Much is lost to pre-history, but it seems that the story of marriage begins in property and power. This may seem a cynical and pessimistic view; it takes no account of the love that we share with our partners. But we must be careful not to read our ideas of love and family onto the past. Though the biological phenomena of love, desire, and bonding are the same for past and present, straight and gay, the meaning we make of them differs widely. Things that we take for granted in marriage, like love and sex and romance, have not always been a part of it. The wide range of understandings of love and marriage and family give us a wide latitude in how we approach it now. So what if we began our understanding of family, not with property and power, but with expansive love?
There have been times and places where women had power, either solely or in equal measure with men, and where inheritance was traced through female lineage. Matriarchy and matriliny. These tend to be in times and places of plenty and times and places where simple, sustainable agriculture fed us. But patriarchy is a pernicious beast.
When times get tough, men get tougher. A lack of resources turns hunting weapons into war weapons. Men become dominant, seizing power and property. As I see it, a world ruled by men and owned by men is kept in a constant state of scarcity. Competition ensures that a few have a lot and a lot have little. No matter how good things are, fear of loss controls our public policy. It also controls our social construction of family.
Our modern notion of family retains its ground in patriarchy and patriliny. A male lineage is always uncertain and so we have to have social constructs to provide the illusion of certainty. For a thousand years, the church was not particularly concerned about marriage. In medieval times, in the wake of royal succession controversies, an attempt at certainty was made with public religious ceremonies and verified consummation. Even then, fidelity for males was not expected; men could sleep with men or women as long as the produced legitimate heirs. And even then, marriage was not for everyone. If you had nothing to inherit, it didn’t matter who your kids were, which is why only fifty percent of adults in the Western world were married even into the 19th century.
But there is one more element of our modern construction of family: love. Though people experienced love throughout history, it rarely had anything to do with marriage or family. Marriage was an economic arrangement. In the Hellenistic period love was irrelevant to marriage. Sex and desire, too, were not necessarily a part of the deal. In the time of courtly love, love was anathema to marriage. Love was for lovers, not spouses. The romantic ideal was explicitly extramarital. It is no coincidence that this was a time of increasing power for women, as well as a time of individualization. We were free to choose our partners, both in and out of marriage. But, as I said, patriarchy is pernicious.
In the Victorian era, love and marriage are once again coupled. There is also a clear understanding of family as a woman and a man committed to one another to raise a family, to pass on wealth and power to one’s children. There is also a clear notion of male power and privilege. Love is supposed to be a part of that, but within this container of patriarchy. A woman was supposed to pledge eternal fidelity to “the one” and bear children for him. Love and sex served the patriarchy. Largely, it still does, but that is changing.
In the struggle for marriage equality, I heard time and time again that it would put us on a slippery slope. But whether a slippery slope is fun or terrifying depends on what is at the bottom. For opponents of marriage equality, the bottom of the slope is bestiality and people marrying their lawn furniture. For queer people and their allies, it meant that one kind of family would no longer be privileged over another. It meant that all the things we say about marriage – that it is freely entered in love – would actually be true. It meant that free people could make free decisions about who they partner with and how. At the bottom of the slippery slope is the reality that has always been: human relationships are complicated and not easily bound by the strictures of law or societal pressure.
This can be terrifying to those who have benefited from our fetishization of the nuclear family: straight, white men. Just as there was male anxiety when people moved from a hunter/gatherer culture to an agrarian culture that privileged the knowledge of the gathering women, there is anxiety for men faced with a challenge to a family structure that does not put them on top. What they don’t seem to realize is that we have been on this slope for a long time.
The nuclear family with its assumptions of fidelity has never really worked. It worked for men because they weren’t bound by it. Men who worked outside the home had opportunities to cheat. And they did. When women entered the workplace, first because of war and then because they weren’t giving up what they had gained, they began to cheat, too. Now women cheat almost as much as men.
Now our economic realities make it almost impossible for most to live with a single breadwinner, which means that the father no longer has pride of place as the provider. Equality is happening, whether anyone wants it to or not.
The divorce rate increased steadily from 1900-1975 as it became socially permissable and legally possible, especially for women. But it has held steady since then; there seems to be a natural rate of marriages that end. The law has definitely had to play catch-up, but divorce and remarriage and blended families already complicate the succession of power and property. Add in adoption, especially open adoption, and even parentage is not a clear construct. Some people are now choosing to coparent, completely aside from any romantic, sexual, or marital connection.
All this is to say that our understanding of marriage as a carrier or power and property and patriarchy is not working. It hasn’t for a long time. It never has for anyone who is not a straight, white man. We have notions of love that can lead us forward, but not when they are corralled by the heteropatriarchy.
What if, instead, we began with an expansive notion of love as a basis for family? By expansive, I mean not bound by C.S. Lewis’s rigid analysis where love is butchered. In Mary Oliver’s poem “Of Love,” she speaks of falling in love over and over – with men and women, with trees and music, with the sun. This is what Lewis would call eros, a desire to know and be known by another, but some of those loves surely include friendship and romance and duty and responsible concern – perhaps all at once in different measures. A family based on that is a family where one can become most fully who one is because the desire is not to possess, but to know, not belonging to, but belonging with. That is a family that does not require legal sanction or societal blessing. It’s just free people making the free choice to love one another in whatever ways they choose. We can say to anyone, as Ruth said to Naomi: “Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”