A History of Love and Marriage, and How to Survive Both

(About a 28 minute read)

Love is Timeless

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

I’ll grant it’s possible I might have factually exaggerated a little when I wrote that love, “travels back before gravity was born and forward beyond the last gods”.   Yet, there is still poetic truth to that statement, for love is indeed an ancient thing.

Love easily predates civilization, which is not much more than 5,500 years old.  And it almost certainly predates our own happy species of spear-chucking super-apes, for in all likelihood, our ancestors felt love too.   Some of the most current science on the subject — the work of Helen Fisher and others — strongly suggests that love is deeply rooted in our DNA.    All three kinds of it.

You see, Fisher has found physiological evidence that we humans experience at least three distinct kinds of love.  Not just one kind, as the English language suggests, but three.

Fisher calls them, “lust”, “attraction”, and “attachment”.  And each one comes with its very own physical “core system” in the brain.  Take that, English language — you drooling moron who only has one proper word for love!

I myself believe there is evidence for more than three.  Fisher, after all, has concerned herself only with the kinds of love directly involved in mating and reproduction.  She is mute on the topic of loves beyond that relatively narrow focus.   Which is fair.  No law obliges anyone of us to look at everything.

One of the games adolescents in particular like to play with each other — when they aren’t actually “playing” with each other — is to ponder what “true love” is.  If you look closely at their ponderings, however, you will usually find that they are comparing and contrasting Fisher’s lust, attraction, and attachment, without really knowing that they are doing it.   “True love should be enduring!” Attachment.  “It should be passionate!”  Attraction.  “It should not be merely sexual!” Lust.

In fact, all three kinds of love are equally true in the sense all three are deeply rooted in our DNA, and all three kinds are ancient.

The Suppression of Romantic Love

Perhaps a bit newer than the three loves, but still very ancient by human standards, is the instinct to pair off into couples.  That instinct, which is the psychological basis for marriage in almost all of its various forms, is just as certain as the loves to be older than civilization, and it might even — like the loves — have arisen prior to our own species.

Now, I think we can confidently suppose that, prior to about 11,000 years ago, the three kinds of love and pair bonding — or marriage, if you wish — often enough went hand in hand.  Then, sometime between that date and the rise of the first civilizations, all hell broke lose.   “Hell”, in this case, being the Agricultural Revolution.

You see, the Agricultural Revolution changed us from wandering hunter/gatherers to sedentary farmers.  And that change brought about a change in marriage customs that split apart the three loves and marriage.  Or, to be quite precise, split apart at least attraction and marriage.

Fischer’s “Attraction” can be thought of as what we commonly call today, “romantic love”.  Especially the early, most intense, stages of it.  And quite unfortunately for romantic love, it was capable of interfering with the new agricultural economy.   Basically, one or the other had to go, and it was romantic love that — in a decision so typical for our noble species of nincompoops — got the boot.

The problem, according to what seems to be the consensus of scientists, was inheritance.  Hunter/gatherers don’t have a lot to pass down to their children.  After all they can’t carry a whole lot with them in their territorial wanderings.  But farmers are another matter.  They have land to pass down.  And that means marriage becomes, not mainly an issue of who loves who, but at least significantly, an issue of who gets the land.

In hunting/gathering groups, the status of women — including their rights and freedoms — is closely associated with how much they contribute (relative to men) to the group’s total food supply.  Women, as providers, mainly gather plants.  Men, as providers, mainly hunt animals.   Those hunting/gathering groups that live in regions where plants are the main source of food are generally more egalitarian than those groups that live in regions (such as the Arctic) where animals, as a source of food, far outweigh plants.

It is generally thought that women might have been the sex that first domesticated plants, but at some point, men took over the actual labor of farming and thus became the main breadwinners of the family. That fun development most likely led to a decline in the rights and freedoms of women, and the rise of patriarchies.

Add to all of that, the eternal desire of men to insure that their women folks don’t cuckold them, and you perhaps get the first stirrings of the notion that women ought to be the property of men.  For what better way to make sure your woman doesn’t cuckold you than to basically turn her into your property?  And once you do that, you must also, to be consistent, make her the property of her father and her sons, as well.

