Marriage: A Brief History and A Few Thoughts

I just watched yet another politician describe a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as “putting in law what has been in place in society for thousands of years” (at 1:45).

Now, I wrote a paper in 2010 on this very subject. You see, the fact is that marriage as we know it hasn’t been in place for thousands of years. Far from it.

The religious background of marriage is complicated. In the beginning, marriage was looked down on by Christians. Paul, the Apostle, considered marriage a last resort in the Catholic Church. Celibacy was preferred and marriage was only for those not strong enough to remain chaste1.

Removing that negative connotation was no easy task. Around the 400s, Augustine proposed that marriage become a sacrament and many church fathers disagreed. Jerome believed you couldn’t compare virginity to wedlock because one was good, while the other was evil. Tertullian felt marriage was nothing more than fornication. Cyprian felt that while God said to multiple, the earth was now full and it was no longer necessary. Even Augustine believed that the best case scenario would be everyone living celibately2.

In the 16th Century during the Reformation, marriage was still considered a secular union. To combat the Protestant threat, the Catholic Church made it mandatory that all marriages be performed by a priest in front of two witnesses in 15633. Hence marriage became a sacrament as a way to keep it Catholic and controllable. However, it was too little, too late as the Church of England had already promoted the alternative civil marriages that made Catholic one’s unnecessary. The French began to perform them as a result of the French Revolution3. Germany followed suit in the 19th century and eventually civil marriages were the predominant union in most of Western Europe3.

This secularization, or rather the continued secular nature, of marriage carried into the USA where the Puritans considered marriage a civil, and not a religious, union. Common law marriage continued to be the most frequent form of marriage in early American history. In the 1870’s this resulted in a religious backlash and the marriage reform movement began calling for formal ceremonies, licensing, and registration. The marital legal system as we know it began4.

So marriage is not a stagnant institution. It’s dynamic. It has evolved. It grew and changed with the time. Points of development include:

  • During the Roman period, marital sex wasn’t really worth waiting for. Within matrimony, the man was expected to be a husband and not a lover (while sex was still expected to produce heirs). To accomplish this, the man had to avoid “introducing one’s wife to overly intense pleasures” in fear that she would use this knowledge to his and her detriment. The husband also had to avoid being too “ardent” (Read “enthusiastic,” “passionate,” or “good”) with his wife in order to avoid treating her like an adulteress9. In modern day society, not producing the occasional orgasm is (thankfully) considered a problem.
  • The Pilgrims made it legally necessary to obtain parent’s permission before courting their daughter5. That’s no longer the case despite the chagrin of some parents. In the 1920’s dating became increasingly popular away from the prying eyes of mommy and daddy6.
  • It was only in 1664 that interracial marriages became illegal in North America (Yes, illegal. Before that it was uncommon, but there were no laws against it.) Maryland was the first state to ban it, but was followed by all the southern states, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania5.  Only in 1967 did the Supreme Court rule this was unconstitutional.
  • During the 19th century, legal sexual consent was 10 years-old in most American states… except Delaware, where it was 7 years-old. In the 1930s, 14 year-old boys could marry 12 year-old girls with legal consent5. That would be unacceptable and very creepy now.
  • And finally, it was acceptable for a man to rape his wife in America until 19785. Thank god the expectations and meaning of marriage have evolved with the time.

Edward L. Kain would agree that modern marriage is doing just fine. Compared to a century ago, there are equal amounts of single parent homes (More divorce, less death), proportionately fewer single people, and the most common type of household hasn’t changed (still a two parent family). In fact, there is no evidence that there has been a steady decline in the number of people getting married.

So why is the history of marriage idealized?

Freud proposed a theory called the ‘Return of the Repressed’7. He suggested that marriage limits sexual outlets and as a result monogamy leads to repressed sexual energy. Additionally, individuals are taught that the family unit will be the ultimate fulfilment, while in reality the unit forces people to repress their natural desire. This repression results in negative feelings and resentment towards the family. Using this as a foundation, Edward L. Kain created the theory of the myth of marriage. He feels that rather than accepting discontentment and the potential that no one has been happy with marriage, individuals will blame “changing society”8. This helps as it suggests that fulfillment within marriage is still possible and prevents the married individual from lapsing into despair8.

But Freud was an old pervert, so his theories should be taken with a grain of salt. Taking all this information, I fall somewhere in between. Unlike Freud and Kain, I don’t believe that marriage is unnatural or that monogamy is restraining and leads to resentment. But marriage also isn’t that idealized, politically-driven, traditional sacrament that it’s made out to be either.

Marriage has changed throughout history. It’s adapted. And while it’s sweet that it’s become this symbol of love and devotion, lets not let that overshadow the actual love and devotion. Marriage is nothing without the people who are willing to commit their lives to each other because they want to give it a shot… because a life without that person they’ve found would just be a little less of a life. And by putting marriage on this pedestal… by claiming it’s this unchanging, holy sacrament that can only be performed between a man and a woman… we ultimately are suggesting that the symbol is more important than the love and devotion it’s supposed to represent.

Marriage shouldn’t be ours to hold onto. It’s not something we should restrict others from having. Gay or straight, success or fail, marriage is a personal commitment and like love it’s not something you can put in a box.

“Hate stumbles forward and leans in the door. Weary head hung, eyes to the floor. He says, ‘Love, I’m sorry’, and she says, ‘What for? I’m yours and that’s it. Whatever. I should not have been gone for so long. I’m yours and that’s it, forever. You’re mine and that’s it, forever.” – The Avett Brothers in The Ballad of Love and Hate



  1. Armstrong, Karen. (1986). Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West. London.
  6. Coontz, Stephanie. (2005). Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Viking Adult.
  7. Redman 52
  8. Redman 62
  9. Foucault 177
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