The XX Factor

Marriage Was Awesome…in the 17th Century

In his somewhat confusing New York Times op-ed this morning, Ross Douthat seems to be trying to redefine “traditional marriage” in a way that is not quite so sweeping and vague as his less enlightened conservative brethren, but still narrow enough to exclude the gays. No, he says, marriage is not necessarily an “ancient institution” that is “natural” and “universal.” In fact, many cultures are polygamous and monogamy goes against the male Darwinian instinct.   But what’s important, he writes, is a “particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.”

And what is that particular tradition? Western, Judeo-Christian, and worth fighting for, because we are losing it to a more modern, divorce happy hedonistic culture. While I appreciate his dig at the marriage Neanderthals, this new distinction he’s drawing is also entirely false. There is no barbaric Orientalist marriage which contrasts with a pure, Western one. Marriage in the Bible was almost always polygamous. The Western understanding of marriage does not in fact date back to the story of creation, as he writes. It dates back to the eighteenth century, when the radical idea of love marriage got introduced.

And here’s the problem with that idea. Whenever marriage becomes more “optional”-meaning based on love and not political alliance-it becomes more “fragile,” Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage: A History .  In other words, this “great idea of Western civilization,” as he calls it-“lifelong heterosexual monogamy”-contains the seeds of its own undoing. If you really want to go back and preserve some older version of marriage, you’ll have to go back two hundred years to a time when it did not presume love or choice.

There is one great tradition Douthat is successful in upholding: marriage nostalgia. The Romans, Coontz points out, also lamented their high rates of divorce, and the Greeks were sure their parents had more stable marriages than they did.

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Felicitas Sanchez.