I remember as a child attending my uncle’s wedding. During the ceremony my grandfather turned to me and said, as adults often do, “One day you’ll be getting married.”
I shook my head, and he laughed. He must have assumed that, being a young boy, I thought that girls were icky. But that wasn’t the case at all. I hadn’t been conditioned in that way. And although I was still a long way from puberty I had already found myself taking an interest in girls. In fact, I recall once having confessed my love for a girl I didn’t even know, simply because I was so taken by her beauty.
So it wasn’t girls that I had issue with. It was something about this thing called Marriage. Something about it just didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t that I was repelled by the idea. After all, my parents seemed to be happily married, and still are to this day. They always provided me a fairly healthy example of marriage. If anything it just seemed like the convention of it was rather meaningless and unnecessary.
Fast forward thirty years and here I am, having not yet fulfilled my grandfather’s prophecy, and not feeling any particular need to. And in this time my understanding of marriage has certainly increased. But I think that the more I have come to understand the practice, and to see it carried out in the world around me, the more it has reinforced in me the sense of it being an empty social convention.
I think in order to really understand this social convention we have to go back in time to the beginning. From the most complex civilizations down to the most simplistic indigenous tribes, marriage has been a universal practice. And it is a practice that has existed for so long that it’s hard to know where it originated, or when or why. We can only speculate.
Prior to civilization, early humans would have had no need for marriage, and so it’s presumed that people mated freely with various members of the group, much in the way that we have observed among our closest primate relatives. In some instances, there may have pair-bonding, particularly in regard to child rearing, but there was certainly no formality about it. With the advent of civilization, marriage may have been established as a way of securing and protecting rights to land and other property, and passing those rights onto one’s children. And as we will see, it has evolved in many ways since.
In progressive societies today marriage has become idealized as an intimate expression of love, but in practice it has often proved to be otherwise. Romantic stories often conclude with lovers being wed and living happily ever after, but without actually showing us how they managed to live so happily. And so we romanticize marriage, and tend to think of it as the end goal, when in fact it is just the beginning of whole new chapter. We assume that by getting married we will naturally live happily ever after, and it is this very expectation that leads to so much disappointment.
The reality is that many couples are deeply unhappy. There can be a great deal of tension and conflict in marriage. A significant proportion of married people cheat, and more than half of all marriages end in divorce. But I don’t think the problem is with marriage itself. Rather, it is the illusions we have about marriage.
The idea that marriage is all about love and happy endings is a fairly new concoction, and was heavily inspired by the romantic story telling of the European Renaissance (1300-1600). Over the course of time, the concept has evolved more and more to fit this ideal, but prior to this marriage was anything but romantic.
All throughout history, and in some cultures today, marriage was arranged primarily for social and political gain. Women were considered property to be transferred from father to groom, and so marriage was essentially a business exchange between families.
In many places marriage was arranged solely by the parents, without any consultation from the children, and in many cases the children were simply too young to know what was going on in the first place.
But in Western culture it gradually became customary for a man to ask the father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, often without the knowledge and consent of the daughter. After all, the woman was little more than a commodity to be sold and bought. And so the man would offer something of value in exchange (the bridewealth). The father would then consider the proposal and if it seemed profitable a contract was made. On the day of the wedding the father would give his daughter away to the husband. And in many instances, this was first time that she would be formally introduced to him.
The practice of marriage has indeed evolved since then, but rather slowly. And we can see how many of the traditions carried out today are tied to these early business practices. The romantic stories of the Renaissance contributed to our modern ideas of a marriage based upon love and companionship, but this didn’t really take hold until much more recently.
During the Industrial Revolution (1700-1900) there was greater financial independence for young men, and therefore less influence from the family. Men had more freedom in choosing a bride, without having to consider social or political advantages. In other words, a man could marry simply for love. At this time women were still not considered persons by law, but personal property, and could not become financially independent on their own. The best they could hope for was to marry a man who was wealthy. And once they were married, any property they brought with them, such as a dowry, became the sole legal property of the husband.
It wasn’t until recently in the later half 20th century that women were extended equal rights. Up until then there were “Head and Master” laws throughout the United States that permitted a husband to have the final say regarding all household decisions and property, without his wife’s knowledge or consent. It’s interesting to note here that the term “husband” means “master of the house”, while “wife” simply means “woman”. It’s also interesting to note that up until the time that the Head and Master laws were repealed it was well within the law for a man to beat and rape his wife.
