Sex & Relationships

How We Ended Up With Such Vile Ideas About Marriage

Historian Fran Dolan talks about how marriage developed into an institution in which one partner is expected to let go of their needs and desires.

A professor of English at the University of California at Davis, Fran Dolan's latest book, Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacyexplores how history has shaped modern ideas of marriage, and more specifically, the idea that in marriage, two become one. Because of course, the big problem with this view of marriage is that more often then not, it also results in the question: which one of you do you become? 

Josey Vogels: How has history specifically shaped our current model of coupledom and marriage?

Fran Dolan: The very particular circumstances of 16th and 17th century (or "early modern") English culture, which is then transported to Colonial America -- and Canada -- through English books, laws, and customs created a (usually unacknowledged) legacy that still shapes how we describe what it means to be in a couple. I am particularly interested in three sources of this idea that two become one: The Biblical figuration of marriage as the fusion of two persons into one flesh; the idea under common law that husband and wife achieve "unity of person," an idea that was always a legal fiction and has been superceded in law yet survives in the common practice of a wife taking her husband's last name; and the popular question of "who wears the pants in the family," a question that is still sometimes asked but that has its roots in a long tradition of imagining that if partners are equals then they are also combatants in a "battle of the sexes" and that this battle can only be avoided or resolved if the couple comes to an agreement about who should wear the pants and have the final say.

JV: How does this idea negatively affect our relationships?

FD: I don't assume that everyone's relationship plays out as a fight to the finish between two combatants. But I do think that this "early modern legacy" limits how we can imagine and describe, and therefore experience, relationships in a range of ways. It creeps in through expressions like "hen-pecked" and "whipped" and through the assumption that one person's career is more important and the other is the "trailing spouse;" that one person's desire or pleasure is more important than the other's; that one person should make the decisions or "call the shots;" that one can't survive a break up (or bereavement) because s/he is partial or incomplete.

JV: How can couples better achieve a true "partnership?”

FD: When I talk about expanding the possibilities for imagining true partnership in marriage I don't mean that each partner has to be equally good at everything or has to contribute exactly the same talents, and efforts, and income to the marriage.  I mean that, over time, each person's contributions might be equally valued; each person's happiness might be equally important in the marriage. My research looks at the history of assuming that one spouse has to subordinate his -- or very often her -- needs and desires in the interests of the marriage. In order to explore the possibilities of equality within marriage we need to confront that history so that we can move beyond it rather than romanticizing sacrifice as what true love entails.

JV: Why are we so slow to embrace this idea of "true partnership?”

FD: I think there are lots of reasons why change is slow. One is a tendency to blame feminists and feminism for creating conflict in marriage by encouraging women to make too many demands, to expect too much. The assumption that women should subordinate self-interest to marital harmony has a long history and it's not easy to escape. My argument is that feminism isn't the problem, women and men aren't the problem, a restrictive notion of what marriage is and means is the problem. Another problem is that there is not enough support outside the family for more equitable relationships within it: external supports such as childcare. And another is that we are in the habit of describing marriage, of telling stories about marriage, that associate equality with competition, rivalry, and conflict. We need to let these familiar ways of thinking about and depicting marriage go so as to make room for new ways of imagining the couple, especially the married couple. My approach, as a scholar who specializes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is to argue that we can loosen the past's grip on us by confronting this history and thinking through how it limits our options and constrains our imaginations; noticing how often we tell stories in which one spouse absorbs, subordinates, or eliminates the other can help us stop and question the logic of those stories. To shake off the burdensome legacy that is the history of marriage, we need to take marriage as a question rather than a given, as an as yet-unfulfilled-promise rather than a guarantee.

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