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For my fifth birthday, I asked for a Barbie. I never specified any particular kind of Barbie; I just wanted all of them. I asked for a Barbie every year until I was 12, which was when I became too cool for dolls and switched to Dungeons & Dragons (I’m sure you can tell already just how “cool” I was). But on that fifth birthday, I ripped open the wrappings, ribbons, and bows to reveal the 1994 Wal-Mart Special Edition Country Bride Barbie. She was wearing a beautiful white dotted wedding gown with pink-trimmed, short, and puffy sleeves, pearl earrings, and a tulle veil. She came with a daisy bouquet, white high heels, and a pink bow for her long blonde hair. I immediately loved her.
Instantly, I tore her out of the packaging and, to my mother’s dismay, took off every piece of wedding attire and changed her into the G.I. Joe outfits that never fit Barbie right but had plenty of pockets. You see, Barbie was not a country bride; she was an international super spy sent to save the president from different assassination attempts. As I geared Barbie up to catch a last-minute flight from Malibu, California to Washington, DC, my mom picked up the discarded white wedding gown and handed it to me. She asked, “Don’t you want Barbie to be a bride?” I looked up at her with a frown on my face and simply replied, “Gross, why?” and continued packing her little bags full of weapons.
I couldn’t help but ask the same question my five-year-old self wanted to know at 26, in a serious relationship of my own, when I was watching the people around me get engaged, plan weddings, and get married. I’ve been told a hundred different reasons why I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of my peers. Everyone kept telling me my issues with marriage and what it had to be. Apparently, everyone is a trained psychologist talking about your problems. They seem to suddenly gain an air of superiority when speaking about something they’ve done but you didn’t.
Any issues I had with the concept of marriage had to be attributed to some trauma in my past that made me question the practice, such as being a child of divorce and multiple step-fathers, being a millennial, being an only child, being a feminist (really?), having a fear of commitment, etc. But if I didn’t feel like it was any of those things, why didn’t I want it? I decided I needed to dig deep and see why I opposed marriage so fervently. I didn’t really know that much about the subject in general other than I didn’t want any part of it.
Maybe if I learned about the history of marriage and what it meant to people over the centuries, it would change my mind.
If we go back 23,000 years or so, humans just discovered agriculture. For the first time ever, humans were tied to the land and that meant they needed to protect, tend to, and build on it. This changed the way we thought about human relations forever. The tasks between men and women were suddenly divided. Before, anyone in the tribe would perform any task; if there was a crying child and a man walked by, he would tend to the child, or if there was fishing and hunting to be done, women contributed.
However, once there was a permanent settlement with a farm to create, roles became very specific to strength. Men needed to be out in the field planting, plowing, or picking, and women stayed in the home taking care of everything else, including raising the children. Back then, you needed to have as many children as you could for a free labor force for your farm. As they say, necessity is the mother of all inventions.
Eventually, the community needed to recognize a union between the man and woman so the man could be reassured that his children were his and therefore deserving of his food, shelter, and efforts; on the other hand, the woman needed to be assured that the man was not going to run off and leave her with nothing but children to feed. How romantic. A business contract to ensure the survival of the couple, the children, and the farm was the start of all of this. Why did it continue?
In the 11th century, a Benedictine monk named Gratian introduced the idea of consent in 1140 through his law textbook Dectretum Gratiani. Before this, it was assumed that if the families arranged a marriage, there would be no objection from the couple. Gratian’s law made it to where the couple not only had to give their verbal consent, but they then had to consummate the marriage to forge a bond. This book shaped the church’s laws on sexuality and marriage later in the 12th century. So much so, in fact, that in 1563 marriage became one of the official seven sacraments. To summarize marriage from 8,000 BCE to 1563, you could use three words: work, church, no love.
When did love become a part of the process of choosing your spouse? Not for a long time.
In the late 18th century, French philosopher Montesquieu wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was probably too dull to be loved by another woman. According to the European aristocracy, affairs were the only acceptable relationships for romance. Marriage was far too serious to be based on such a confusing, fleeting emotion like love. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and the development of the middle class that allowed marrying for love to happen.
