Wedding ritual: why we still love getting married

(c) The Australian
November 11, 2017


The wedding is the only social ritual apart from the funeral that has survived into modern times. This is of telling significance, suggesting it continues to articulate some deep aspiration.

This country has pitched itself into a debate on the nature of marriage — unprecedented, I think, in its scope and intensity. Yet why marriage? Why should same-sex couples be so keen on joining this club; why do they care? There is no obvious practical reason for de facto couples have gained the same financial and legal rights as married ones.

Rapidly rising divorce rates from the 1970s, combined with the growing marginality of the churches and increasingly casual attitudes to sex, suggested, at the time, that marriage was likely to wither away and die — after all, it had been a religious institution. That didn’t happen.

On the contrary, the popularity of the wedding has, if anything, ­increased. Gossip magazines are obsessed by celebrity weddings and marriages. The high ratings of reality television series such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, not to mention Farmer Wants a Wife, Married at First Sight and Bride & Prejudice, attest to the continuing hope that there is a right person for everyone, with the ultimate confirmation in marriage. The ancient archetype of the soulmate has proved a mysteriously enduring presence.

To answer the question “Why marriage?” it may be helpful to reflect on the history of the concept in the Western tradition, one that carries with it a range of its own commanding archetypes. Moreover, that history spills over into the wider issue of the different modes and quality of adult relationship as they are and as it is imagined they ought to be.

The Yes campaign for same-sex marriage has been right to stress that there has been much change, and across centuries, in the legal definition of marriage and in attitudes about appropriate behaviour between husband and wife. That is true in the detail. Yet it understates continuities.

There are two sources of the modern Western conception and practice of marriage, both Christian, both differing substantially from the other and both enduringly influential. One is the Catholic doctrine of marriage as a sacrament consecrated by God — holy wedlock — with its main aim the procreation of children. The other is the positing of the companionate marriage as the ideal adult relationship, a partnership of equals helping each other along the life path. This tradition has roots in English Protestantism.

Both of these concepts have vital contemporary extrapolations, ones that feed off their traditions. The Catholic celebration of holy wedlock has morphed today for a high proportion of those who get married into a grand and extremely expensive secular pageant — the wedding. For most, the priest has gone, as has an inviolable commitment to “until death us do part”, although the words may be spoken. But at the centre is the belief, or perhaps hope, that the ritual is sacred, blessed by some higher power.

The bride especially, as she walks down the aisle, serenaded by religious music, clothed in a gorgeous gown, attended by bridesmaids, is bathed in an otherworldly glow. In this, her Cinderella moment, she is more than her usual ordinary, mundane self. One of the hopes is that the moment, cemented by ritual, witnessed by family and friends, is powerful enough to stamp the union with lifelong attachment and happiness.

The church may have receded into insignificance for most but, it seems, the need for relationships that are more than utilitarian has endured — unions that are more than sequences of passing pleasures. This has much to do with the driving subterranean current of that other archetype, soulmate love. Its source is pagan, not Christian, going back to Plato. It gained new vigour from the romantic movement in Europe at the end of the 18th century. Soul-mate love holds that everyone has their perfect match, another with whom they are uniquely suited. Sometimes fate is included: we were chosen for each other, it was written in the stars, it was meant to be.

Social research in the US and Australia shows that today, despite the fluidity and instability of ­relationships, compounded by online dating, a large number of 20 to 30-year-olds continue to believe that one day they will meet the “right person”. Following a period of experimentation and independence, the ambition remains to find a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship.

The ideal of companionate marriage is quite different from sacramental holy wedlock. But first let me retrace my steps, looking for authorities. Jesus himself was complex in this area. He placed central emphasis on individual salvation, not collective or tribal salvation. In Mark’s Gospel, the first written of the four life stories, the Master, as he was called, was unsympathetic to families, rejecting his own and cruelly dismissing his mother: “Who is my mother?” His strongest affinities are not with his selected disciples but with a few individuals, most of them women, who stumble across his path and somehow intuit the nature of his presence. If anything, Mark’s Jesus downplays the significance of any community, including family, despite their centrality for the churches that would be built in his name. Mark’s Jesus rather endorses, as the secret to the good life, a kind of spiritual empathy between individuals — akin to soulmate love.

