I want to shock you. I want to shred to pieces any existing notions you have about marriage, dissolve them into tiny particles, and destroy all inklings of convention that keep you thinking about the same old thing in the same old way.
I hesitate to write about marriage in the same way people might hesitate to write about God. Who knows what it is, how empowering it can be, and why, oh why, it rules our lives in such a strong way?
I’m not writing this as, or for, a parent or child. I’m stepping out of the boundaries of what we have always used to define marriage, and starting over.
Let’s see if through this mad adventure of mine, you and I can discover even one small idea about marriage that’s brand spankin’ new.
I dare you.
It doesn’t start out good.
“Sometimes they go to the extent of hitting me, or hitting themselves.”
I did a double take. A young girl in Mumbai described how her parents use physical abuse as a means to get her to marry someone of their own choosing.
I know parents pressurize their children. But hitting your daughter so she marries whom you want—it’s beyond me.
So I did what I do when I don’t understand. I went on a desperate mission to learn every little fact about marriage, in every society, all across the world, all across time. I ‘Googled’, I ‘Facebooked’, I asked children and grandparents, I read journals and books; I even sat down in front of the mirror and had a conversation with myself.
And then I tore it all apart. From the things that made the most sense, I took away the parts that were most absurd. From the practical, I dug up the irrational. And from all things sane, I chose to shed light on the insane.
We jump off the cliff with alarming conviction.
Given the infamous 50 percent divorce rate in America (and higher rates in other countries), it’s amazing we’re legally allowed to get married. As the anthropologist Lionel Tiger wrote, “If nearly half of anything else ended so disastrously, the government would surely ban it immediately. If half the tacos served in restaurants caused dysentry, if half the people learning karate broke their palms, if only 6 percent of people who went on roller coaster rides damaged their middle ears, the public would be clamoring for action. Yet the most intimate of disasters…happens over and over again.”
We’re walking forward, and moving backwards.
In different degrees of extremity, we are as a whole, breaking tradition. We don’t want arranged marriages. We want choice. We don’t want the union of two families. We want independence.
But…“here comes the single most interesting fact I’ve learned about the entire history of marriage: Everywhere, in every single society, all across the world, all across time, whenever a conservative culture of arranged marriage is replaced by an expressive culture of people choosing their own partners, based on love, divorce rates will immediately begin to skyrocket. You can set your clock to it. (It’s happening in India right now).”¹
Marriage is mankind’s strongest nuclear weapon.
It has survived extinction from hostile historical forces, and remains the most intimate, powerful, unbreakable bond that no government, ideology, or hierarchy has ever been able to destroy.
In the early days of Christianity, people were told to choose celibacy over marriage, initially considered an act of sin. Although some new converts caved, eventually the Christian leadership had to bend its terms to accept marriage—and with time, sanctify it. For many practicing Christians today, marriage is tied closely to religion. But few people know that Christianity was initially so strongly opposed to holy wedded matrimony.
The Marxists, who tried to create a community without romantic attachment between couples (enforcing that children be raised in communal nurseries), failed to eliminate marriage.
Even the feminist movement, in which radicals offered women liberation from the repression of marriage, and gave them bonds of sisterhood in return, could not rid its strongest supporters from their basic desire for private intimacy with one man.²
And to this day, marriage is still something we are fighting for. Feminist lesbians and gay men want this basic right—to a shared companionship recognized by the law. Time has not made us any less ardent about marriage. Even the most nonconformist, socially rebellious, socially promiscuous among us want to, and end up, getting married.
Are we selling our souls for soul mates?
I came across seven pages of classifieds for female escorts in a weekly Toronto newspaper. The curious cat in me read the details, and was horrified to find that females listed their race, their “best” physical assets, and their bust-waist-hip ratio.
Somewhat insulted (naively I had never known such details were included), I called a (male) friend in shock.
“Well ya,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Parents put that stuff up on marriage Web sites about their daughters all the time. 34-25-36.”
How can we be so intent on finding a good match, for our children, or for ourselves, that we reduce our values to such base things?
I know, and I know you know, of at least one person who rejected a marriage proposal because she was ‘too dark’, ‘too short,’ or had a ‘wheatish complexion.’ Apparently, in so many cultures, the fairer you are, the better wife you make.
How can we defend the institution of marriage to death, when the things we are using to judge it by are so surface and shallow—and can disappear with the blink of an eye?
Sure, go on shaadi.com and find a fair and lovely girl, with a 24-inch waist, who once won Ms. Teen America. But two days after she marries your son, if she gets into a car accident and disfigures her face, you better hope you had the foresight to look for some personality traits in her that continue to shine through.
I know it’s harsh, but I never said this was going to be pretty.
Sorry to break it to you, but marriage has NEVER been just a union between one man and one woman.
In parts of southern India, one bride can be shared by several men (usually brothers). In ancient Rome, marriage between two aristocratic males was recognized. And in medieval Europe, siblings were married to protect valuable property. “In modern Iran, a man (married or not), and an unmarried woman (virgin, divorced, or widowed) can enter a temporary marriage contract (sigheh or nekah-e monghate’e) in which both parties agree on the period of the relationship and the amount of compensation to be paid to the woman. This arrangement requires no witnesses, and no registration is needed.”
The time period can be as short as 24 hours. Essentially, you get a ‘marriage pass’ for the day so you’re allowed to be in public together, and can legally have sex.
So whatever you’ve thought marriage is, it has always been, and will continue to be, something other than that.
We can live our lives the way we do, make decisions, get married, get divorced, and keep going. But every now and then, if we can take the time to look upside down, think outside the Tiffany’s box, and allow ourselves the chance to admit we’re not always right, we might get answers to questions we never thought to ask.
It’s your turn. I dare you.
¹Gilbert, Elizabeth. Committed. Penguin Group, USA. 2010.
²Mount, Ferdinand. The Subversive Family. Free Press. 1992.