The Evolution of Marriage

Marriage certainly isn’t what it used to be. From polygamy to a contract between future-husband and father-of-blushing-bride-to-be, it was (in some places, still is) patriarchy’s way of guaranteeing legitimate heirs to men and rubbed off social status to women.

It is a relatively recent phenomenon that something as capricious as “love” would factor into this traditionally utilitarian equation. Love, or at least a certain level of mutual affection and respect, was expected to grow between husband and wife, as men learned to control their impulses and women triumphed in their resoluteness to bear it all for the sake of concord. Whether it did, however, was a private concern. The purpose of the institution of marriage—and marriage, even today, exists primarily for society, not for the spouses—was children and their education. As long as husband and wife were fruitful, multiplied and raised the next generation, all was well indeed.

It took centuries of Christian indoctrination to have it penetrate Greco-Roman’s pragmatic consciousness that marriage can fulfill a higher human ideal than the legitimate deposit of “seed” in fertile “soil”—a “field”, one could add, that a man bought and possessed. The Christian “sacramental” sense of marriage as symbolic of the self-giving love that binds Christ to his church persisted in emphasizing how love ought to be directed to “fruitfulness” (otherwise, how to guarantee the propagation of society?), but demanded that men honour and love their wives as themselves—a radical shift from the presupposition that women are inferior beings (or mere property) with no dignity of their own.

From our vantage point post the twentieth-century meteoric rise of feminism, of the assumptions of “equality” between the sexes and of a woman’s “right” to her body, such old-fashioned contractual marriage arrangements might seem almost barbaric. Yet we seem to forget that it is only in our times that marriage expectations have been radically turned on their head: where marriage has become first and foremost about the spouses’ “right” to express “love”; the assumption that “love” is really a “feeling” disconnected from fruitfulness; and that if children factor into the marriage equation at all, they are something to “have” and mostly for the spouses’ edification.

But for beliefs to take root, there needs to be more than proselytization—feminist or otherwise. Something else happened in recent decades that accelerated the reversal of marital expectations. That something is usually summed up in the sexy title “sexual revolution”, but really, truth is much more pragmatic than that, so let’s call it by its name: the “evolution of reproductive technologies”.

From the pill to IVF, and always under the direction of the medical establishment, women today can control the process of human reproduction to a T… or close enough. But once technology’s calculative power entered the marriage game, the rules between husband and wife, father and mother-to-be, necessarily shifted. Spouses’ equality notwithstanding, the essence of marriage-talk requires decisions that depend on the woman’s tacit (or loud–and-clear) consent—the “if “to reproduce, the “when” to do it, and today increasingly, the “how” to do it. Women can decide (and often do) whether an embryo comes into existence or not, whether a foetus lives or not. As for the father’s “rights” however, things are decidedly hazier.

So where exactly, does this brave new world of technology that determines the most foundational human relations (and humanity’s future) leave us? Presumably asking some pretty fundamental questions.

What does it mean to be a woman today? What does it mean to be a man?

What does it mean to be in a loving relationship that affirms the particularity of being a man and the particularity of being a woman?

To take it a step further: what does it mean to affirm the distinctiveness of the relationship between father and child, and the distinctiveness of the relationship between mother and child?

And perhaps the hardest question of them all: is there really distinctiveness between the sexes… a cluster of characteristics that define men and women? Or is it true that, as we have been shaped to believe today, all is a matter of appearances, of enculturation, even of individual choice? That male or female, “masculinity” and “femininity” really matters not, and can be configured at will?

Our temptation might be to repeat the usual clichés for and against, but if we dig deeper, we might be able to shed some light on the profound conundrum that is “marriage” in our days:

  • Oftentimes equated to “love”, when the real four-letter word needs a lifetime to grow fed by some other big words like persistence, commitment, patience;
  • A matter of personal “lifestyle” preference, whether gay, straight or any another configuration we might opt for in the future;
  • And last but not least, the issue of sexless parenting (echoing the dissolution of gender roles) where the roles of “father” and “mother” become interchangeable. After all, isn’t that why we are increasingly confident that a child will grow just as fine, not only without their mother and/or father, but without a mother or father?

Our riddle seems to boil down to one basic issue: how are men and women different, even while they possess equal dignity as human beings? And if inherently different, are those characteristics intrinsically meaningful, or irrelevant to human communal flourishing?

So far, we have embraced with reckless abandon the effects of the great techno-sexual (r)evolution. Hence, why we can expect the effects of reproductive technologies, rather than “nature”, to take their course.

Women (single/married, gay/straight, it mattes not) could increasingly act on the newfound liberty of becoming mothers if and when they feel like it (sperm is abundant and cheap), while men (single/married, gay/straight) could achieve the same results, albeit with greater effort and ingenuity (such as hired wombs, a.k.a. surrogate mothers, and donor eggs). Eventually, however even those hurdles might be a thing of the past, as technology reaches the acme of human evolution and enlightenment where, to recall the infamous chilling quote in the cult movie Matrix, “human beings are no longer born, they are grown.” Of course, reality might not have to be so Matrix-bleak. By then, we would have managed to concoct not only artificial wombs, but picture-perfect designer babies as well.

The future is waiting… but should our lives merely run their course rather than be lived? Do we create our future, or do we let circumstances, technologies, assumed practices, determine us? The issue is not our remarkable ability to adapt: after all, given enough time, the strangest things become wondrously normal. The issue is our refusal to reflect and thus to blindly allow the tools we make to shape us in turn—irrespective of our personal, communal and, most crucially, the future generations’, greater good.

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