Thus marriage became nearly a master/slave relationship.  Women generally still retained a few rights — such as the right to have children by their husbands (an infertile marriage was often enough one of the very few grounds by which a woman could divorce her husband), the right to compel their husband to support their children, etc — but the man had definitely become the lord of the household, and the woman his mere helpmate.  Adios to soulmates!  Goodbye to equal partners!   So long romantic love! The door is on the right!

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply.

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

— Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Of course, everything I’ve written here has been a superficial overview, a big picture look at it all.  There are myriads of details.  I must now ask you to fast forward to around 800 A.D. and the Arab World.

The Rebound of Romantic Love

It is about then, according to Joseph Campbell, that things start to change again.  That is, that romantic love begins to make a comeback.  And the comeback starts with the poets of the Arab World, of all people!  Poets, as every sensible person knows, are a suspicious lot.  While its certainly true that many of them — perhaps even most of them — are decent people who support the status quo with their verse, there are enough scoundrels among the lot that we should always be vigilant when dealing with the species.

For example:  Roughly around 800 A.D., a few quite scandalous Arab and Persian poets decided to reform romantic love — which at the time was widely regarded as a kind of madness.

According to Campbell, those deviates got it into their heads that romantically loving a woman for her individuality, her uniqueness as a person, was far and away more important than using her as — an in some sense interchangeable — means to economic betterment, or as a mere sex object.

Only being poets, they said those things with all sorts of unnecessarily flowering words of poetry and strikingly beautiful prose.   As for myself, I never use flowery or poetic words, even in my poetry, but that’s mainly because I don’t want the CIA to mistake me for an Arab or Persian and then send a few drones my way, if you’ll pardon my realism.

Now, I am no longer certain whether Campbell says the poets advocated actually marrying for love.  It seems more that they merely advocated romantically loving a mistress (as opposed to merely loving her erotically), while keeping a wife for heirs.  But at the time, saying anything at all in favor of romantic love would have been radical.

Of course, the powers that be pushed back on the newfangled idea.  For, if you first allow that “true” love is about loving someone for themselves, then you must soon enough afterwards allow that true love has a moral right to cross social boundaries. Rich can love poor, noble can love commoner, a person of one social class can love someone of another social class; and pretty soon no one keeps to his or her proper place in society.  Even common folks would no longer be primarily their social roles, but would become persons, individuals.  Next thing you know, they’ll demand rights as individuals! rather than merely demand them as members of some group, such as peasants, masons, or carpenters.  There could be no end to the scandal!

It wasn’t long after the worst elements of the Arab and Persian societies had invented romantic love that it got packed into the songs and speeches of the troubadours, who brought it to Christian Europe beginning around 1200 A.D. And the notion soon got the European upper-classes to wondering whether their customary marriages were really all that they could and should be.  For the upper-classes were for the most part the only ones at the time who had the wealth to indulge themselves in the thought of — if not actually marrying for love — then at least keeping a mistress for love (and not merely for sex).

In twelfth-century France, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote a treatise on the principles of courtly love. The first rule was that “marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” But he meant loving someone outside the marriage. As late as the eighteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him.  — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Now please allow me to jump forward again.   The time, now, is the mid to late 1800s when the growing middle class in the Western nations is at last becoming wealthy enough that it is no longer strictly necessary to marry almost purely for economic reasons.  Hence, the flowering of the idea that one should marry for love.  And this flowering has continued with us up until the present age, known to scholars as The Age of Excruciating Blogging, when the idea has been expanding not only in depth (e.g. to justify such things as same-sex marriages), but also in reach (i.e. into the non-Western world).

The Specter of Divorce

However, the same economic conditions that make practical the notion of marrying for love also, beginning around 1970 when women start entering the labor force in large numbers, make practical the push for a greater egalitarianism between the sexes.   In a sense, society has ever since then been returning to the egalitarianism of most hunting/gathering groups — speaking strictly in terms of the sexes here (Meanwhile  wealth has increasingly become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands).  But with this return came rising rates of divorce.

If you have (1) the notion that you should marry for love, and (2) the economic means to support yourself without a partner, then you might be very disinclined to stay in a loveless marriage.  Divorce seems to have peaked in the United States in 1980, and to have slowly declined since then, but it is still a significant problem — especially, given how devastating it can be.

