In 1955, Frank Sinatra taught the American people and a broader international audience the idea that love and marriage cannot be thought of separately. Through his charmingly raw lyrics and melody, we learned that:
… you can’t have one without the other.
…It’s an institute you can’t disparage.
…Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.
In America today, love is the most important and valid reason to get married, with 88% of American saying that love is very important for marriage. Here’s the problem. Ol’ Blue Eyes is wrong. The concepts of love and marriage, have only really been entwined together in the last few hundred years; and, not just in America, but around the world. Scientific and historical analyses show that love and marriage are actually quite disparate concepts throughout human history until relatively recent times.
Human beings as a species, are not built for love and marriage.
Evolutionarily speaking, the purposes of human species: survival and reproduction, have nothing to do with either love or marriage. Men are born with the capability of creating sperm in the millions, starting at puberty all the way until death. Women are born with the total number of eggs that they will be able to produce in the course of their lifetime. As women grow older, they lose eggs through menstrual cycles. In terms of reproductive cost, this means that men have very low reproductive costs and women have very high costs. Love and marriage don’t factor into that equation at all. For men, because of the large number of sperm, genetic and reproductive success is maximized by having as many sexual partners as possible. Each partner is a chance for potential offspring. This is where the idea of “sowing one’s wild oats” came from; men are genetically built that way. For women on the other hand, since the reproductive costs are so high, their reproductive success depends on having a partner who can provide them and their offspring with the necessary resources. For women, the name of the game is finding someone who is going to stick around, so that the children can be raised.
Early communities and societies were not built around love and marriage.
When human beings started living in groups in the hunter-gatherer times, they practiced polygamy and polyandry. In other words, both men and women could have multiple partners throughout the course of their lives. The nomadic nature of men, who were typically hunters and therefore traveling, lent itself well to this societal model. Yes, men and women might have chosen to fall in love and stay with the same partner, but this was in no way a societal rule or law in early groups. Early humans operated on the concepts of survival of the fittest, biologically dictated kinship systems, reciprocal altruism – “I will help you because I know you will be beneficial to me either now or sometime in the future” – and general altruism – “I will help you even if you don’t help me, because you are a fellow human being”. Altruism and reciprocal altruism led to early humans’ alliances, or, friends, networks and social groups as they are called today.
Love, and, marriage, as separate entities, did exist throughout history.
The social nature of human beings of lends itself to attachments. This is because of our fundamental need to belong. So, humans have been known to fall in love and be in love, even in the earliest known human records. We find evidence of romantic interludes, passionate thoughts, and the idea of love expressed in ancient art and literature throughout human history. But, love and marriage had nothing to do with each other.
Marriages happened for convenience, and were parental decisions.
When its practice started, we think about 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia, marriage was simply a way to set up stronger alliances, and more extended kinship systems. The goal was to maximize resources, social class and power, and, to maximize security of the members of the group.
“What marriage had in common was that it really was not about the relationship between the man and the woman . . . It was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force.” — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (2006).
As humans went from living nomadic lives to creating communities based on trade, bartering and a group economy, the idea of monogamous became enacted into societal law, to ensure fair distribution of resources like food, medicine, and precious stones, art and other property or signs of wealth. It was a way to legitimize children, and, for men, it was a way to ensure their rights over the woman and children in the marriage, who were most often considered to be property. Religion of course, played a crucial role in shaping these rights, rules and laws. Love was not a reason that was considered at all, in fact, children had no say in deciding their spouse. Any notions or ideas about love were thought to be severely disruptive to societal harmony; if children entertained such perverted ideas, their parents were well within their rights to impose the harshest punishments, including disowning them.
If a couple grew to love each other after marriage, this was considered an added bonus, but even then, love was not an essential component of a marriage.
In the medieval times, starting in the 10th Century, consent became a necessary part of marriage in some societies, but love was still considered an unnecessary frivolity. This idea of consent originated in religious teachings, and was applied to marriage to symbolize a willful union of two people before God. This is how arranged marriages of consenting people became the societal norm for about nine or ten centuries, until the next cultural revolution happened.
Love and marriage only got intertwined after the Age of Enlightenment and Industrialization.
During the European Age of Enlightenment, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the ideas of individual pursuit of happiness, individuality and personal choices came to the forefront. It was during this time that technological advances led to the birth of industrial societies, which in turn led to the development of cities. There were mass migrations away from rural farmlands to densely populated urban areas and an increase in the intellectual and financial independence of the young adults who moved away. As these people began living away from families, there was decreased parental involvement in personal decisions. So, it was only in the early 19th century that the first societal wave of “love marriage” happened; a mere 200-215 years ago. In urban areas, the numbers of people opting to find their own spouses, and make their own decisions about marriage far surpassed those who were still accepting parental involvement. Very quickly, within 100 years in fact, it became the societal norm across Europe, the Americas and Australia.
The idea of parental involvement in marriage became a ludicrous notion; an option for those who had none other left. In fact, this entire pattern could be expected to crop up in many Asian and African communities, which are shedding their agricultural infrastructures and world views to adapt to modern industrial technology, and all the changes that come with it.
Love and Marriage are still unrelated in these parts of the world today.
In many modern Asian, African and Middle-Eastern communities, the idea of love and marriage are still considered to be completely independent of each other. As recently as 1995, psychologist Robert Levine and his colleagues found that love was rated the least important factor to consider in deciding a marriage by people from Eastern cultures. Marriage is still considered a contract whose purpose is to secure power, control, rights and wealth. In some societies, consent is still not a pre-requisite to marriage, and in others there aren’t even age restrictions on marriage, so the very idea of love and marriage being combined in these instances seems rather obscene and perverted. Men, women, and even children are being forced into marriages that not only have nothing to do with love, but have everything to do with complete and absolute control over another human being’s body. With the unevenness of their societal developments, the evolution of marriage in these societies is yet to be determined.
Love and Marriage: Final Thoughts
The fact that there are many parts of the world where marriage without love is the norm might be surprising, unsettling, unnerving, or even unbelievable to most young people from the “Western” world, especially here in the United States. Many of us might even pity those who are not able to choose their mates, as we consider it a fundamental inalienable right that we have as Americans. But, we also need to think about all the other marital trends that go along with love marriage:
- high divorce rates,
- marrying later in life,
- decreasing marriage rates,
- increasing numbers of single parents, and,
- the economic burdens of these factors.
Are these factors really related to the concepts of love and marriage being melded together, when they really shouldn’t have been? Or might they be artifacts of an increasingly independent, yet unstable society? Can you imagine being married to someone who you don’t love? How important is love for you in establishing, or even maintaining a marriage?