With the establishment of legal equality for women, marriage became a thing of equality as well, but primarily in the eyes of the law. Some parts of society are still struggling to catch up. But the point is that women, now free to earn a wage, have greater independence and can more freely choose who they wish to marry.
More recently the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal at the national level. But while many of my friends were celebrating, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about it. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not one of these religious fanatics who think that same-sex marriage is a going to bring about the apocalypse. In fact, I really see no distinction between hetero and homosexual love. As far as I’m concerned love sees no distinction either for it has no limitations. The thing that bothered me was that it seemed of such great importance for anyone to need their love validated by an external governing body.
Love is not something that requires anyone’s permission, and I believe that government should stay out of marriage. Going back to history, it was once commonplace for people to simply move in together and declare themselves married, so long as both of their families approved. There was no need of formal ceremony, and no need of government approval. But in the late 1500’s the Catholic Church imposed a law requiring a ceremony to be performed by a priest and witnessed by two or more persons. Anything less than this was considered invalid.
Today many people still feel that their marriage is not valid unless they have approval from the church and state in the form of a written contract or license. But as far as I am concerned, this is an insult to love.
Love is force that flows freely and naturally from deep within us. It isn’t something can be imposed from outside. And when love is authentic there is no need to enforce it. The reason we need a contract is to preserve the marriage even if the love is not there. It’s essentially a legal obligation meant to prevent us from backing out once the marriage has been established. Of course these days getting a divorce is easier than ever, and the fact of this alone makes having a contract in the first place all the more pointless.
Authentic love doesn’t need this kind of enforcement. Even vows are unnecessary. If you are going to love someone through sickness and health, for richer or poorer, then why is it necessary to swear an oath in front of witnesses? Do you think you might change your mind later? If love is there, that is enough, because love means acceptance. So whatever the conditions, you accept that person; rich or poor, healthy or ill, young or old. You don’t have to make any promises.
What is unfortunate is that there are so many things which we confuse for love, that really have little or nothing at all to with it. And so oftentimes we believe we are in love, when actually we’re just under the influence of neurochemicals. When the euphoria wears off, we find that we don’t really love each other, and we disregard the vows we made. So again, what is the point of making vows in the first place?
Another problem is that we often marry for all the wrong reasons, and sometimes we’re not even consciously aware of it. We might think that we’re in love with someone when actually we’re in love with the idea of someone or the idea of being married. Sometimes we rush in too quickly because of haste or social pressure, without taking time to really get to know the other person. Sometimes we marry out of fear, because we think it’s better to be with anyone than wind up alone. Sometimes we marry for money and security, which is really just a covert form of prostitution. Sometimes we marry because we want children, or because someone accidentally got pregnant and we want to take responsibility. But even if our intentions are good, if we’re not coming from a place of genuine love, then our marriage is going to suffer and likely to fall apart.
The idea of marriage as a sacred union is far removed from the conventions of legality and social customs. When we talk about marriage in this respect we are talking about a union that exists at the level of spirit. The material circumstances have no bearing. It doesn’t matter what your gender is, your religion, social standing and so forth. And it certainly doesn’t matter who approves or disapproves.
Furthermore, this spiritual union is not something that can be accomplished through external means. This is to say that the blessing of priests and the exercising of rituals and ceremonies is completely unnecessary. One might choose to undergo such conventions as a celebration of love, but such conventions do not establish or safeguard love. If love is genuine, these practices mean nothing. And if love is absent, then these practices are also devoid of meaning.
When we think of marriage in the spiritual sense, we think of two souls being bound together as one, but this is just a symbolic representation of a spiritual union that already exists. In truth, there is no separation. We are all connected at the heart center by the thread of love. It is love that binds everything in the universe. Marriage, therefore, is not the establishing of a union, but rather the recognition of a pre-existing union. If we are unaware of this union it is simply because we have forsaken love.
When we open our hearts and return to love, and dive into its waters, we find that it is love that connects us to one another at the deepest level of our being. And when we share love with one another, we discover that there is only this one love that is shared by all. We find that love is our essence, and since that essence is the same in all, there is no separation between self and other. To honor that divine connection is what marriage is truly about.
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