Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Many Meanings of Marriage

Marriage means different things to different people. It has meant different things to different cultures throughout human history.

This does not mean that it is infinitely malleable, that these different kinds of marriages have nothing in common, and that if we want something to be a marriage, all we have to do is call it a marriage.

If a state decides to say that a couple is married, that confers on the participants certain rights and privileges under the law. But that fact, in and of itself, does not in all cases make their union a marriage.

At least it doesn't as long as words mean something.

The institution of marriage has constants and variables. The constants are its reality; the variables are different customs and rituals that are part of different cultural practices.

Note what happens when you declare that there are no constants.

The easiest way to understand this is to examine cargo cults. During World War II Pacific Islanders were surprised to see cargo planes landing on their island and delivering provisions. They had never seen such a thing and could not understand how it happened.

They did notice that every time the soldiers set out two rows of smudge pots, soon thereafter, the cargo planes would, seemingly by magic, appear.

So these peoples concluded that if they wanted some cargo they merely had to set out two rows of smudge pots. Thus they created what are now called cargo cults.

Just because you go through all of the motions, that does not mean that you are going to receive provisions.

When it comes to marriage, the cargo that defines the institution is the act of consummation. Marriage is a mating ritual. Thus it must be consummated by the performance of what medieval thinkers called a generative act. If the marriage is not consummated, it is considered to be null, thus, that it never happened.

However perfect the ceremony, however affectionate the partners, absent a generative act it is not really a marriage.

Some have objected to this universal custom on the grounds that not all acts of copulation result in conception. This claim would have validity if the sense of consummation was that the couple had to conceive a child on their wedding night.

And no one has ever imagined such a thing.

Consummation is about possibility, about what might happen. When a marriage is consummated there might be conception. For those of a more advanced age, the logic changes slightly: their generative action might have caused conception in the past.

It is fundamentally incorrect to equate what is sometimes, but not always, possible with acts where conception is, would have been, and always will be strictly impossible.

Marriage is a mating ritual that follows strict rules. As Claude Levi-Strauss analyzed in his tome, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, marriage is an alliance between families that is governed by strict rules. Groups prohibit some unions and prescribe others as especially desirable.

The notion that is currently prevalent today, that marriage occurs when two people feel affectionate toward each other and decide to live their love... is wildly at odds with evolution and human history.

And this is not the only piece of strange thinking that infects the current debate about marriage.

New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope has just written a new book on marriage, called, happily enough: For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. To promote the book she did an interview with Salon on the meaning and the current state of marriage. Link here.

Parker-Pope's perspectives are evolutionary, historical, and personal.

Examine her first statement about marriage and evolution: "From an evolutionary standpoint, men and women need to be attracted to each other long enough to reproduce and men need to form enough of an attachment that they protect and feed the kids."

This is unimpeachable, and it identifies marriage with procreation and childrearing. This does not, as Parker-Pope knows, mean that all marriages involve procreation and childrearing, but, as I have said, that the possibility exists.

But then she offers a qualifier that is conventional wisdom: "There really isn't an evolutionary explanation for why parents stick together after children are raised."

Perhaps we can try to explain this seeming anomaly. Evolutionary influences are very long term. They involve thousands of years of natural selection. Thus, we must factor in life expectancy here. How many people in the old days when the human genetic makeup was being inscribed lived very far beyond the time when their children had grown up.

Why should evolution factor in a highly improbable scenario? It does not.

Even so, if marriage aims at procreation and childrearing by the two people who have the greatest genetic investment in their offspring, then, evolutionarily speaking, grandparents also have a common genetic investment in their grandchildren.

And yes, one does realize that it is possible for two people to bring up children with whom they have no common genes, but evolution behavior seems to aim at the optimal conditions, the conditions containing the greatest chance of success, the condition where the children carry the parents genes.

As for the nature of marriage, Parker-Pope's historical definition makes it anything buy an expression of personal affection. In her words: "Even in Western cultures, marriage has historically been an economic and social institution, less about love and more about practical considerations, like acquiring wealth or land, joining families, or boosting social and political connections."

If this is true, and if the evolutionary perspective is also true, then what happened to romantic love? How did we ever get the idea that marriage must be an expression of romantic love or that it should provide emotional fulfillment and happiness.

As we know, romantic love grew up in the West as an alternative to marriage. Since most marriages in human history have been social arrangements, where personal interest took second place to the good or the group, romantic love has always been something that was best cultivated outside of marriage.

As we also know, the most significant change in the Western practice of marriage was granting of women a free choice of mates. Thus courtly love, a strictly adulterous institution, became morphed into courtship, a dating ritual that would permit women to make a better informed and more responsible choice of mates. Its initial purpose was probably to give women a greater stake in loyalty and fidelity.

At best, this dates to seventeenth century England. Even today, around the world it is probably more the exception than the rule.

Finally, people today believe that marriage should provide a measure of personal happiness and fulfillment. As Parker-Pope explains: "The whole idea of personal fulfillment in marriage is relatively new, and it has certainly gummed up the works. Marriage is a lot more high maintenance when you've married your 'soul mate'."

But wherever did we get this idea that marriage was supposed to serve our personal emotional needs. In the past the good of the group and the survival of the species were dominant considerations, and people were not thinking about their emotional needs.

Where did it come from? I haven't read Parker-Pope's book so I do not know her explanation, but I would guess, given my own predilections, that it came from the therapy culture.

To me the goal of personal fulfillment comes directly from therapy. It must have begun somewhere around the time when we stopped asking what we could do for marriage and started asking what marriage was doing for us.

It was not a step forward. As Parker-Pope suggests, it gums up the works, causes a lot more stress, and usually does not deliver the goods.


Ralph said...

I went to a wedding years ago where the minister asked the couple if they remembered the first time they said "I love you" to each other. He then surprised us by saying they didn't really mean it. What they meant, he explained, was they they loved themselves and wanted the other person for themselves , or, "I love me and want you." The godlike agape love hopefully happens over time.

I agree with the therapeutic model of marriage, and have noticed among my friends an increase in the dissolution of marriage based on the unhappiness factor and the idea that adult personal happiness trumps children's security (both emotionally and financially). I also see a tendency among married people to be rude to each other in words and deeds.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post.

In the past the good of the group and the survival of the species were dominant considerations, and people were not thinking about their emotional needs.

Indeed. My own take? "Life is too hard for just one person."

As a "bad boy" (previously) and hopeless narcissist, I can tell you: Beyond being exquisitely hot, my wife makes my life easier, in large ways and small.

I am so grateful--I appreciate it so much that I want to ease her passage through this mortal coil in large ways and small, Thus, we build a life that neither one of us could build on our own.

As I've told her and the kids (one hers, one ours): "You are all so very happy with so little that I want to give you everything."

Becky has a great point: I also see a tendency among married people to be rude to each other in words and deeds.

I've seen it as well and I think less of them for it.

I love myself and I love the wife I chose who chose me: How can I be rude to her without impeaching my own judgement?

At the limbic tribal level: "I am not stupid! I would not have a stupid wife! She is, perhaps, better than I! Do you think I would have a stupid wife? Arm yourself!"

I, fearfully, remember the first time we said "I love you". It was whispered. We meant it and we were terrified. Love is a fearsome thing. Promethean. You will burn yourself in it.


wv: laybox. Oh,yes.... Yes indeed.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It truly is amazing that married couples can be rude to each other, even in public.

I would think that if people stop thinking about what marriage is going to do for them, they are more likely to have long lasting and happy marriages.