Despite the fondness among certain politicians and pundits for “traditional marriage,” a nostalgic-sounding concept that conjures a soft-focus Polaroid of grandma and grandpa, few consider the actual roots of our marital traditions, when matrimony was little more than a business deal among unequals. Even today, legal marriage isn’t measured by the affection between two people, but by the ability of a couple to share Social Security and tax benefits. In reality, it’s the idea of marrying for love that’s untraditional.
“Love was considered a reason not to get married. It was seen as lust, as something that would dissipate.”
For most of recorded human history, marriage was an arrangement designed to maximize financial stability. Elizabeth Abbott, the author of “A History of Marriage” explains that in ancient times, marriage was intended to unite various parts of a community, cementing beneficial economic relationships. “Because it was a financial arrangement, it was conceived of and operated as such. It was a contract between families. For example, let’s say I’m a printer and you make paper, we might want a marriage between our children because that will improve our businesses.” Even the honeymoon, often called the “bridal tour,” was a communal affair, with parents, siblings, and other close relatives traveling together to reinforce their new familial relationships.
By the Middle Ages, gender inequality was not only enshrined in social customs, but also common law. In most European countries, married women were forced to give up control over any personal wealth and property rights to their husbands. Eventually, the system became known as “coverture” (taken from “couverture,” which literally means “coverage” in French), whereby married couples became a single legal entity in which the husband had all power. The American practice of wives adopting their husbands’ surnames originated in England as a way to enforce patrilineal heritage, signifying that a woman belonged to her husband, thereby suspending any individual rights when she took her marital vows.