A brief history of marriage

January 6, 2020

How do we define marriage?

Surprisingly, “marriage” is difficult to define since marriage has been an ever-evolving concept throughout history and across cultures.

Marriage was not always a sacred union between one man and one woman. Nor has marriage always been the purview of religious institutions either.

At various times throughout history, marriage has been a union between: one man and several women, one woman and several men, two men (recognized by law in ancient Rome), two siblings, two children, the unborn, a living woman and a dead man.

Regardless of its configuration, one historically constant defining feature of marriage is that it served a practical, pragmatic, social purpose - it was an economic enterprise created so that men would know who their children were and to whom their cattle would go when they died. Marriage was a highly effective tool for wealth management and social order.

The involvement of the church has been traced back to the 5th century when marriages were declared by church courts to be a holy union. Then in 1215, Pope Innocent III declared marriage one of the church’s seven sacraments, and he forbade divorce. Divorce remained illegal in Europe until Henry VIII in the 16th century, and for much longer in Catholic countries.

An additional powerful method of controlling wealth came through the laws that forbade married women from owning property and making contracting in their own name.

It wasn’t until 1975 that women could open a bank account or apply for credit in their own name.

In the 18th century, society began to embrace the philosophical concept of the pursuit of happiness, from which then flowed the concept of “marrying for love”, rather than for wealth or family alliances. Hand in hand with marrying for romance came an increasing demand to end unhappy marriages, so divorce became more commonplace.

In many ways, marriage has remained a social construct and has also evolved into relationships where each partner's choice is to stay in, leave, or work on. Hence the need for more counsellors and mediators to assist couples who wish to bring more consciousness to their lives.

Are you and your partner on the same page?