The idea that marriage is purely a formal, public pledge of love, devotion and commitment is to misunderstand the historical and genealogical purpose of this ceremonial bond. We should abandon any romantic notions we might have, and, instead, recognise marriage for what it really is – a managerial, controlling practice.
In our early existence, male leaders, living in tribal groups of about thirty people, would have shared multiple women. There would have been competition between the males to secure reproductive opportunities. As a strategy, males would have sought to spread their genetic seed as wide as possible in order to secure their genetic future. This approach would have been very random and haphazard, lacking any guarantees and quality assurances.
Males began to recognise that it would be far more effective to limit their endeavours and focus their attentions in order to ensure and improve their genetic productivity and survival.
A male needed to know that:
- He had a confirmed reproductive product – that a female’s pregnancy was down to him, that it was his genes that were being nurtured.
- Once born, his off-spring would be properly raised by the female and not neglected as other males sought the female’s attentions.
- His off-spring had the best chance of continuing his genetic lineage. Reproduction was not enough; he needed to be sure that his off-spring was raised properly and in accordance with his own ideas. In some cultures this encouraged males to also become more active parents.
Having a woman pledge herself to a man was a means of securing these requirements.
Marriage was therefore a “less is more”, practical arrangement which encouraged a certain level of partner exclusivity. In so doing, having women as the property of men, it ensured that males could be more confident of their genetic continuance and that they were producing legitimate off-spring with good survival prospects.
The first marriage ceremonies took place from about 2350BC in Mesopotania.
The fact that marriage – in some format or other – developed as a common practice in different, unconnected cultures suggests that it is an evidently advantageous arrangement. With growing socialisation (this being our primary defence in our struggle to survive within nature), a sexual free-for-all would have proved genetically restrictive, limiting our human progress.
Some form of stability and regulation was needed. Marriage achieved that, ensuring reproductive exclusivity and thereby improving genetic survival.
Given that gender relations were male dominated, it is not surprising that marriage was primarily a male device for managing the female population. This is apparent from some of the practices that occurred:
- Men may have had several wives.
- In Roman culture, men who married wives who failed to reproduce could give them back.
- Women would adopt the male name.
- The marriage ceremony would emphasise the male dominance, for instance, that the wife should obey her husband.
- Initially, it was only the woman who wore a wedding ring. The practice of wearing a ring (engagement and wedding) denotes that a woman is no longer available, that she is somebody else’s “property”. The mutual exchanging of rings is a much more recent addition to the marriage service.
- In many languages the title of the woman changes with marriage: Miss to Mrs, Senorita to Senora, Mademoiselle to Madame. The male title stays the same.
In some ways, for the woman, marriage represented a form of slavery. Yet it was still a beneficial arrangement and more advantageous than the struggle and uncertainty that went previously. With a nine month gestation period, women knew that they were investing heavily in their reproductive role. Marriage meant that the man was more likely to stick around and support the woman and her child.
The religious element to marriage only occurred much later in our societal development. Marriage began as an individual tool of convenience to ensure a woman’s sexual and genetic exclusivity but it was later adopted by religion and the state to help bring about increased social stability, order and conformity. It became an institutional device.
Religious blessing gave marriage added legitimacy and ceremonial trappings made marriage a rite of passage. Getting married became the normal, expected thing. Married couples and their families became the bedrock of our social structure. Marriage not only brought order and regulation but it was also the key to the upholding and development of society.
And yet, this solidity is possibly under threat. Marriages are in decline, separation and divorce is growing and the numbers of single-parents are increasing.
Questions inevitably arise. Without this man-made marital construct will we face some form of societal regression? Or is society such a stable institution that we no longer need marriage to support it?
And genetically, in this modern era where the state supports those in need (health, education, welfare), is marriage still a necessary or advantageous arrangement? Does it still maximise an individual’s genetic prospects?
Coupled with the decline in marriage (arguably even, the cause of this decline), improved contraception has also broken the link between our sexual activity and our genetic reproductivity. This means that our sexual activities are not so consequential and we can indulge our sexual desires without any genetic outcomes.
There is a revolutionary change occurring in our relationships. Socially and genetically, we have to wonder what impact this will have on the way we live our lives and on the way we relate to one another.
It may be that marriage only continues because it is a traditional custom or that individuals just love an opportunity to celebrate or to have their “special” day. In terms of its underlying purpose, in relation to both society and our genes, marriage is no longer effective or required as a controlling, managerial tool.
Perhaps that’s why, more than anything else, we perceive it as a romantic, celebratory bonding, a fairy-tale occasion. We have no other use for it.