Many Myths of Marriage

Apr 202004
Authors: Meg Burd

We often hear talk of about “marriage” these days, with voices

being raised in loud support or opposition to the federal marriage

amendment, introduced by Colorado’s Marilyn Musgrave and Wayne

Allard. President Bush, who has recently said he will support an

amendment to legalize marriage only for one man and one woman,

mentioned the situation in his State of the Union address, calling

it “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our


Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (as quoted by historian Gary

Leupp in an article for CounterPunch,) echoed Bush, saying “I agree

with 3,000 years of recorded history…marriage is an institution

between a man and a woman… and our Constitution and laws should

reflect that.” Maria Parker, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts

Catholic Conference, was quoted in a Macon Daily article by Greg

Frost as saying, “The general understanding of marriage in every

culture in the world has been based on the idea it is between one

man and one woman.”

The problem with this so-called “general understanding,” as

Parker suggests, is that it is a wrong assumption. Such statements

about the auspices of “marriage,” say many anthropologists and

historians, is that notions regarding the historicity and

cross-cultural assumption of a monogamous, love-based heterosexual

union constituting “marriage” are falsely based in myths or

ethnocentric views regarding something that has changed and morphed

over time and throughout societies worldwide.

“The results of more than a century of anthropological research

on households, kinship relationships and families, across cultures

and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that

either civilizations or viable social orders depend upon marriage

as an exclusively heterosexual institution,” the American

Anthropological Association’s executive board said in a statement

decrying Bush’s conceptualization of “marriage.”

Perhaps a brief attempt to look at the history of “marriage” can

dispel some of these faulty notions and myths as expounded by

Romney and others and help us better understand this ever changing


First, the assumption that monogamous marriage as we conceive of

it today has deep historical precedent can be seen as false.

“Marriage as Americans know it today didn’t exist 2,000 years ago,

or even 200 years ago,” says Mike Anton in the Los Angeles Times.

“Marriage was a business arrangement… Throughout most of human

history, a man married a woman out of desire — for her father’s

goats, perhaps.” The Old Testament and other sources are full of

mentions of such arrangements. Arranged marriages, designed to

cement kin unions or gain property rights, were the norm and women

in places such as Greece were seen as property of the father to be

handed over to the husband. Polygamy, throughout much of human

history, was common, with the Romans codifying monogamous unions,

although the regulations and requirements differed for people

depending on their class status.

Even during the founding of our country, conceptualizations

about marriage were different than they are today, and so was the

state of “marriage” globally then. During the time of the American

Revolution, says Nancy Cott, “Christian monogamists composed a

minority of the world.” During these times, marriage law turned the

wedding couple into one person – the husband, who obtained all

legal and political rights, Cott said.

In today’s world, “marriage” is certainly not universally

recognized as a monogamous choice bond between two people of the

opposite gender, nor is it particularly connected to religion. In

Tibet, for instance, the practice of polyandry, or marriage of a

woman to multiple men, is practiced, and polygamy (multiple women

married to one man) is likewise seen in many places. Among the

Nuer, says anthropologist Duran Bell, there are such things as

‘ghost marriages’ in which “bridewealth may be paid in the name of

a dead man, allowing one of his brothers (or sisters!) to produce

children in his name,” with the sister hiring someone to supply the

sperm. In France, “the only marriages recognized by the state are

those performed by the state,” says Frost, not religious


These are just a few scant examples among many of how “marriage”

has changed over time and is still variable worldwide today. As

sociologist and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families

Barbara Risman says in Bridges’ article: “Marriage has always been

changing… and the myth that we have a stable institution that is

somehow being destabilized is exactly that, a totally inaccurate


Meg is a graduate student at CSU. Her column appears every


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