There are, of course, moral teachings from Jesus about marriage and its sanctity in the other Gospels. It is with Paul, however, that the mainstream Christian concept of marriage is founded. Paul’s teaching is offensively patriarchal as read today. It asserts that men are created as the image and glory of God but women are the glory of men, ­created for men. Hence women should cover their heads when they pray, their relationship more distant to the divinity. Male superiority then feeds into the development of a hierarchical church in which all privileged positions are held by men.

The Protestant Reformation changed this, if slowly. Above all, it instituted one of the principal democratic revolutions leading to equality between the sexes and a new conception of marriage. Individual conscience is the key. Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist English form, stressed that the only way an individual could understand important truths, or make correct moral judgments, was by asking their own conscience. Conscience was the one intermediary between God and the human individual — what Milton called “God’s representative in man”.

In one stroke, churches were rendered obsolete, for what was the point in asking the priest for advice if he had less authority than one’s own inner voice, guided by scripture? Further, there was no difference between kings and labourers, clergy and congregation, rich and poor, or men and women. Thus, in the area of deepest human concern, that of insight into a person’s spiritual condition, there was fundamental equality. The single and grave differentiation was between those who were saved and those who were damned.

The notion of the companionate marriage derives from here. The momentousness of the change is hard to overstate. Just consider the nearly total pervasiveness of the patriarchy, often in extremely cruel forms, through human history and across human society. Men treating their women with brutal violence was the norm in pre-modern tribal society. In classical Athens, the public spaces, from political arenas to markets to artistic and sporting venues, were the sole preserve of men, while their women remained cloistered at home, with children. Women were banned from appearing in public, with the rare exception of some religious festivals. In pre-modern Europe, it was common for a farmer to view a cow as a more valuable possession than a wife — it was less costly to replace a wife. And even within English Protestantism there was a tense ambivalence between the primacy of conscience and a patriarchal philosophy that predicated a governing male hierarchy descending from God to king to magistrate and down to father. The English Protestant view became more prevalent during the 18th century, holding that the good life had, as one of its staples, companionship. The severe patriarchal prejudice was waning.

Also at work in the formation of the companionate marriage was another thread, that of the ancient conception of friendship.

The Stoical ideal of friendship has its own important role in this lineage. Developed in the classical world of Greece and Rome, it drew on one of the Greek words for love, philia — as contrasted with eros (erotic love) and agape (charitable, selfless or saintly love). Friendship was illustrated in morally charged stories such as that of Eudamidas.

Eudamidas is dying. He writes a will in which he does not bequest wealth to others for he is poor. His bequest is to ask that two nominated friends take responsibility for his wife and daughter, taking them in and looking after them. The story celebrates the dutiful and selfless generosity, and trust, reflected in friendship. The story of Eudamidas was pictured in a work by 17th-century painter Nicolas Poussin, under the extra influence of Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who wrote an essay on friendship.

In the classical world, as later in the Renaissance, friendship was conceived as an ideal restricted to men. But from the 16th century in England, then especially during the 18th century, friendship evolved into the new domain of relations between a man and a woman. The companionate marriage pictured a couple in which husband and wife were devoted to each other, acting as helpmeets in the bringing up of children, in keeping a home and in sharing their hopes and fears, their successes and their setbacks.

Shakespeare, also influenced by Montaigne, anticipated this style of marriage in several plays, above all in Much Ado About Nothing. The central characters, Beatrice and Benedick, are both highly intelligent and wittily playful. They slowly come to the realisation that they are made for each other. The implication is that they will live happily ever after, in respectful and loving companionship. The play does suggest their relationship is an exception, as it takes place in a conventional patriarchal context, of women required to be pure and virginal. Indeed, in the play’s subplot, an innocent young woman who is falsely ­accused of having lost her virtue is turned on with vicious indignation, called a “rotten orange” and dismissed with the ultimate degradation of “let her die”.

