The History of Marriage

Marry for love? For most of history, the idea would have seemed silly. Marriage was essential for day-to-day survival, for reproduction and social acceptance. Today, we marry for love—and so much more. But how did we get here? Music playing Let’s look to Abraham Maslow as our unlikely tour guide. Maybe you learned in Psych 101 about his hierarchy of needs, with physiological and safety needs at the bottom, belonging and love needs in the middle, and esteem and self-actualization needs at the top. Like a video game of life, you can’t pursue the higher needs until you’ve met the lower ones. For thousands of years, spouses were workmates they struggled together to produce the food, clothing, and shelter required to survive. Then, starting around 1850, America and other Western nations industrialized. Increasing wealth meant that more people could meet those low-level needs without being married. For the first time ever, personal fulfillment became a primary goal of marriage, which jumped up to Maslow’s love and belonging level. Spouses went from work-mates to soul-mates. But this early version of soul-mate marriage was based on the idea that men and women should adhere to radically different gender stereotypes in order to inspire love. The assertive breadwinner married the nurturing homemaker. In the 1960s, people staged a full-on revolt against these constricting these social roles. Individuality, freedom of expression, and authenticity became the Holy Grail. Today, we still marry for love, but we also require that our partner help us grow toward our authentic self. Michelangelo said that sculpting is not about creating a sculpture, but about revealing it chiseling and polishing the block of marble to reveal the beautiful form slumbering within. Similarly, married people began looking to their partner to sculpt away their flaws and facades, bringing forth the authentic self buried within. The climb of marriage up Maslow’s hierarchy creates a paradox. On one hand, as our expectations become increasingly complex, more marriages fall short. To meet our highest needs, our partner must understand us profoundly. Even if we invest tons of time and effort in the relationship which most of us aren’t doing there’s no guarantee we’ll attain this level of understanding. From this perspective, it’s no surprise that the divorce rate doubled between 1960 and 1980, reaching 50%, or that the average marriage is less satisfying today than it was a few decades ago. On the other hand, the best marriages today are better than the best marriages of earlier eras. When they do manage to fulfill our highest needs, we can achieve, in Maslow’s words, “profound happiness, serenity, and richness of the inner life.” In our grandparents’ era, a loving and respectful marriage generally made people happy. Today, many of us find such a marriage disappointing if it doesn’t also facilitate our voyage of self-discovery and personal growth. But those of us whose marriage achieves all of that enjoy a level of marital fulfillment that grandma and grandpa wouldn’t have dreamed possible.

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