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While “one man, one woman” has become the clarion call of gay-marriage opponents, Coontz observes that the most “traditional” form of marriage adhered more closely to the rule “one man, as many women as he can afford.” Many Native American groups cared about diversity of gender in marriage rather than diversity of biological sex: A couple had to comprise one person doing “man’s work” and one person doing “woman’s work,” regardless of sex. In Tibet prior to the Chinese occupation, about a quarter of marriages involved brothers sharing one wife. To this day, the unique Na people in southwestern China live not in couples but in sibling clusters, with groups of brothers and sisters collaboratively raising children conceived by the women during evening rendezvous with visitors.
Even within the category of monogamous heterosexual unions, Coontz finds a dizzying variety of motives and meanings associated with marriage. Among early hunter-gatherer bands, trading members to other bands as spouses was, above all, a means of establishing networks of trade and economic cooperation between men. Once each group had members with loyalties and ties to both, barter became a safer bet.
That’s not to say the husbands were in full control either: In ancient Rome, married sons and daughters both lived under control of the patriarch until his death, and ancient civilizations more generally regarded marital decisions as far too important to be left to the whims of the marrying couple.
In the medieval period, too, marriage might be a handy means of cementing an alliance or sealing a truce among rulers. In other times and places, marriage was seen primarily as a means of regulating inheritance or succession. Often, especially where simple market sales of land were tightly restricted, it was the primary means of transferring landed property, and that was seen as the decisive factor in marriage decisions. Such considerations were not limited to the nobility: Peasant farmers who held land in separate strips might arrange a marriage that allowed adjoining parcels to be united. And while formal state approval is regarded in America today as a sine qua non of a valid marriage, the church considered a couple married as soon as they had exchanged “words of consent,” even alone and without formal trappings.
Among the working classes in later pre-industrial Europe, though a village was apt to intervene if a wedding brought a poor worker into the fold, marriage was seen as more centrally about the married couple. This view was encouraged by a church doctrine that recognized as valid any union entered by mutual consent and, later, by an emerging post-feudal economy in which young people were increasingly apt to leave extended families to seek their fortunes in cities or to work their own small plots. But husbands and wives saw each other more as business partners than as lovers. Marriage was a way of establishing an efficient division of labor, and a new widow or widower represented a job opening.
The love marriage, in which people more or less freely chose partners based on mutual affection, was really an 18th-century invention, Coontz argues. It was partly a spillover effect of new political ideologies that saw government as arising from contractual agreements designed to promote the happiness of society’s members and partly a result of further increases in economic autonomy, especially the autonomy of women. As late as the mid-19th century, French wags were still bemused at the new fashion of “marriage by fascination.” Opponents of gay marriage such as Maggie Gallagher sometimes identify this development as the central problem: the idea that marriage is mainly about uniting a loving couple, from which the notion that it ought to be equally available to gay couples follows.
Such critics sometimes talk as though marriage based on love is a recent innovation, rather than a transformation that’s been going on for centuries. As Coontz notes, during the 1950s—the conservative’s golden age for families—it was precisely the prospect of finding personal fulfillment through marriage to your soul mate that gave married life its central place in the social imagination. The vision of domestic bliss familiar from sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show found its complement in a spate of self-help manuals and newspaper columns touting a successful marriage as the key to happiness, as couples’ average age at first marriage reached its lowest point in half a century. “In a remarkable reversal of the past,” Coontz writes, “it even became the stepping-off point for adulthood rather than a sign that adulthood had already been established. Advice columnists at the Ladies’ Home Journal encouraged parents to help finance early marriages, even for teens, if their children seemed mature enough.”
What emerges from Coontz’s account is the realization that marriage has no “essence.” There is no one function or purpose it serves in every time and place. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to readers of F.A. Hayek, who in The Mirage of Social Justice spoke of evolved rules and institutions that “serve because they have become adapted to the solution of recurring problem situations.…Like a knife or a hammer they have been shaped not with a particular purpose or view but because in this form rather than some other form they have proved serviceable in a great variety of situations.” Institutional evolution, like its biological counterpart, is opportunistic: A structure that serves one function at one stage may be co-opted for a very different function at another stage.