8/26/91, Revised 11/2/02

"Marriage isn't what it used to be." *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Some people typically those who are middle-aged or older complain that the family and marriage aren't "what they used to be." The question arises, "What was marriage really like 'way back when'?" In turn, this brings up another question what period of human history are they using as a comparison?

If we look back to ancient Greece, love in marriage was virtually unknown. Any man who proclaimed that he loved his wife would probably have been seen as a fool. In those times, women were uneducated and considered inferior to men. Love was assumed to begin with friendship. Since the only reasonable friend for an educated Greek man was another man, love often bloomed between men. Greeks thought that the reasons for taking a wife were to have someone to do the household chores and to bear children. (Is that the standard of comparison they want to use?)

Possibly the comparison is related to the type of marriage that was typical before the middle ages. Up to this point, most marriages were arranged by the couple's parents. Often the couple were not even consulted about the impending marriage. There is a story about a French nobleman of this period, who was asked by his son if it was true that he (the son) was going to marry a certain woman. The father sternly replied, "Son, mind your own business."

In the 16th century, the Catholic Church rules that marriages must be between mutually consenting adults. However, it was still believed that the parents of these adults should decide whom they should marry. Martin Luther believed that while the parents should not compel their children to marry someone parents had the right to forbid their children to marry anyone they (the parents) did not like. Since parents controlled their children's finances, their will was easily enforced. (Is this the standard being used as a reference?)

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the role of parents in marital choice lessened somewhat. However, marriage was still based on cold, hard reason and love as a basis for marriage was discouraged. In an early 18th century book on marriage, the author stated that marriage based on love was "governed by irregular appetites." In Gulliver's Travels, author Jonathan Swift praised a race visited by Gulliver, because its people married for purely rational reasons. The major or perhaps only reason for marriage by that group was procreation. The author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Dufoe, believed that if a woman who was unable to bear children got married, she was a lecher essentially one who freely indulges in lust. A famous 18th-century philosopher, John Locke, believed that once children had been born and raised, there was little reason to continue the marriage. (Is this the standard they want?)

Of course, people did fall in love, but these love relationships were usually different from today. Between 1000-1300 A.D., something called "courtly love" emerged. However, courtly love had little to do with marriage or sexual intercourse. Courtly love usually occurred when a young man was smitten with a fair lady who usually was already married. He would engage in a prolonged courtship to gain the lady's favor. This favor might be a caress or a smile, but it only rarely involved sexual intercourse.

There is the example of a German nobleman of that time, Ulrich Von Lichtenstein. For many years, he courted a married princess. To win her favor, he went to the extreme of cutting off one of his fingers and sending it to her in a velvet case! This was in addition to having his harelip corrected, letting her pull out a handful of his hair and participating in several hundred jousting tournaments in her honor! After 15 years of effort, the princess finally relented and spent a few minutes alone with Ulrich. They parted company soon thereafter. Ulrich's goal was not to establish a lifelong relationship with her. He was married and had several children. Essentially, he only wanted to demonstrate his love for the princess.

Courtly love seems to be the beginning of romantic love, as we know it now. By the early 19th century, novels and plays about romantic love were quite popular. This led young people to begin to associate love with marriage and sexual intercourse.

The modern cultural concept of marriage for love
has probably been around for only a couple of centuries.

Parents still attempted to maintain control over whom their children married, but they had to change their views quite dramatically. Previously, they argued that love was a poor reason for sex and even a worse one for marriage. Now they argued that love and sex were only appropriate between a husband and wife.

As time passed, young adults became freer to choose their mates. With current attitudes, these young people usually choose to marry someone they love. Now even though sex outside of marriage is somewhat condoned most people seem to believe that love is the only reason for marriage. In fact, love as the basis for marriage is a relatively recent invention in our culture no more than 200 years old!

Some people view the standards they have lived by all their lives as being the only valid standards because this is all they have known. However, once we get a broader historical perspective, those "good old days" don't seem so "old" at all!

* Adapted from Louis Penner's Social Psychology: Concepts and Applications, West Publishing, 1986, pages 241-243.

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