What is Marriage, Really?

Tradition does not come from nothing.

The first man and woman lived their life in a natural way. They first behaved in instinctive ways and modified their behavior based on the results of their actions until they assembled a coherent way of living. Their children imitated their way of living, as children often do, and tweaked some parts based on results. Bit by bit, generation after generation, on it went, building a tradition. From these family traditions grew traditions of clan, tribe, nation, and civilization. Traditions have the weight of the past in them. They are human ways of surviving that have been proved to work over hundreds and thousands of years.

Historians and anthropologists tell us that our kind of monogamous marriage is a relatively recent development. Earlier peoples tried many other forms of marriage: polygamous; polyandrous; monogamous and monoandrous; matrilocal; patrilocal; matrilineal; patrilineal; both patrilineal and matrilineal simultaneously; group and ladder arrangements; even matrilocal and matrilineal non-marriage in which women couple freely with any men who please them, raising their children in their own mother’s home (or village) with their brothers serving as adult male role models for the children and men left without domestic responsibilities. The Western tradition settled on monogamy for historical reasons, and stayed with it because it is kinder to women and children than other family forms, because its inherent stability allows wealth to accumulate, because it allows all the men in society to marry thus bringing peace to society, and because children have a better chance of living to adulthood in monogamous families.

I can hear some of my readers complain. “But this isn’t marriage. Marriage is true love. It is companionship. It is a committment to remain eternally infatuated with one person, until it ends.” My counterargument is that marriage as a family form is important. It has to do with the way that people reproduce and accomplish long-term goals that take more than alifetime. “Be fruitful and multiply,” is not only God’s command, it is the central fact of all life, including human life. Reproduction is our purpose as living beings, if you will. Certainly if we do not reproduce then we will be no more than a footnote in a hundred years.

Compare the concept of marriage as a family form, the structure in which humans reproduce, to the concept of marriage as sexual companionship. One continues our kind. The other gratifies libido and provides pleasure. One has long-term effects and encourages the accumulation of wealth and technological progress. The other is basically short-term. While exceptions happen, the structure of the two types of marriage will necessarily produce quite different effects.

From looking at marriage in the anthropological way to looking at marriage in the romanticized 20th century way as sold by Hollywood is a leap from marriage as a family form to marriage as an expression of true love between two adults, with children as an afterthought or even a distraction from its purpose. The two kinds of marriage are not the same. We could say marriage is family. Or we could say marriage is companionship and eternal infatuation. But when we say both we confuse the issue and render the word “marriage” meaningless.

Is a lustful gaze across the dance floor at the senior prom the foundation of a lifetime together? I’m convinced that marriage as an expression of true love between two people is an adolescent parody of real marriage, which holds family as its purpose. Our modern society has extended childhood into the teen years, pushing back the onset of adulthood from puberty, where it used to be reckoned, to the age of 21 when it’s legal to get drunk. With the invention of adolescence, society has transformed many formerly adult things into adolescent versions. Perhaps the most important of these is marriage.

I believe that changing the popular definition of marriage from its function to create a family, both nuclear and extended, was a big mistake. It has driven down the rate of reproduction in the West to the point where populations are dying off badly enough that our Ponzi scheme social security funds are poised to fail, and our sparse population is attracting hungry migrants from more crowded parts of the world.

It’s time to change the definition back. Marriage should mean children. Marriages without children are sad and incomplete and deserve our sympathy and kindness. They are not the model which families blessed with children should emulate.

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4 thoughts on “What is Marriage, Really?

  1. Do you have an email where I can contact you?

    I appreciate your diary and the ensuing discussion on RS, and I’m always interested in making the acquaintance of supporters of marriage. (I’m not in Mississippi, so I don’t mean personal acquaintance.)

  2. You make some excellent points. One quibble,

    “Our modern society has extended childhood into the teen years…”

    Au contraire, mon frere. Our modern society has extended childhood into darned near the whole of life. “Me see, me want, me get,” is the childish motto of our society, in large part, and it is endorsed by darned near every role model from celebrities to politicians to… childish parents of children who break up over the desire to childishly tickle their fancies in taking a new (usually again temporary) marriage partner, thenanother (or whatever) in serial pseudo monogamy or just to pursue their own pleasure(s) in other ways. We see it in parents of children modeling a childish mortgaging of their future for temporary shiny baubles and trinkets, selling not just their own but their children’s birthrights for “fast food” pleasure (Yeh, a reference to Esau, go figure).

