The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies dates all the way back to 2350 B.C. in Mesopotamia, although the institution almost certainly must be older than that. Essentially, marriage began when humans started moving from small tribes to larger cities and towns where it was much more difficult to know what their mates were doing, so the men needed a way to ensure that their women weren’t cuckolding them.
How old is the institution? The best available evidence suggests that it's about 4,350 years old. For thousands of years before that, most anthropologists believe, families consisted of loosely organized groups of as many as 30 people, with several male leaders, multiple women shared by them, and children. As hunter-gatherers settled down into agrarian civilizations, society had a need for more stable arrangements. The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies uniting one-woman and one-man dates from about 2350 B.C., in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. But back then, marriage had little to do with love or with religion.
What was it about, then? Marriage's primary purpose was to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man's children were truly his biological heirs. Through marriage, a woman became a man's property. In the betrothal ceremony of ancient Greece, a father would hand over his daughter with these words: "I pledge my daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring." Among the ancient Hebrews, men were free to take several wives; married Greeks and Romans were free to satisfy their sexual urges with concubines, prostitutes, and even teenage male lovers, while their wives were required to stay home and tend to the household. If wives failed to produce offspring, their husbands could give them back and marry someone else.
Over time, marriage changed, but let’s say a century ago, marriage could be described in terms of an unspoken deal.
The man was expected to take care of his wife and children financially and lead the household. In return, he regularly received sex, was treated as the king of the castle, and he had a woman who was expected to do the cooking, the cleaning, and take care of the children. That was no small matter back then. Although some people claim otherwise, the cooking and housework in those days were orders of magnitude more difficult to handle than in modern times. Refrigerators and freezers didn’t truly start to take off until the forties. Automatic washing machines didn’t become available until the 50s. Microwaves didn’t start regularly appearing in kitchens until the seventies. Imagine the difficulties a man would have making a living without someone helping him with those things. On the other hand, the woman got a man who was responsible for keeping her fed, clothed, and sheltered. He was also a guarantee that her children would be taken care of. This was a much bigger deal a hundred years ago because only 20% of women worked back then and government welfare for single mothers didn’t exist. At the time, there was also an enormous amount of societal pressure on women to not have sex out of wedlock and on both genders not to get divorced.
Certainly, love played a role in marriage back then, but as you can see, there were also a lot of very practical reasons for both genders to get married.
Fast forward to a conversation I had a few months back with a male friend who had been living with his girlfriend for a few years. When I asked him if he was going to ask his girlfriend to marry him, he said something akin to, “There’s no advantage to getting married, so I’m better off in a long-term relationship.”
Even though I am someone who thinks marriage is good for society and would personally still like to get married, after thinking about it, it was apparent he had a much better point than a lot of us would like to admit.
The most ancient reason for marriage was so that men could make it difficult for their wives to cuckold them. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out. Estimates vary considerably, but thanks to services like 23andMe and paternity tests, we’re learning perhaps as many as 30% (most estimates seem to range between 10% and 30%) of fathers are unknowingly raising children sired by other men. So, does getting married guarantee that you won’t unknowingly raise another man’s spawn? Nope.
Do men need to get married to have sex? Not anymore. Premarital sex is commonplace and in most of our culture, there’s very little stigma attached to it. To the contrary, our popular culture encourages it at every opportunity.
Will men be, “The King of the Castle” if they get married? In the larger culture, that idea has been replaced with the idea that it’s supposed to be a 50/50 partnership.
Does a man NEED a woman to do his cooking and cleaning anymore? No, but most men would certainly love it if their wives did most of it. However, in the dominant culture, the idea is now supposed to be that men do 50% of the housework. In fact, this idea is so entrenched that even Melinda Gates complained that her husband, who has earned billions of dollars for both of them to spend, wasn’t doing enough of the chores around the house. Bill Gates may have provided her with a lifestyle and resources that are practically unmatched in human history, but he didn’t spend as much time on household chores as she did, so he’s falling short.
