Magazine article USA TODAY

Where Is Marriage Going?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Where Is Marriage Going?

Article excerpt

IT WAS BAD ENOUGH when the divorce rate in the U.S. reached epidemic proportions and single parenting became commonplace. Now, more and more Americans are developing a tolerance for same-sex marriage. New York recognizes such marriages, and the California and Connecticut Supreme Courts struck down those states' laws banning marriage for same-sex couples, allowing them to join Massachusetts in accepting homosexual unions. Even though Californians recently voted to stop granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the sanctity of marriage seriously seems to be undermined and in danger of further deterioration.

Most Americans believe that marriage is an inherently sacred institution, the purpose of which is procreation and the socialization of children. That is why the idea of same-sex marriage, the prevalence of single mothers raising children, and the frailty of modern marriages are considered such a threat to "proper" marriage. Such pessimism particularly is prevalent among biblical literalists and other Christian fundamentalists who feel that any alteration of traditional marriage constitutes a moral decline, and many others agree.

However, examining the history of marriage encourages quite a different conclusion. The ethnographic study of tribal societies suggests what marriage meant to our ancestors thousands of years ago. Obviously, having children is an ancient concern, but most tribal people did not view marriage as something sacred. Many mar tribes had no ritual to acknowledge the start of a marriage, nothing would equate to a wedding. Among the traditional Cheyenne, courtship involved a girl allowing a suitor to sleep with her in her parents' tepee, entering stealthfully after dark and leaving before the others in the tepee awakened. All the couple needed to do to be considered married was to have the young man sleep late enough to be discovered by her parents. Similarly, some Pacific islanders, such as the Ulithi, allowed couples to "announce" that they wished to be considered married simply by cohabiting. Coming-of-age rituals were far more common in tribal societies than weddings, and yet marriage was, with very few exceptions, the norm in all these societies.

Somehow, the belief that marriages are arranged in heaven, an extremely romantic idea, has become equated with considering marriage as sacred. Again, taking a historical perspective as provided by our knowledge of traditional societies, marriages frequently were arranged by parents or other relatives. Among the Sambia of New Guinea and the Tiwi of northern Australia, many marriages involved infant brides. In numerous warlike tribes such as the Yanomamo of Venezuela, men obtained wives by capturing them from enemy villages.

Granted, marriage in this country often is associated with religious concepts and usually initiated with a sacred ritual. Yet, from the perspective of the history of humanity, this is a rather recent development. Even newer are our present matrimonial motives. Instead of marrying to ensure that our offspring will care for us when we are too old to provide for ourselves, we now consciously limit the number of children to how many we can afford. No longer does marrying and having children provide assurance that the elderly will be cared for. Understandably, most modern couples, for a variety of reasons, choose to limit their fecundity to one or two children or remain childless. …

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