Many people would say that marriage has changed over the centuries. In fact, marriage hasn’t changed at all. Peoples’ perceptions of it and attitudes toward it have changed. Due to these factors, there is an appearance of marriage itself having changed. Increasingly, people are asking the question, “what does marriage mean?”.
Marriage is certainly less popular these days. In fact, based on their questions around what marriage means, fewer people are even finding a reason why marriage is necessary to formalise their relationship. There is an argument that this change in attitude around the meaning of marriage, resulting in fewer people actually getting married, has brought about an increase in broken homes. However, broken homes were becoming more common before people stopped bothering to get married. Instead of marriage becoming less common, divorce rates grew at an alarming pace. Some governments have actually created and enforced legislation around marriage and divorce in an effort to encourage marriage and make divorce almost impossible in the attempt to alleviate the social burden of broken homes. Those laws really didn’t change anything. They didn’t answer any of the questions new generations were asking regarding the meaning of marriage, and they gave no reason why marriage should be part of the equation other than penalties imposed. Laws don’t tend to have much of an impact on attitudes. Where the laws are accused of not keeping up with the times lies in the problems that couples who aren’t formally married have. Partners who aren’t formally married find that they have difficulty accessing medical insurance coverage for their significant other. Pensions are denied to a surviving partner, regardless of how long-term the partnership was. If partners become homeless, only the vulnerable mother and children are housed….the father of the children is on his own, and the family is separated. The real impact of not getting married isn’t felt until some tragic event takes place which shows the disparity between formally married couples and those who have entered into a long-term, co-habitating relationship. In spite of any attempt at forcing marriage through legislation, people are going to court in ever increasing numbers to demand the same rights for themselves and their long-term partners as married couples have, and the questions around what marriage even means play a significant role in those cases. Their position is that they’re every bit as committed to their relationship as a formally married couple are. The government’s position is that if that were so, they would go through the process of being legally married. The partners argue that weddings are expensive. The government argues that a simple trip to town hall gets it done. It’s a piece of paper, they say, not a huge event. Some people may argue that it’s down to divorce laws being too difficult, with the process of formal separation recognised by a court as taking too long. However, people still move out of the marital home and take up residence with the next partner whilst awaiting the finalisation of the divorce process. That partnership simply isn’t recognised legally as long as they’re married to someone else. So, it’s as if both sides of the argument have dug their heels in, with each side actively ignoring the will of the other, and neither side is really addressing the elephant in the room: What does marriage even mean? Many people say in defence of not getting married that marriage actually changes the paradigm of a long-term relationship, destroying the arrangements and expectations that had worked so well for the couple prior to the formalisation of their relationship. They use as the excuse for leaving a marriage the change in their partner’s attitudes toward them regarding their respective roles in the relationship as defined by marriage. They are also known to bring to the court as their reason for divorce the fact that they’re no longer happy or fulfilled in the relationship. Summing up, all any of this means is that homes will either stay stable or break up whether formal marriage takes place or not. This gives evidential support to the conclusion that marriage legislation will not change attitudes, and that attitudes are what have changed. It also gives weight to the questions surrounding the meaning and importance of marriage itself.
Some changes are good and necessary. For instance, men are no longer seen as absolute ruler in the home. Decades ago, I heard police officers telling a battered wife that her husband probably would be less inclined to hit her if she cooked better or tidied up more often. I’ve actually heard people say to the wife that she wouldn’t have problems in her marriage if she would be more accommodating to her husband. No one ever said any of those things to the husband. I remember a particular episode of the old, black-and-white television series, “I Love Lucy”, in which the husband, Ricky, took the wife, Lucy, over his knee and gave her a spanking because she had “misbehaved”. At that time, this was considered a man’s right and his duty in order to maintain order in the home. Thankfully, the law has stepped in to a large degree to alleviate abuse, as this kind of behaviour is now recognised to be. These days, even though the bulk of the work around the home and the care of family still falls too often to the woman, many young couples are recognising that this isn’t actually fair or tenable. Both partners have to work outside of the home in order to make ends meet in most cases. That being the case, for the woman to then come home from work and be responsible for all of the housework, the cooking, the shopping, and the care of the children whilst her husband lounges over the paper is not a fair or tenable situation. Young men these days are finding that they’re expected to do more around the house, and that the children are just as much their responsibility as the mother’s. Their own attitudes determine how well they’re able to adapt to the new expectations,which in turn has a dramatic impact on the sustainability of the long-term relationship. These attitudes are more often shaped by parents and school activities than by peer groups in general, where the ideas of power and masculinity are still greatly intertwined, so progress has been slow. The questions around whether the life-cycle paradigm have changed the attitudes around marriage or the attitudes around marriage have impacted the life-cycle paradigm are intriguingly similar to the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In that sense, the two questions are linked together inseparably; and those two questions are also impacted by the answers to the question, “what does marriage mean?”. I’ll go a little deeper into that in my next blog.