Originally published in the San Francisco Foghorn Newspaper, May 2017.
Historical records of marriage date back to the beginnings of civilization, when human relations were revolutionized and successful societies were established. The first well-documented forms of marriage began in the ancient Greco-Roman world, where at its simplest, marriage was a mutual agreement in which a woman lost her right to family inheritance, and regained this economic source of survival through her new one. As a result of this trade, women became subject to the sole authority of their husbands. Specifically in Ancient Rome, the conventional form of marriage, known in Latin as “Conventio in Manum”—or to be placed in the hands of the husband—was a ceremonial joining of families, an economic affair and the understood promise of childbearing.
In modern day, however, marriage is conceivably more than a pure business deal or a shake of the hand. Rather than the influence of familial expansion or economic concern for women, the components of modern marriage in developed countries are thought to be motivated primarily by the irrational and all-consuming emotion of love (along with the pressures of societal expectation). The institution has drastically shifted for the developed world, but still remains a form of restriction in terms of legality. All in the name of love?
Why has this archaic institution remained the end-all and be-all of monogamous relationships in the United States, where divorce rates are notably high? Why is tying the knot—in terms of heterosexual individuals especially—something mothers hint at and fathers bless and little girls begin planning at age eight? Why has this traditionally exclusive institution prevailed with the same level of social normality and legal bondage it contained in third millennium B.C.? Why not just…ditch it?
Much of progressive Europe has done just that. Unmarried cohabitation has become the new norm in both Northern and Western Europe, as modern couples have found that monogamy and childrearing are just as feasible without the binding contract. Statistical data from the European Union has proven that legal alternatives to marriage, like registered partnership and unmarried cohabitation agreements, have become increasingly common. According to Eurostat, an organization that analyzes trends in families in the EU, consensual unions (an alternative to marriage similar to a registered partnership) are most prevalent among younger generations. Eurostat found that, “15.0 percent of those aged 20 to 29 in the EU live in consensual unions, compared with 12.6 percent of those aged 30 to 49 and 3.8 percent of those aged 50 and over.” Those that have children out of wedlock or participate in unmarried cohabitation agreements are represented in the statistic that “four out of ten births are outside the marriage” in the European Union’s 28 countries. National legislation in these countries has evolved to increase legal and economic rights to said unmarried couples.
A more radical approach to decreasing the colossal social impact of marriage pertains to policy proposition and an ongoing debate in Spain and the United Kingdom suggesting that marriage should come with an expiration date. In other words, implementing a law that would require all marriages to expire after four to five years, in which couples would have to reconsider their levels of happiness and potentially apply for renewal.
This beautiful evolution away from a historically oppressive and binding institution has resulted in the creation of new systems that recognize partnership within the government along with increased economic and legal rights, but do not include the irrevocability of a union or the mess of possible divorce. The discontinuance of this outdated system—one that is so ingrained in the psyche of the American individual—is a sure sign of progression in the modern world.