Recently I watched RTE’s (the Irish national broadcaster) charming documentary Older than Ireland. The film-maker Alex Fegan was exceptionally sensitive in his portrayal of those who are 100 years or older and the outstanding minimalism of the work meant that the ‘auld wans were allowed to speak and express themselves. All of the great topics were covered; war, religion, life, national identity, and yes, love and marriage.
Many of the participants who discussed marriage emphasized its positive aspects. The women had especially fond memories of ‘being asked’ and of their weddings. Oftentimes both male and female interviewees recounted their love for their other half who, in all the cases, had passed away. There were some more mixed views of marriage; one woman expressed pity for her husband’s ‘demons’ and articulated a sense of relief that death had relieved him of his burdens. Some had re-married, one man said that the death of his wife had meant the death of his own life.
Whatever the views aired, there was a clear sense that marriage was a special bond, one that was either fulfilling or, at the very least, one deserving of a commitment, and a serious investment of time, energy and trust. And, unless one were a priest or nun or monk, in the Ireland of the 1930s or 1940s (when most would have came of age for marriage) it was simply what one did.
In today’s world marriage is an accessory or appendage to one’s life and oftentimes not a very attractive one. That’s before we even get into the sheer variety of relationships that are now socially acceptable.
If we were to pinpoint a critical difference, what distinguishes today’s intimate relationships from yesteryear’s is that today’s individual exists in a free market. They are not bound by commitments, the approval of society doesn’t really register. Men and women sell themselves, if they don’t find what ‘satisfies their demands,’ then they trade in for a new model. This can have a devastating effect on the other party but hey, that’s life (it’s to be acknowledged too that some relationships really can’t work, but the idea of exhausting all possibilities before ending a tie is a sentiment on the wane).
‘Consenting adults’ is a term bandied about a lot. The old idea that intimacy is actually a legal state isn’t even countenanced. Divorces and separations are common, marriages less so, and undoubtedly people enjoy a greater variety of intimate relationships than before.
The famous Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson termed the modern self-centred ethos as being one of ‘possessive individualism.’ The individual possesses themselves, can dispose of themselves freely, with little or no thought for social ties. This possessive individualism comes to the fore most in intimate relationships.
Market-dominated views of love (some would say lust) have developed in parallel with women’s rights. Indeed, what is critical for open relationships and free love is the idea that both women and men are equal consumers and sellers in the game. On the other hand, marriage is not only seen as archaic. It is regularly condemned by feminists (who don’t speak for all women of course) as a patriarchal institution designed to keep women in chains, propagating male domination and robbing women of their personality. Hearing things like ‘marriage is glorified prostitution’ is not uncommon.
However, when we look at the new market-dominated rules of love, we see that they work in favour of men. Short, unstable, and fleeting relationships are definitely going to rely heavily on physical attraction, as opposed to mutual spiritual development. Are one of the genders inclined more to the physical aspects of relationships? Males are more inclined and in fact physical considerations are central to male participation in relationships, but only peripheral for female participation.
You see, women don’t have a sex drive like men. Men can hop from one sexual partner to the next. Of course, women can too, but don’t confuse female promiscuity for a sex drive. By a sex drive, we are referring to an exclusively male phenomenon. Men want sex. It’s a natural part of their constitution. On the other hand, women desire attention, most of all. Their urge for sex is not one that is overpowering and overwhelming. Possibly, it’s incorrect to even use the word ‘urge’ (as in an ‘urgent’ need). Rather, they seek narratives that will interest them and like to be admired. They like to be charmed and made comfortable. In general, they are more monogamous. If this is not so, then it’s more than likely the case that they are playing the game and searching for ‘the one.’ Children are also a major factor for women, whereas for men they are an inconvenience.
I suspect women don’t appreciate the degree to which the sexual act dominates men’s mentality but one can see such biological differences at play in virtually all mammals and humans are hot-blooded mammals.
Whether marriage was the nefarious plan of all men since the beginning of time, as feminists allege – well, it sounds like a conspiracy theory to me. Let’s play it safer and ask: what did marriage actually achieve?
What it really did was control the male appetite which is inherently promiscuous and bound men into a legal tie. This is exactly what men do not want, naturally. Entering into a commitment is far more attractive to the fairer sex. Notice how marriages are almost invariably a big day for men, but approach something like a heaven on earth for women. Also, men are legally bound to mind any children arising from marriage. This is also a protection for women. If men and women are in open relationships, then pregnancy hinders a woman’s ‘marketability’ (if we wish to be crude). While women may be attractive to men without being pregnant or without children, this is not so if they are pregnant or have kids or even undergo bodily changes following pregnancy. It’s notoriously hard for divorced or widowed women with children to find new partners. In general, the idea of living together for life is something that is second nature for women; for men it is a matter of training.
Like I said, I don’t know what the origins of marriage were. What is easier to adumbrate is the function of marriage. This function works almost exclusively in favour of women. It provides them with a relationship that is stable, allows them to develop spiritually, tames the torrent of men’s desires, and gives women security at their most vulnerable moments. It does what the permissive society tried and failed to do; traditional marriage tips the scales into the woman’s direction.
Yes, we will hear horror stories of women beaten by their spouses (everyone knows of these first-hand) and even of women killed. But, just because violence occurs within a marriage, that does not follow that the marriage is to blame. If football comes with match-fixing, crowd violence, and financial scandals, it doesn’t follow that team sports are something evil. Marriage still represents a general attempt to control men’s appetites and aggressiveness, and even helps to curb male effeminacy which occurs to some men who don’t have proper relations with women. Marriage mightn’t always achieve its purpose of directing men in a useful manner, anymore more that the existence of laws will wipe out crime. But there simply is no other game in town.
Thus, marriage is a sexist contract, but is a sexism which favours women. For women to be on equal terms with men in the market-oriented possessive individualism; this is a forfeiting of the commanding position that marriage gives women. Instead of faithfulness and legal obligations, men get short-term and non-committal relationships they want in the permissive society, women have to downgrade their expectations. Personally, I believe that more women are reluctantly coming around to the idea that the world the participants of Older Than Ireland were born into, was more just. The old-fashioned ways were female-friendly.