Ever since marriage equality became a national topic of conversation, we've been hearing a lot about "traditional marriage." For people who are against gays getting married, there seems to be this idea that if we could just hold on to the way people married in the olden days, everything would be right with the world. It's like they think we could all have our own beautiful sparkly unicorn, if only everyone would marry their opposite-sex high school sweetheart, have a bunch of kids, and stay together forever.
The problem is that most of our assumptions about what marriage was like back in the day are complete bullshit.
#5. People Didn't Marry Young
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To get this out of the way at the beginning: Marriage is absolutely a cultural thing, and has looked very different across time and space, just like Doctor Who. (Also like Doctor Who, marriage has usually been controlled by men who thought the women were there just to make the guy look awesome.) I'll be concentrating on what marriage has been like in the Western world, because most of the anti-marriage-equality people come from that background.
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I'm basically this white, times a million.
That said, this conservative idea that you should meet your future spouse in high school and marry by the time you finish college (at the latest) is crazy. I think people assume that our ancestors all married really young because the most famous historical marriages were all among royalty.
There are a few issues with this. The royal marriage pool was so small that by the time princes and princesses were children, they pretty much knew who their two or three potential mates were. Their royal parents were also almost certainly using them as bargaining chips in treaties or alliances. So their getting married around puberty made sense from a political standpoint, but was as weird as a dog in a tutu to everyone else. Even when they did get hitched that young, couples often didn't live together, and certainly weren't expected to have sex, for many years.
Or, you know, ever.
In general, the marriage age in Western Europe has stayed constant. English records from the 1600s show that brides were usually 23-24 years old and grooms 26-27. When colonists in early America started getting married slightly younger, it was considered odd enough that Benjamin Franklin commented on it. But the marriage age in America soon settled back into the normal pattern, and by 1890, most couples were getting married in their mid-to-late-20s again. While there have been extreme circumstances where kids in their late teens started getting married regularly -- like after the Black Death and WWII killed everybody and people were looking to tie down whoever they could get who still had a pulse -- in general, people have always tried to put off this lifelong commitment until they were actually ready.
#4. Marriages Were Short
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These days, the demographic most likely to get divorced is baby boomers. Many of these couples have been married for well over 30 years. Why is it that our ancestors could stay together for life, but today, people are so determined to file off the ball and chain when their sentence is almost over?
The answer is that couples never stayed in unhappy marriages if they didn't have to. People have been panicking over how divorce is going to ruin society forever, because it has almost always been legal in the Western world. Ancient Greece and Rome both allowed divorce, and the most famous divorcee of all time is certainly Henry VIII, whose first one occurred in 1534. John Milton, the poet most famous for Paradise Lost, also wrote four books on how awesome divorce was in the 1640s. (If you were forced to read those in school, your teacher was going through some personal stuff.) Inevitably, religious figures freaked out and tried to ban them.
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I am shocked. SHOCKED.
In America, the 1870 census revealed such a high number of divorces that the government ordered a report on the subject. By the 1920s, divorce was so common that society was convinced marriage would soon be a thing of the past. And yet here we are almost 100 years later, and people are still fighting for the chance to get hitched.
If you couldn't get a divorce, annulment was often an option. And if even that wasn't possible, all you had to do was wait it out. The high death rate in the past meant that half of all marriages were over in 4-12 years, because somebody was rotting in the ground by that point. Who knows how many of those couples would have wanted out after 30 long years together, listening to the same boring stories over and over again? In a way, divorce has just replaced death. And I think we can all agree that legally ending a marriage is a much better solution than murder. Either way, there is a cake for that:
#3. Single-Parent And Blended Families Were Always Normal
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All that divorce and dying meant that people found themselves in their 20s and 30s, single, and looking to bone someone new. While sex outside of marriage was always going on, most people wanted to get married again so that their dick supply was on tap, if you will. And since those first marriages had often produced children, this meant that blended families were totally common.
In fact, they may have been the norm. Some historians think that stepparents and stepsiblings were almost more common than original families in the late medieval period. Even third marriages weren't strange, and stepchildren were considered as much a person's kids as their own biological ones. This doesn't mean that all remarriages went swimmingly, of course. The "wicked stepmother" trope goes back to at least Ancient Rome.
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While the true evil goes ignored.
But before those parents chose to remarry, or if they never did, children would find themselves being raised by a single parent. This is another supposedly "modern" development that is going to ruin the next generation. And in the gay marriage fight, this has taken on a new angle. Apparently, all kids need to be raised by both a mother and a father, or they will be forever fucked up. According to these arguments, a single parent, and certainly two same-sex parents, can never provide an appropriate home for their offspring like a mother and father.
The thing is, in the old days you would count yourself lucky if you managed to reach adulthood with both of your parents still alive and kicking. Even up to 1900, a quarter of children would lose a parent before they turned 15. And in the 1950s, those halcyon days of supposedly perfect families? Between divorce, death, and sex outside of marriage, 22 percent of kids were still being raised by a single parent. If being raised by one gender ruins children, our ancestors were screwed.