely accepted and "among Tibetan brothers who share the same wife...jealousy is rare."

Well, I guess you would find no greater magnanimity of spirit than the act of sharing your wife with your siblings, however jarring that thought is to the modern sense right? But let's not stop there. 

In some parts of West Africa, mothers often encouraged young married women to openly pursue extramarital affairs and the Bari women of Venezuela had this strange ritual during pregnancy. 
The pregnant mother would name all the men she had slept with before she met her husband to the chagrin of the latter. Upon birth, a woman who attended the ceremony would then tell each of the men these words, "You have a child." In fact, before the Agricultural Revolution (more than 12,000 years ago), women were encouraged to be impregnated by a number of men just before and during her pregnancy so that she would get the best of the mixed variety when she conceive. Think of it like a modern-day mix-and-match but not for fashion tastes but posterity.

In the Muslim tradition, even till today, men are allowed to enter into temporary marriages called Mut'a (which is condemned by the Sunni Muslims). This arrangement provides a sexual outlet for married men who want to avoid the punishment 
and public shame of engaging in sex outside of marriage.

Then we come to the Mosuo girls. They are a small ethnic group living around China Lugu lake in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. In what is known as "walking marriages", men would furtively walk into the private chambers of these young ladies when they come of age. If reciprocated, the man would spend the night with his female mate. There is in fact no limit as to how many men the Mosuo ladies can invite into her love chamber, although sex with 
the same man is not uncommon. But the point here is clearly one of cultural shock from the point of view of our mainly monogamous modern culture. What is frowned upon by us today, and some may even consider "walking marriages" a form of sexual promiscuity or fornication, the Mosuo women consider it a well-defended and proven tradition in their tribal society, which poses no threat whatsoever to the basic structure of the family.

So after all said, before love took center-stage in 
modern marriages, love and marriage didn't really come together like horse and carriage. As a latecomer to marriage, love managed to breathe a little when Martin Luther argued that parents did not have the right to force a child into a loveless marriage. However, parental consent was still required and any marriage carried out without consent would not be deemed valid. This only increased the uncertainty of the marital status of spouses and their property ownership, inheritance fate, and custody rights over their children.

I guess I can understand why love-based marriage is only a recent social phenomenon. It can't be otherwise because of a woman's status in the pre-enlightened world (before the scientific revolution). In the Biblical days, they were treated no better than slaves or chattels. Although their status progressed over time and came to almost full recognition with the feminist movement and the sexual revolution in the last century, with a significant credit going to the invention of the contraceptive pill (thereby giving women the power to control their reproductive cycle with timed fertility), women dominated a largely patriarchal world and men could therefore treat the other solemnized half with disdain, disregard and even disgust. This was one of the reasons why the idea that a husband could even be accused of raping his wife is plainly oxymoronic. To the husband, his wife’s sexuality was under his full monopolistic control. Even the women’s father had the final say in her marital and sexual destiny. During those times, daughters were offered as a payment in full for serious crimes committed in the family.

There were basically no rules or laws to protect the weaker sex and their husbands could therefore exercise coercive sex, engage in adulterous liaisons, and enforce domesticated control over their  more subdued and compliant other half. In addition, another factor why love was kept at the fringe of marriages was because men and women were not independent economic and productive units earning their own wages before the coming of the Industrial Revolution. As such, they depended on their resources-secured parents and their eventual inheritance before they could be financially independent and leave the nest, so to speak. This money factor kept them from straying too far from the 
hand that fed, clothed, nurtured, and dominated them.

For this reason, parental blessings and consent played a more significant role in marriages than romantic love. But as the world ushered in the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution, love at first sight gradually became the main attraction to initiate that all important “what’s your number” mating call. It also became an increasingly important reason for initiating a courtship with the prospect of closing the nuptial deal in a long 
term marital partnership.

