Love and Marriage Must Divorce

On the history of marriage, the institution’s function today, and why society needs to divorce itself from it.

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By Nada Hameed

Marriage has defined societal expectations of love since its inception. To not marry is to not love, and the capacities to love and to be loved are part of what defines humanity. For as long as it has existed, marriage has been synonymous with lifelong love and continued commitment. However, society needs to rethink that notion.

Marriage was not designed to help a woman find a perfect love or beautiful relationship. Rather, the institution’s initial purpose was opportunistic. Marriage was intended to bring families together in a society that prioritized maintaining power over securing equality. As a result, marriage has been used to force women into submission and exploit their thoughts, bodies, and labor. Continuing to equate love with marriage ignores the institution’s origins and history and creates a rigid definition of how love can be identified and expressed.

The history of marriage is complex. The first recorded evidence of marriage between one woman and one man can be traced to 2350 B.C. in Mesopotamia as a way for men to guarantee the legitimacy of their biological children. Women were given to their husbands by their male elders and considered their husbands’ property afterward. Wives were regarded as dispensable objects only needed to bear children. They were exploited and treated as less than human. Only during the Middle Ages were love and marriage combined into the way we know them today. Even then, a woman’s life was controlled entirely by her husband. Centuries later, America followed the same hierarchy. After gaining independence, the United States adopted English common law, which declared that a woman’s identity was stripped from her and given to her husband after marriage. Married women could not own property or control their income, and husbands were granted authority over children, properties, and residences. While the restrictions once placed on women have since been lifted after continued calls for equality, the patriarchal and sexist norms that drove the creation of the institution of marriage still define how society and individuals perceive it.

The meaning and expectations of marriage have not remained stagnant. Like any longstanding cultural and social institution, marriage has evolved over the centuries. Despite the centuries of human development, the same forces that once shaped the ugly beast of ancient marriages continue to roar. The ever present patriarchy manifests itself in gender pay gaps, sexist cultural and political norms, and unequal opportunities. The same double standards persist. For example, women over 40 who choose not to marry are labeled undesirable “spinsters,” while older unmarried men are referred to as desirable “bachelors.” Children born “out of wedlock” were once considered “illegitimate,” and society continues to shame unmarried mothers. Even traditional wedding garments and ceremonies remain a tangible reminder of the expected power dynamic between the two sexes—women wear long, white dresses meant to symbolize their innocence, virtue, and virginity and are “given” to their husbands by their fathers. These subtle remnants of a society that once existed do not symbolize a past forgotten and a path forward. Instead, they are glaring reminders of the patriarchal and hierarchical culture and practices embedded in our way of life.

This is not to say marriage is wholly evil. Marriage offers protection and legal legitimization of a relationship. The emphasis placed on Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage, exemplifies how deeply entrenched the idea that love means marriage is—legal rights are predicated on this idea. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, LGBTQ+ couples were twice as likely as straight couples, 46 percent versus 23 percent, to cite legal rights and benefits as an important reason for getting married. Marriage affords LGBTQ+ couples the same legal rights—including the right to remain in the matrimonial home, the right to receive a spouse’s property upon death, and the right to file for joint taxes and bank accounts—as their heterosexual counterparts and provides legal documentation to acknowledge their union.

The love and commitment associated with marriage are not exclusive to the institution, though. A couple does not need to “put a ring on it” or “seal the deal” to demonstrate their love for each other. Marriage is not necessary and does not define a relationship. Centuries of social conditioning have equated marriage with a successful love story. In reality, heterosexual marriage is a contract designed to irrevocably alter the paths of two people by binding them together.

The pervasiveness of marriage has generated stigma around singlehood. Being alone is seen as a failure, particularly for older women who are “drying up” as they age. As the public indicator of togetherness, marriage provides hope to those seeking to alleviate their loneliness and escape the societal pressures placed on single women. This compulsion to see marriage as a solution is the result of centuries of social conditioning and a society that views being married as a major milestone of adulthood. In reality, the opposite is true: people should not marry to escape loneliness.

Dissecting and redefining the idea of marriage is not enough. Even in the most equal of marriages, the origin, history, and purpose of marriage linger on. The continued existence of the institution itself complicates the problem. Marriage is a societal norm, something that must be done to avoid “otherizing” and polarization. Remaining unmarried must be seen as a socially acceptable option if marriage is truly going to be a choice—equality within a marriage is not the same as freedom outside one. Society cannot progress until we separate ourselves from the idea that love means marriage. While marriage can be beneficial as it provides joint legal benefits and a stable home to raise children, the idea that love must be validated through marriage harms both individuals and society. It is about time the two divorce.