So, do women still need men to take care of them and their children? Nope. They can get their own jobs and either the state will force the father to help pay for the kids or it will step in and handle it if the dad is a deadbeat.
What if you really like your spouse and want to lock them in long-term? Unfortunately, without the societal pressure that treats divorce or having a child out of wedlock as scandalous, there are no guarantees that you’re locking anyone in for life. If you think otherwise, the people involved in roughly 50% of all marriages that end in divorce would like a word.
Statistically, there is absolutely no doubt that children raised inside a marriage fare better than children raised outside of one. In fact, if you were trying to come up with the biggest practical benefit to marriage, that would be it. Of course, that presupposes you will remain married. Again, that turns out not to be the case in roughly 50% of marriages.
The real benefits of marriage these days primarily come down to huge advantages some people can potentially get if the marriage FAILS. In that case, it’s entirely possible that the person making the least money may be able to make a financial killing they could have never earned themselves by being given a ridiculous percentage of their partner’s money by the state. Usually, men are the ones who get shafted like this, but not always:
Kelly Clarkson is still entrenched in an ongoing battle with her estranged husband Brandon Blackstock and according to reports, the "American Idol" season 1 winner is bearing the brunt of many expenses although Blackstock will still have to pony up big in order to maintain his current living arrangement.
...Clarkson, 39, is said to be on the hook for $150,000 per month in spousal support while she and Blackstock, 44, continue to iron out the details of their contentious divorce and she’s also been ordered to pay an additional $45,000 per month in child support while he takes on the payments for the ranch the pair own in Montana – this according to court documents obtained by TMZ.
It's worth noting that Kelly Clarkson was already successful long BEFORE she even started dating Blackstock. There are certainly examples you could point to where a spouse is instrumental in the success of her partner. For example, Ross Perot founded the company that made him a billionaire, EDS, in large part with money that had been saved from his wife’s teaching salary. If they had ever gotten divorced, she could have legitimately said she played a big part in his success. However, in 2021, that’s a very rare exception, not the rule.
What this means is that not only does marriage offer very few practical benefits that a long-term relationship doesn’t, it also potentially has some huge drawbacks. This is a problem because as they said in, “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy,”
“Marriage is very old, but it’s hard to see how it could survive solely on its symbolic and desirable merits. It will survive because it works.”
Certainly, in some cases it does. I know more than a few married friends who seem to match up well, seem to be happy together, and seem to be raising a brood of wonderful children. The scary part of that is that in almost every case, they seem to see marriage as much more in line with the 1920 model of how things are supposed to work than the 2021 paradigm of what a marriage is supposed to be.
We conservatives seem to reflexively push to go back to that old model of how matrimony worked, but the problem with that is that the cultural and economic forces that shaped marriage then no longer exist in much of the country. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but for the institution of marriage to not just survive, but thrive again, we’ll need to find ways to bring more practical benefits to the table for both partners. It’s relatively easy to come up with ways that could at least potentially change marriage for the better, but getting people to adopt them? Until marriage almost completely falls apart in America – and sadly, it’s much closer to doing that than most of us want to admit – it will likely be difficult to get most Americans to embrace any significant changes.
Thanks for an interesting read! My son will be getting married soon, so reflecting on my marriage has been on my mind. My husband and I have been married for 40+ years; we have a wealth of history from which to draw. I can say for us the key to a happy long lived marriage is respect and also selflessness. Maybe those are traits that are hard to come by today, but so important. It is easy in the heat of an argument to be cruel, but once those hurtful words leave your lips they live forever. It's important to choose your words, not always easy to do. My husband is a selfless man. He left the country of his birth to be married to me. It was not easy in the beginning, but worth the investment.
My daughter was raised "outside of marriage" after her parents divorced. But she was still raised by two parents and turned out great. Can we make a distinction between responsible divorced parents and irresponsible single parents. And not pretend that it is good for children to be raised in a household with 2 parents who no longer get along.