In an aside in her essay of Elizabeth Gilbert‘s latest, Ariel Levy muses on the volatile definition of marriage.
For contemporary political purposes, marriage is often depicted as a timeless and unchanging institution; actually, it has been enormously elastic throughout history and across cultures. In nineteenth-century China, it was perfectly acceptable for a young woman to marry a dead man, an arrangement called a “ghost marriage,” which enabled families to consolidate their wealth and power and allowed enterprising young women to pursue their ambitions without the interference of a living husband or children. (Such husbands were very popular. “It was not so easy to find an unmarried dead man to marry,” a ghost bride is quoted as saying in Janice Stockard’s “Daughters of the Canton Delta.”) Among Eskimo in northern Alaska, there was a tradition of creating co-spousal arrangements in which a quartet swapped husbands and wives. Shiites and Babylonian Jews recognized mut‘a: temporary marriages. If a man was granted a “wife for a day,” the couple could be seen in public together and even have sex. “The man and woman had no obligation toward each other once the contract was over,” Stephanie Coontz writes in “Marriage, a History.” “But if the woman bore a child as a result of the relationship, that child was legitimate and was entitled to share in the father’s inheritance.” Couples in modern revolutionary Iran can still petition mullahs for a similar marital day pass.
For all the variability in the meaning of marriage, one fairly consistent element over time and place was that it had nothing to do with love. “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage,” Coontz writes. In fact, loving one’s spouse too much was considered a threat to social and religious order, and was discouraged in societies as disparate as ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and contemporary Cameroon. The modern Western ideal of marriage as both romantic and companionate is an anomaly and a gamble. As soon as people in any culture start selecting spouses based on emotion, the rates of broken marriages shoot up. “By unnerving definition,” Gilbert writes, “anything that the heart has chosen for its own, mysterious reasons it can always unchoose.”
Despite what conservatives argue, the popular current conception of marriage — marrying for love and companionship and reproducing to perpetuate/express the same — is a really recent phenomenon. The growth of that idea corresponds to industrialization and a rising standard of living which obviated the need for those huge broods. While women’s increasing empowerment canceled out much of the economic imperative for getting married, they would (and do) face social consequences for not doing so. (When people point to really old couples as templates of “good marriages,” it’s probably worth remembering that most of us wouldn’t want marriages like theirs, where fulfillment was kind of besides the point and divorce really wasn’t on the table.)
But given the mercurial nature of love, shouldn’t divorce rates actually be higher? The popularly reported rate of divorce — 50 percent — is wrong, and the divorce rate has been falling steadily over the last few decades. That’s pretty remarkable, given the impractical sentiment that seems to inform so many of our unions to begin with.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that the benefits of marriage continue to redound largely to men.
In the United States today, it’s not difficult to see why men would want to marry women. As Gilbert points out, “Married men live longer than single men; . . . married men accumulate more wealth than single men; married men are far less likely to die a violent death than single men; married men report themselves to be much happier than single men; and married men suffer less from alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression than do single men.” Nor is it hard to see why gay people might want the right to wed: practical considerations aside, it would be a statement of acceptance for people who, until recently, were considered morally defective or criminal. But when it comes to women marrying men it’s a different story.
We marry most often because we are in love and we think it will make us happy. Yet married women are more likely to suffer from depression than single women are. According to Gilbert, married women are not as successful in their careers as single women. Married women are arguably less healthy than single women. Married women, until recently, were more likely to die a violent death than single women—usually, at the hands of their own husbands. Sociologists, Gilbert claims, call this phenomenon “the ‘Marriage Benefit Imbalance’—a tidy name for an almost freakishly doleful conclusion: that women generally lose in the exchange of marriage vows, while men win big.”