Is Love Real, or just a social construct?
Love & Marriage. Ideal vs. Institution. Has our desire for flowery romance and the ideal of love taken the place of an age-old tradition?
Ask him or her why they married. Invariably you’ll get a response that includes the word ‘love’: ‘I love her,’ ‘I’ll love him for the rest of my life,’ ‘I thought I loved him at the time.’ But this word, ‘love,’ seems to have no exclusive preserve. No one can really define it, but many claim to know what it feels, looks, and tastes like. Hence, we keep on chasing it, generation after generation, age after age. We use it when we talk about food, clothes, money, shoes, hobbies, power, furniture, and the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with. Perhaps it’s precisely because it’s so difficult to define that we use it so loosely: knowing its intensity and always trying to capture our many glimpses of it.
But it wasn’t always this way, this preoccupation with love. There was a time when few could say what love had to do with it – this whole marriage thing! In her collection, Marriage and Love: Anarchism and Other Essays, essayist Emma Goldman asserts: “The popular notion about marriage and love is that they are synonymous, that they spring from the same motives and cover the same human needs. Like most popular notions this also rests not on actual facts, but on superstition. Marriage and love have nothing in common.” She goes on to say that marriage and love have only become intertwined because of convention, and the human inclination to do what is correct, orderly, and in accordance with public opinion.
And indeed, if we search the annals of history, we’ll find the word love is barely mentioned in relation to marriage. More, it was concerned with safeguarding property rights, bloodlines and a setting in which our species could be propagated with some sense of order.
Marriage is one of the most ancient of human institutions, and the reasoning behind unions varied just as much as the cultures that engaged in it. In protection of rights that accompanied marriage, Hebrew law prescribed that a man should marry his dead brother’s widow. In different societies, incestuous marriages took place out of respect for gods, to form alliances between tribes and clans, to create social ties, to secure social statuses, and to safeguard the fortunes of dynasties.
Child marriages, which continue to mar the institution, are ancient but are still valued today. According to United Nations sources, 52 million girls under 18 were married in 2002. In South Asia, 48% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 were married before they were 18. The same is true of 42% in Africa, and 29% in Latin America. What’s love got to do with it?
Though this phenomenon does not apply to girls exclusively, its ramifications (which include abuse and disease), mainly affect them. Girls are considered a greater financial and social burden than boys are. To educate, feed and clothe someone who will ultimately leave the family home for a new one is expensive. To obtain a dowry in exchange for her is a far more lucrative proposition. What’s love got to do with it?
In some communities, her dowry reduces in value as her age increases. Hence, the sooner she is married, the greater the chance of her being a virgin, the less likely it is that she has contracted any sexual diseases, the more money can be gained for her hand in marriage. Despite this practice being a violation of human rights, it’s real and it happens. What’s also real is the impact that it seems to have on bettering the lives of those engaged in it. What’s love got to do with it? Nothing whatsoever! These marriages are driven by poverty. Love and courtship? It is often the case that these child brides do not even meet their husbands before their wedding day.
It is said to have been the Romans who first introduced the idea of the ring: the never ending circle to signify eternity. It was even thought that a vein in the ‘wedding finger’ ran straight to the heart! In his book Ephesians, St. Paul says, “Husbands love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” Here we see a more romantic slant to the idea of marriage beginning to develop. By the 9th century, Pope Nicholas I announced that consent should be seen as an important prerequisite to marriage: a precept that has since continued to be revered in Christian doctrine. The seed was planted. But it wasn’t until the 12th century that it could be seen blossoming into an entity in its own right: by this time the troubadours had begun to express the intricacies of love affairs in the lyrics of their poems and songs in France’s royal courts of the medieval era. Love had finally begun to have something to do with it!
Like most other phenomena, the institution of marriage evolved. Over time, opportunities to partake in it have become much more available to a greater cross-section of society. It was once an honoured institution preserved for ‘social superiors.’ Now, anyone with any knowledge of ‘human nature’ will have already realized that people will always aspire to emulate their ‘betters,’ and the need to engage in this institution has proved no exception. In ages gone by, poor people did not marry; they formed less formal unions. Slaves were not allowed to marry! This reflected a time when these sectors of societies had no power to secure, or wealth or chattels to protect. Why should they need to marry? Any such assertion would have been considered rather bold and somewhat misplaced. Let’s also remember the time when different racial groups could not marry, and when class barriers also got in the way. Even now, members of the Royal Family are not permitted to marry ‘riff raff’: ‘riff raff’ meaning anyone outside of their race, class or calibre.
Something else to note is that if people are deprived of anything for long enough, they will pine for it, demand it, and fight for it until they achieve a good enough semblance of it. Hence, we now see gay couples demanding the right to marry. This right to join in the holy matrimony of civil partnerships was recently granted to gays here in Britain, and is supported by liberal minds that promote the free expression of love. That there is some connection with love may seem obvious. But how much has their struggle been more about their need for equality: the right to harbour precisely the same aspirations as their mainstream counterparts?
It has become clear that legal obligations can be undone almost as fast as they are done, so here in our modern world we seem to be outgrowing the need to engage in marriage for practical reasons, at least on the surface. Therefore there’s much talk about loooove! Trying hard to explain the reasons for marriage to her 6-year-old daughter, a friend of mine said this:
“If two people get together to bake a cake, and find they have the right ingredients in the right amounts, they can make something that tastes really good. They could decide that they just want to eat that cake themselves, slicing a piece each day, and enjoying it as they do so. Or they might decide to go that step further and ice the cake, and share it with family and friends at a celebration, a wedding. Either is fine and good. The important thing is that you get the ingredients right.” So much loooove and very sweet!
Ask around today, and the freer spirits that engage in it will tell you that marriage is still essentially a practical arrangement. It’s down to expedience, for one reason or another: to endow one or the other rights that only come with citizenship, to ensure certain tax benefits for ourselves, or to secure social norms for our children. Many use it as a test to assess what length one’s lover is prepared to go to show real commitment to their relationship. But in the deepest recesses of our minds, most of us know it carries little real security, because as one woman so succinctly put it, “The day I’m not happy, I can always leave his arse!”
Perhaps we’re being overly ambitious when we aspire to spend the rest of our lives with someone. Love is very real, but that does not mean it panders to our every whim. When things aren’t going as expected we have a tantrum and scream ‘I hate you, I don’t love you no more!’ We’re left wondering how it is that the physical and spiritual passion that once so engulfed the two of you suddenly becomes hate. Is it because you’ve changed: want something different, something new? When were you caged; did you ever agree to being chained?
Perhaps marriages would be more successful if we thought more about the cake analogy: if we stopped viewing relationships as being so permanent, whilst enjoying them for as long as they lasted, and honouring them completely whilst in them. Like anything else that’s alive, human beings evolve, as do our tastes and interests. That’s no crime. When human beings evolve to this higher level we shall enter matrimonial arrangements with more care, and probably less frequently. We’ll learn to stop, be still for a moment, and ponder on the fact that paths can diverge just as they once converged. We’ll become more fearless in our approach, aware that we own no one, and showing appreciation for the changes that are so inextricably linked to the human condition. Love’s the real deal; marriage is just a human construct, and not at all the ultimate expression of love.