The companionate marriage was to find its finest idealisation in the works of Jane Austen. The fact her novels remain popular today, and especially in film and television adaptation, illustrates the continuing pull of the belief in friendly long-term intimacy.

Pride and Prejudice is an exemplar. The story explores the vicissitudes of attraction, as two highly strung characters clash, with their moral and intellectual sensibilities tuned to full alert. The whole is a consummate study of human character, with Darcy and Elizabeth finally coming to realise that all their conflicts were based on misunderstandings and prejudice, and that they are made for each other — a perfect couple. Their relationship is more than friendship. It is sublime, as if tinged with the transcendental aura of soulmate love. The strong implication is that, fairytale-like, Darcy and Elizabeth will live happily ever after because of mutual affection and respect, two equals sharing identical views of life. They rise above the social reality into which they have been born, where wealth and privilege passed almost entirely through the male line.

The primacy of conscience has become supreme in the modern West. Almost every adult, when it comes to important life decisions, whether about right action, the choice of job or relationship, and much else, will in the end — perhaps after seeking advice — make that decision ­according to their own private judgment. Freedom of conscience and independence of judgment are ruling tenets of contemporary life.

The pre-eminence of conscience, by the way, provides in principle support for same-sex marriage. While marriage has been understood from time­immemorial as occurring between a man and a woman — and it was inconceivable in any other terms — that reality has been superseded by the fact the ultimate moral authority today is not God, or legal precedent, or customary tradition, but the conscience of the individual. Further, the ideal of long-term companionship includes nothing that would preclude a same-sex relationship being included within the same logic. And third, the ethic of friendship began as a same-sex conception — between men.

A culture, considered across time, is like a complex organism that evolves in reaction to changing circumstances. The biggest relevant changes in the transition to modernity have been in hygiene, medicine, mobility and prosperous comfort. As people have lived longer and healthier lives they have been freer to pursue leisure untroubled by disease, pain and the constant presence of death. With greater prosperity, the pressure of sheer elemental survival has eased, freeing women from economic necessity, freeing them to divorce or separate if they so choose. But despite increased freedom and much greater potential mobility, age-old marriage tropes endure, shaping the fantasy life of new generations.

A culture keeps adapting its own given capacities while producing from within itself new ones that seem to have been embryonic or dormant within the genetic fabric. In relation to adult human ­relationships, we have observed traditional archetypal threads governing the inheritance today: soulmate love, binding union sanctified by church ritual, friendship and freely chosen marital companionship.

While those archetypal threads clarify the “Why marriage?” question, they don’t answer it. What we can conclude is that most people have found that the best way to live is in committed long-term union, a twosome, one with another, commonly incorporating a phase of bringing up children. This is both aspiration and reality. Further, they feel inwardly pressed to dignify their union, once chosen, acknowledging its special significance. They do so through the formality of marriage, providing ritual confirmation and public announcement, bestowing on their union a kind of secular benediction and seal. It is as if, freed from church teaching, they have discovered a universal truth for themselves.

A compounding factor is the need for a “haven in a heartless world”, to use Christopher Lasch’s summary evocation of the modern family. With the weakening of other forms of community, such as neighbourhood, church and sporting club, the tissues of belonging those communities once supplied need replacements. Individuals, more on their own and with fewer clear directions about how to live and how to cope with adversity, including loneliness, are more dependent on their key relationship and confidence in its stability.

Australia today seems to really care about marriage, even if it is unsure of what forms it would like it to take. It wrestles with shadowy inheritances and intangible aspirations. The present debate is, at its highest, in search of how best to live, for both the minorities and the majority.

John Carroll is an author and professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University. He has just published Land of the Golden Cities: Australia’s Exceptional Prosperity & the Culture that Made (Connor Court).