By this time, marriages as a whole also underwent a religious makeover. Before Luther's days, marriage was viewed as a spiritual aberration. Compared to celibacy, the urge to give in to one's erotic desires with the endgame of marriage was viewed with religious indignation, if not overt condemnation. Obviously, the devotion to one's spouse was seen as a distraction of one's devotion to God. But, the post-reformation attitude gradually changed this and elevated the marital union into a blessed union ordained by God. It was a transformation that encouraged the fire in one's loins to be joined most congruously with the fire in another's loins with the broad-smiling approval of God, Church and parents.

Gradually and eventually, love won the social and cultural race for marital validation and social acceptance. This is also about the same time where the ideal of monogamy doubled up to be love's runner-up. I guess this is just a matter of 
time because as love became the reason for economically equal and independent couples to come together in a lifetime union, monogamy would be the proof in its pudding. I guess if love is the gravitational pull, then one's devotion is expected to last "till death do one part." And a marriage could be no more monogamous than one that promises the devotion of one's lifetime, both in words and deeds (even if this is more hand-knitted in the ideal than in reality).

Nowadays, it would be strange to the ears of young newly wed to be told that in the not-too-distant 
past, love was hardly a consideration in one's decision to walk down the aisle or that monogamy was often the unspoken exception rather than the rule in marriages. In fact, post-marital promiscuity during those times was deemed a norm.

Of course, to the public attending a modern wedding ceremony, it would be absurd to add into the couple's oath this line, "till death, and when love starts to wane, do the other understand and part." I would think that that would be more implicit or expected in a marriage of the past where such union was 
tactically stitched together with little deference to romantic love or the wishes of the young couple but more for the trumpeted purpose of advancing political alliances, merging resources, consolidating wealth. Since marriages then were not the result of voluntary choices made after the culmination of a private and exclusive courtship, I guess there was less reason for them to stay together.

Furthermore, since parents during that time had more say and control over the choices of their children's marital partner by reason that they held the purse string, their children had not much choice but to defer to their wishes (and stay together until the demise of their parents).

So, I can end here and say that the gradual confluence of love, economic independence, gender equality, the pill, and personal choices  together with the pursued ideal of monogamy, have altogether made up what we have come to understand about modern marriages. And this ultimate convergence, however imperfect, was reached after a long and natural history fraught with sexual oppression, patriarchal domination, Church-condemnation, and economic-asymmetry.

It would however not be considered as much of a befitting conclusion here (if not ironic) without mentioning that with such love-heralded marriages come problems that are not too different from the marital fate of our past.

Today's marriages have its share of problems with 
divorces making up nearly half of its numbers in some countries. It is really unfortunate that monogamy and lifetime marriages are still a goal that remains as elusive as the fabled love potion number 9. No quick-fix formula, it seems, is able to guarantee that a marriage would last from wedding bells to the toll bells. Neither parental consent, resource consolidation nor love-based marital union holds the key to a happy and lifelong marital union. Too idealistic?

Ultimately, I think a marriage, like the care of a 
child, takes the whole village. By this, I mean that love-based marriages do not exist in isolation with other social factors. Even if young couples have the autonomy to select their own future partner based on love, their marriage will still need familial support (including in-laws) and social encouragement to flourish. And the social encouragement here includes community's help, whether religious or secular, and friends' support.

Of course, temptation comes in many forms to distract the couple, individually and separately. But if they draw strength and accountability from each other and the wider constellation of support as mentioned above, they will increase their marital resiliency against the many temptations that seek to break their union. Too idealistic?

I leave you with three definitions of love and marriage and you decide which resonates most intimately with your heart:-

George Bernard Shaw once described marriage as an institution that brings together two people “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”


Ruth Bell Graham describes it this way: “A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers.


James Weldon Johnson on “Beauty That is Never Old”:-

The world, for me, and all the world can hold
Is circled by your arms;
For me there lies,
Within the lights and shadows of your eyes,
The only beauty that is never old.”

Bon voyage, on your love-empowered marriage! Cheerz.

* Image from ""

No comments:

Post a Comment