    Why, there’s even a name some wear as a badge of (dis)honor for choosing to extend childhood into the furthest regions of lifespan: Grups.

    *feh* A society that encourages chidish behavior from adults is destined for the dustbin.

    And that’s all well and good for those who desire the demise of American society. As someone said, viewing the predictable welfare state that seems to be the goal of encouraging such childishness,

    “It is difficult to stir up a rebellion against a welfare state. If we were successful, what happens to our pensions?”

    Yeh, I know it’s not directly applicable and there are quite a few steps between A and W, but it surely does seem the way things are trending: Big Brother Nanny State steps in because people have become far too childish as a whole to manage their own affairs. Children as assets of the State, parents as impregnators and brood mares (and dupes whose votes can be easily bought/manipulated, maintaining a fiction of legitimate government).

    The family could still be repaired as a bulwark against many ills in our society, but is there time before we fall?

  3. David, you make several very good points. I recommend to you the essay, “Germania” by Tacitus. Written as the Romans were declining socially and politically, the essay is ostensibly merely a description of the German tribes but actually a polemic against Roman decadence. Tacitus points out, among other things, the strength of marriage in the German tribes.

    It is not long – perhaps 30 pages – and can be read online here:

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/tacitus-germanygord.html

    The first half – Part I and the beginning of Part II – are the most important for the purpose of our discussion here, if you don’t want to or can’t read all of it.

  4. Here’s the part on marriage (although I recommend reading all of the essay):

    Yet the laws of matrimony are severely observed there; nor in the whole of their manners is aught more praiseworthy than this: for they are almost the only Barbarians contented with one wife, excepting a very few amongst them; men of dignity who marry divers wives, from no wantonness or lubricity, but courted for the lustre of their family into many alliances.

    To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband, to the wife. The parents and relations attend and declare their approbation of the presents, not presents adapted to feminine pomp and delicacy, nor such as serve to deck the new married woman; but oxen and horse accoutred, and a shield, with a javelin and sword. By virtue of these gifts, she is espoused. She too on her part brings her husband some arms. This they esteem the highest tie, these the holy mysteries, and matrimonial Gods. That the woman may not suppose herself free from the considerations of fortitude and fighting, or exempt from the casualties of war, the very first solemnities of her wedding serve to warn her, that she comes to her husband as a partner in his hazards and fatigues, that she is to suffer alike with him, to adventure alike, during peace or during war. This the oxen joined in the same yoke plainly indicate, this the horse ready equipped, this the present of arms. ‘Tis thus she must be content to live, thus to resign life. The arms which she then receives she must preserve inviolate, and to her sons restore the same, as presents worthy of them, such as their wives may again receive, and still resign to her grandchildren.

    They therefore live in a state of chastity well secured; corrupted by no seducing shows and public diversions, by no irritations from banqueting. Of learning and of any secret intercourse by letters, they are all equally ignorant, men and women. Amongst a people so numerous, adultery is exceeding rare; a crime instantly punished, and the punishment left to be inflicted by the husband. He, having cut off her hair, expells her from his house naked, in presence of her kindred, and pursues her with stripes throughout the village. For, to a woman who has prostituted her person, no pardon is ever granted. However beautiful she be, however young, however abounding in wealth, a husband she can never find. In truth, nobody turns vices into mirth there, nor is the practice of corrupting and of yielding to corruption, called the custom of the Age. Better still do those communities, in which none but virgins marry, and where to a single marriage all their views and inclinations are at once confined. Thus, as they have but one body and one life, they take but one husband, that beyond him they may have no thought, no further wishes, nor love him only as their husband but as their marriage. To restrain generation and the increase of children, is esteemed an abominable sin, as also to kill infants newly born. And more powerful with them are good manners, than with other people are good laws.

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