November 25, 2013
As I said at the end of my last post, traditionally, marriage was more about what you do than who you are.
It may sound a bit strange to us, but for many hundreds of years, husbands and wives were partners in a professional and financial sense, rather than in the romantic sense. And because they knew their survival depended upon each other in a very literal way, they had to make sure that each of them had the necessary skills to make their partnership work – and I do mean work.
Before child labor laws, girls as young as five or six might be tending to the younger children, feeding chickens, or gathering eggs, while their brothers mucked out the stalls or learned to milk the cows. By age eight or ten, a child was often sent to work in a more affluent home, where he or she would begin to learn a trade (boys) or more advanced home-making (girls). By the time they were old enough to marry (and had enough money to start their business), men and women were looking for someone who had the skills to make the family a success. (And bear in mind that “success” meant everyone got to eat on a regular basis!) If he made shoes, she cut the leather. If he farmed, she made butter, cheese, and beer. Anything extra was sold or bartered to supplement the family income. The bottom line at that time was, if you didn’t have any real work skills, you just weren’t a “catch.”
These days, work skills are still important, but most of us grow up assuming that we’ll need to make our own living, whether we marry or not. The skills we’re looking for in a partner now include relationship skills. We want someone who can not only make a living, but someone with whom we can create intimacy.
Intimacy was not originally part of the marriage “deal.” Traditionally, marriage was (depending upon one’s level of affluence) a way to consolidate or expand political or financial power, seal alliances, prevent war, protect property or bloodlines, and ensure legitimate heirs. Love and intimacy? Not so much.
Marriage has changed considerably over the last several thousand years. Most of those changes have been for the better. Women are now permitted to own and manage their own property, sign contracts, open bank accounts in their own names, and vote. Children are now sent to school instead of work. But as our expectations of marriage change, the skills we bring to it must change as well. Few men today would expect that their prospective wives know how to make cheese. Similarly, women are not bound by law and custom to live in their fathers’ households until they marry. But both men and women do seem to want marriages based on honesty, intimacy, and friendship.
The problem is, we’re trying to play a new game by old rules. Next week, I’ll start talking about what some of the new “rules”look like.
Coontz, Stephanie (2005) Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage
Gottman, John (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Graff, E. J. (1999) What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution
Lerner, Harriet (1989) The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships
Lerner, Harriet (2001) The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate
Mazur, Ronald (2000) The New Intimacy: Open-Ended Marriage and Alternative Lifestyles
O’Neill, Nena & O’Neill, George (1984) Open Marriage
Random Facts (website) 63 Interesting Facts About Marriage, retrieved from http://www.facts.randomhistory.comon October 21, 2013
Real, Terrence (2007) The New Rules of Marriage