What does marriage really mean in this day and age? Is it a celebration for finding a life partner? After marriage, the individuals go on to form a secure haven that they call home. A more traditional view of marriage is a unification of two people of opposite gender. Through this uniting they perpetuate their kind through generations. What are the expectations and duties of a husband or a wife ? The newer concepts of gay marriages, roommates of opposite gender and various questions about gender and sexuality complicate this further. So let us revisit the traditional meaning of marriage, evaluate its challenges and finally explore how socioeconomic trends have led to the redefinition of marriage in today’s world.
The dictionary definition is the formal union of man and woman, recognized by religion or law. Some religions like Islam and Mormonism allow the man to have multiple wives. In some tribes like the Masai and Irigwe people, women have multiple husbands. However, the most common form of marriage is to have one legal spouse at any given time.
Marriage laid down rules about interpersonal relationships, including procreation. Relationship rules went beyond the individuals and included kinsfolk. Hence families looked at it as a means of strengthening their foothold in society. In the past, marriages in families were decided by the head of the household.
The marital partnership assumed that the individuals did not engage in physical relations outside of marriage. Though, the first instances of infidelity were as old as the tradition itself, the sanctity of marital bond was always respected by old societies. It was looked upon it as a joining of body and soul. Marriage promoted strong emotional bonding between the spouses. Traditionally, marriages came with a lifetime warranty. “Till death do us part” was a reasonable assumption in most cultures in earlier times. Many eastern cultures, that believed in reincarnation, extended this alliance beyond the current lifetime. For example, Hindu marriages were thought to last for seven lives.
Practice of marriage saw the development of extended families. Young kids grew up exposed to multiple generations of people like grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, parents, siblings and cousins. These people had varied natures and different views not only because of their age but also because of their upbringing and economic status. From a very young age, kids learnt to accept these people for who they were. They could choose their friends. But they were born to the family. Maybe this helped build the capacity to adjust, develop patience and tolerance.
Another significant advantage was the practice of shared responsibility. Eastern cultures thought of men and women as ying and yang, or the complimentary forces just as light and shadow. There was division of labor inside and outside the house. In short individuals did not have to do every kind of job and be a jack of all trades.
Women gave birth to babies. In most cases, the mother-in-law and the daughters helped the lady of the house in cooking and cleaning and even in looking after babies. They engaged their intuitive qualities when nurturing and providing emotional support.
Men were physically stronger. They grouped together for gathering resources and food and provided protection. The latter could be thought of as the more rational or hands on work. Applied for generations, this had profound effects on the thought process of men and women.
As this system was followed, human race continued to grow and flourish even in the face of hostile environments, natural calamities and wild predators. The growth rate was steady at 0.05% per year for thousands of years from 8000 BC till the late 1700s. But this custom had quite a few disadvantages too.
One disadvantage was that men and women who had inclination towards activities dominated by the other gender, felt unfairly held back. A man who liked dancing was considered weird, just as woman, who was interested in science.
A bigger disadvantage was that both the genders were not treated with equal respect in society. Many cultures were getting male dominated. Men were given positions to make rules that were unfair to women. For example, widows were not allowed to get remarried but men would remarry after the death of his wife. Some practices in eastern India were even more drastic like Sati where the widow was burnt in the funeral pyre of her husband. Today this would be tantamount to murder.
As people stood up against absurd social rules, reforms started to take place in the society. Further more, social structures matured towards efficient re-organization. Agriculture took a back seat and gave way to industrialization. After industrial revolution the increase in human population was tremendous. It rose from 770 million in 1760 to an inconceivable 6 billion at the end of the 20th century.
With changing socio-economic conditions, many families moved out of their hometown to work in other cities. Families became nuclear. People gave in to individual choices of life partners. Many young girls opposed the older custom of arranged marriages. To be romantically attracted to their future husband was an important criteria above all other practical considerations. The collective social goals of marriage got neglected.
In 1920, the government of United States passed the 19th amendment granting voting rights to women. This was followed by the ratification of ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) for women in the 1970s. A significant number of women started joining the workforce as mass mechanization took place. Progressively with years, women became equally capable to work in industries.
The economic independence brought forth a relaxed dependency among the spouses. Men and women started interacting in all walks of life. Such close proximity also led to intimacy between the two genders in various forms outside of a nuptial bond.
As any generation X girl, with an overdose of Hollywood and Bollywood movies, my idea of marriage was finding my prince charming. I expected my husband to be a hero who will protect and love me unconditionally. To me, matrimony promised to be a reward. But it was not such an easy a path to physical and emotional satisfaction. In reality, our counterparts were equally inexperienced and demanding. They were also struggling hard to feel worthy and loved. After many years, I understood that marriage was a challenging next step of my life.
Nowadays people are moving away from being solely dependent on their spouses for their emotional and physical needs. They are going to concerts with friends or working out at a gym or relaxing in a spa. Various avenues of entertainment opened up with the advent of television, Internet, social media and smart phones. Family responsibilities are hard to fit in with busy work schedules and tempting options for entertainment and relaxation. People are striving to be self-sufficient. Earning capacity, freedom of mingling and lack of urgency to expand one’s family have led the new generation to look upon marriage as an option or afterthought. Successful men and women are delaying their marriage beyond their 30s and even 40s in some cases.
With a whopping 7 billion current population, the thought of extinction of human race is probably far-fetched. However, the fertility rate across the world has steadily declined since the 1960s. Marriage, in its traditional sense, has lost its relevance nowadays. Slow but progressive changes in personal development have blurred some of the collective perspectives. Though it had been a milestone life event for thousands of years in the past, modern social structure and standards do not support this age-old institution as a requirement for a successful life. Marriage is no longer an important development for an adult but more of an excuse to celebrate an existing happy co-habitation.