Marriage and starting a family is one of the most important milestones in life that many people look forward to. In its legal context, two persons are only considered married when they have entered a legally recognized social contract that is often permanent.
However, it is undeniable that our ideas of family and marriage have changed beyond reckoning compared to the dawning of society. Fewer people are holding on to these traditional beliefs, instead of going for a more contemporary perspective. How has marriage changed from history until now?
Traditional Views of Marriage
Marriage, in most of the world throughout history, relates to the union between a man and a woman. In some of the earliest instances of marriage, it was common for a man to take multiple wives for various reasons. The more wealthy might have done it for lust, while others may have done so to preserve bloodlines, for fertility purposes, or because times of war may have yielded a shortage of mates for women. A man of power, such as a monarch, would usually also have concubines in addition to multiple wives. One notable example was King Solomon of Israel, who had an astonishing 700 wives and 300 concubines.
Additionally, it was not unheard of for relatives to be married to each other. Members of small tribes often procreated within their clans, while in other civilizations such as ancient Egypt and Ireland, incest was very common in the royal families. Pharaoh Amenhotep I was born of three generations of brother-sister unions, and Cleopatra and Tutankhamun had parents who were siblings. Tutankhamun later also married his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten. It is believed that these practices in ancient civilizations were to preserve the purity of the royal bloodline since the monarchs were considered to be gods or otherwise elite. Between the second and third centuries B.C. in Egypt, censuses recorded that incestual marriage extended to even the common folk, with sibling marriages accounting for 15 to 20 per cent of all marriages. These unions were considered by all accounts ordinary.
One other tradition of marriage is that it did not always include a romantic component. It was rare that people married out of love more than they would for an obligation or to fulfil their duty. Any adolescent, especially those in middle or high-class families, would be expected to settle down with their own spouse and start a family at a young age. As such, it was customary in many cultures for the parents and other relatives to arrange marriages for their children the moment they came of marrying age – which could be as young as twelve or even earlier. Often, these marriages would be done to establish new ties with a neighbouring people, a different tribe, or another kingdom.
Since traditional marriages were almost always heterosexual and conducted out of purpose, it was also widely believed that marriage should always yield offspring. Sometimes, having offspring was the main reason for marriage – and only sons in particular, as they could carry down the family name. A couple that could not conceive a son might be seen as cursed or suffering from divine punishment. Some monarchs took on new wives if their previous ones were unable to bear them children or died in labour.
Modern Inclinations of Marriage
Over time, the concept of marriage began to change. People started to marry out of love rather than the purpose, leading to most being able to choose their own partners today. Divorce and separation also became commonplace, where people would break off a relationship if they felt that the love was no longer there. In addition, couples began to date for a longer period to get to know each other fully before deciding to commit to a marriage. This is completely different from traditional obligational marriages where neither party would have a say in who their spouse was, would likely only meet them on the day of the marriage, and were expected to remain in the relationship until either one passed away. Although most of these arranged marriages are things of the past, there are still some happening today.
The society also began to see marriage as less important and not an absolutely necessary step for any adolescent. Accompanying the upward shift in the age of adulthood, the new age group of teenagers was defined. Teenagers were encouraged to stay in school and pursue their education before settling down with a partner. Today, most people in first-world countries complete tertiary education and even get some work experience before deciding to marry and have children. Some people choose to remain single or remain in a relationship without marrying, both of which have much less negative connotations nowadays than in the past.
The emphasis placed on bearing children and carrying on the family line is minimal these days. There are still parts of the world that hold these traditional beliefs, but an increasing number of young couples are recognizing that they have the option not to have children. Along with this, couples are also combining their last names so that their children will continue the family line of both names, instead of going with tradition where the children take on only the father’s name. Some couples even opt not to use their last names at all and instead give their child a completely different name.
Defining Family in the Present
The contemporary world has much-changed views of marriage and family. Although the traditional nuclear family still holds strong, more people have loosened their views and may recognize other combinations to be families as well. Single parenting is common nowadays, whereas, in historical times, people would often be pressured to re-marry if they had lost their spouse. It was also unheard of for an unmarried person to have a child, while these days, having a biological child without ever getting married is not so much of a stigma any longer. Some single people also choose to adopt their own children, a practice that would have been very surprising in the past.
Of course, LGBT families have also come into the mix. While society has not fully accepted the notion of same-sex couples, they are prevalent enough that one would be unlikely to bat an eye compared to a couple of centuries ago, when even interracial relationships would rock the boat. LGBT activists around the world are advocating for their sexual orientations to be recognized, leading to an increasing number of countries legalizing gay marriage.
Additionally, there are small communities of polygamic families living around the world. The polygamic families of today differ from the historical dynamics of men having multiple wives, in that the people in today’s polygamic relationships all have a mutual relationship with one another. The multiple wives of historical men, on the other hand, would probably not have been romantically or sexually interested in one another.
In general, people these days are more inclined to believe that any family structure can be considered a family as long as the people identify themselves as such. Compared to the traditional views of ancient civilizations, we have definitely come a long way in recognizing a basic human right.