For the first time in history, men had a chance to create their own wealth as opposed to being born into it. They were able to choose a wife, pay for their wedding, and support a household without the need for family approval. People started to take control of their own lives and decided that the pursuit of happiness was more important than simply following tradition.
Now, with the pursuit of happiness comes the demand for the ability to get out of unhappy marriages. Thus, divorce became a common trend. Before this, divorce was fairly rare. In 1670, Parliament passed an act that allowed Lord John Manners to divorce Lady Anne Pierpon on grounds of infidelity. It wasn’t until 1858 that a couple did not need special permission from Parliament and could instead go through a regulated legal process. That same year, men’s infidelity was taken into account, but male infidelity was much more difficult to prove than female infidelity. Women had to prove “aggravated adultery,” which included bigamy, incest, sodomy, or bestiality. Women were also able to get a divorce if their husbands deserted them, but it was on the grounds that she would then get remarried.
It wasn’t until the U.S. Divorce Reform Act of 1969 that couples could mutually decide the relationship was over. Still, where was equality for both spouses?
This brings us to 1970. Marriage was gender-neutral in Western societies, which coincided with the rise of contraceptives. Couples could finally decide how many children they wanted or even to not have children at all. Farms were obviously not the norm anymore, and the success of the Women’s Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement had people thinking about equality and the pursuit of happiness for everyone, not just men.
Finally, marriage became a personal agreement between two equals based on love, stability, and happiness. It had a rough start. However, there is beauty in that as we progressed intellectually, so did our capacity to love, understand, and accept the marginalized other as equal in marriage. It became what marriage was supposed to represent today. Except on a societal scale, it really didn’t.
If, as a society, we accept that we do not need to enter into unhappy marriages, then we also need to know that we can get out of unhappy marriages. This is just as important to the history of marriage as marrying for love. With marriage as a choice between two equal partners, however, many don’t last. Divorce rates started to spike around the 1960s and reached about 50% in 1970, right around the time of all of that equality. Currently, some countries, such as Belgium, have a 70% divorce rate. With this information, I had to question why everyone was pushing me to get married.
The more I researched, the more I started to realize some things about love and marriage. Everything about signing your name on the dotted line doesn’t scream long-lasting love, it screams Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There is even a “cool down period” where if you haven’t consummated the marriage you can get an annulment and it’s “wiped from your record,” as if the marriage was the equivalent of a speeding ticket, and you got to go to traffic school.
After learning all of this history, I think I finally cracked the code of this marriage business. For me, it was all about freedom and marriage’s lack of it.
I saw that, throughout history, marriage seemed to always be about giving up your autonomy for the sake of the union. Simply look at the language used when describing marriage: getting hitched, tying the knot, wedlock, or getting spliced (which is apparently when you take two ropes and weave them into one). Marriage makes it difficult to keep your individuality, and focusing on love and compatibility as the foundation of marriage seems to be shaky—just check out the salary of your typical Los Angeles divorce lawyer. In the end, a failed marriage separates not only your assets, and possibly your kids, but whatever emotional baggage you keep from your unhappy union.
I realized it was that thought that terrified me the most. I never want it to be difficult to leave someone and vice versa. The freedom to be able to pack up and walk out of someone’s life at any time makes the fact that they don’t mean so much more. Living your own lives as free individuals enables you to keep that understanding and continue that growth of yourselves, and it allows you to be a strong confident adult full of love. Love that is out of want and desire and never out of need nor pressure (or contractual obligation). The purity of total freedom keeps an innocence to the relationship where time is still fleeting and butterflies are still fluttering in your stomach.
I knew this wasn’t the kind of relationship I wanted for myself, but what I did want was the lifelong commitment to one person.
My relationship has lasted ten years, and it still feels as though we are teenagers. Through trying to discover how I could believe in marriage, I only solidified the reasons why I won’t. We have chosen to spend our lives together as partners, friends, roommates, and lovers, but never husband and wife. The weight of those laws and titles would carry baggage and pressure into a relationship that doesn’t really have much to start with. And we live without those pieces of paper that declare in painstaking detail its understanding of a human emotion…to the fullest extent of the law. Again, how romantic.
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