The Ex-Files, Part III

          The history of marriage as an institution is larger than any of our personal histories. And we carry its collective history as deeply as we carry our own experience, whether we know it or not.

          For tens of thousands of years most people lived in tribes, in villages, and on farms, and marriage was essential to survival. It depended so little on romance that most marriages were arranged. The arrangers didn't care who was in love with whom, they cared about what match was best for the survival of the clan. Married people (and all their children) needed to work together and work hard, no matter what they felt about each other. Food and shelter were impossible otherwise. This was especially true in the colder climates that birthed Euro-American culture. Married people also needed to work with everyone in the larger community. They not only worked with them, they saw everybody they knew and worked with every day of their lives. Such communities needed strict rules of behavior to contain any impulses that threatened cooperation. Necessity determined relationships. It may not have been fun, or fair, or satisfying (I wasn't there, I don't know, and I'm suspicious of people who say they do); but it worked, on its own terms if not on ours, or we wouldn't be here.

          Another factor, all too easily forgotten, is that until recently, people didn't expect as much as we do. With few exceptions, most of our ancestors were peasants. Peasants born a hundred or a thousand years ago knew they would be peasants all their lives--and that their children would be peasants, and their children's children. They would never own much more than they were born with. They would never travel (the overwhelming majority of people never went more than a day's walk from home except to go to war). In their world view, they didn't work to "build a future;" they expected the future to be more or less like the present. To us, that seems like a suffocating, claustrophobic way to live. But for most of human history, no other choices were presented.

          There was also the matter of life expectancy. According to present scholarship, the average life span of a Middle Eastern peasant in the time of Jesus was 29. The average life span of an American in 1900 was 44. With such short life spans, the imperative to reproduce and raise one's children was felt more strongly than we are probably capable of imagining. Most people married and began having children as soon as they were biologically able--in their early teens. They had already been working beside their parents for several years, so, in that technologically simple world, by the age of 14, they had the basic skills to make their way. In addition, our forebears were not goaded on all sides by seductive images of sexual adventure and affluence. So the overwhelming majority of human beings simply could not imagine another way of life.

          These are the conditions in which the institution of marriage was created and thrived.

          Even 60 years ago in America, many old ways still held. (Whether or not they were good ways is another issue.) Most folks lived in small towns and on farms, and the people you were born among were people you would stay among, for the rest of your life. Relationships were fairly stable not only because the price of instability was too high, but also because opportunities for instability weren't plentiful.

          But advances in technology, during and after World War II, enabled individuals to survive on their own--and the media surrounded us with improbable fantasies of how glorious life might be if we were only tough, and pretty, and rich enough. Marriage was no longer a matter of necessity, and it no longer welded one to a community, so the morality supporting marriage broke down. (Can we call it "morality," then, if it was really an adaptation to the demands of survival? I can't.) Since roughly 1945, marriage has depended almost solely on a man and a woman's feelings for one another. Feelings being volatile, marriage becomes volatile. Now that economics have changed again, and two people must work to earn what one earned in my youth, the divorce rate has stabilized. Necessity, again. But for the more or less affluent, nothing has changed. Marriage is still a choice, not a necessity--still depends on feelings, not survival. "Getting in touch with your feelings," as our modern phrase goes, may be important, but feelings are clearly not enough to hold half our marriages together. (The divorce rate peaked at about 50 percent.)

          What we're left with is the need to have children without any dependable vessel to have them in, and the need for companionship and community in a technological environment that creates more and more fragmentation. What are we supposed to do with that? Nobody knows. Every day is an experiment now. Welcome to the laboratory of the 21st century. We still get married, bless our hearts, and with the best intentions. But it's a form created for a world that's gone, and nothing can change that. Our floundering, our bafflement, and our failure, should come as no surprise.

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