The wise American solution, of course, is often enough to try to make it tougher for couples to divorce so that their loveless marriages may endure.  Because we Americans all know that quantity is superior to quality, especially when it comes to marriage, right?

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the total number of bills making divorce harder to obtain have been passed into law by conservatives in recent years, but conservatives are unlikely to give up on such efforts anytime soon because, you know, conservatives.

Liberals, meanwhile, seem to vacillate far too much for an answer either because, you know, liberals.  In fact, both parties seem to be stumped for a solution to the divorce problem.  Which is not at all surprising these days because, of course, politicians.  Even though quite a few scientists from multiple branches of science have now reached a firm consensus that politicians are actually Homo sapiens, members of our own species, I myself still have legitimate doubts about that.  It’s well known there was some scandalous interbreeding with Neanderthals going on a few thousand years ago.  Just sayin’….

Now I should perhaps mention that I am not personally a great and hearty proponent of marriage.  While I think it’s a wonderful thing for some people (in much the same spirit as I think parachuting naked onto an Alaskan glacier in winter to fight grizzlies with a hand-axe is just dandy for some people), I myself find oaths of eternal monogamy stifling on several levels, and I would only be able to tolerate a marriage if it was between me and a free spirited bonobo an open one.

However, I am not yet insane enough to imagine that other people’s monogamy destroys the sanctity of my two divorces and current state of celibacy.  So I’ve tirelessly hunted down for you, dear readers, some fascinating information on how to stay happily married!  You’re welcome!

Here are the five stellar nuggets of reliable marital advice that I found after literally minutes of actual searching on your behalf on the internet!  You’re welcome again!

  • Keep the romance in your relationship alive by buying sexy lingerie.  (American Association of Lingerie Merchants)
  • Get your marriage off to the right start with a timely prenuptial agreement.  (American Paralegal Association)
  • Keep that “Special Sparkle” in your marriage by buying household cleaning products.   (Alliance of Cleaning Agent Manufacturers)
  • Be sure to visit the Friendly Mountain State of Colorado on your honeymoon and anniversaries.  (Colorado State Tourists Bureau)
  • Avoid the proven dangers of vaccinating your children by buying safe herbal remedies instead.  (Dr. Jenny Ann Smams’ Health and Happiness Herbal Web-Store)

As you can see, it’s a simple scientific fact that all it really takes to enjoy a long, happy marriage is a valid credit card!  And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you?

Seven Snippets of Science-based Advice

To recap: The Agricultural Revolution, along with other factors, changed marriage from a more or less egalitarian love match into an often loveless patriarchal arrangement.  Then, beginning around 800 AD, some low sorts in the Middle East started pushing back.  Eventually, that led to a rebirth of the notion one should marry for love.  But that raises a question: If love, in one form or another,  is now the basis of marriage,  then how does one nurture and maintain it in order to avoid unhappy, loveless marriages or divorce?

To be clear, I am in no way advocating that people stay in unhappy marriages.  In fact, I think such marriages are better off dissolved.  But “better off” is a relative term here.  In my experience, divorce is devastating, and the only thing worse than it is an unhappy marriage (Whether or not to divorce, however, is a decision best left up to the spouses themselves).  My aim here is not to promote staying in unhappy marriages, but to pass along some sound information about how to head off an unhappy marriage in the first place.

That information does not come from me, however — nor even from the ever trenchant and insightful people at the Colorado State Tourism Bureau — but from a group of scientists largely working at the University of Washington.  The leader of those scientists is John Gottman.   Gottman was one of the founders of the University’s so-called, “Love Lab”, and he and his colleagues’ findings might possibly provide some insights into how couples can build and maintain high-quality, loving relationships.

What I intend to do here is to simply lay out some of Gottman’s research-based insights (with a bit of commentary for clarification provided by me).  He, of course, believes they are quite effective.  I believe they are most likely effective.  But the real judge must be you and your own experience when attempting to apply them.  This is, after all, science, not dogma.  With that said, let’s to the chase!

 • First, if you aren’t doing it already, keep up to date on your partner’s world.  A lot of us don’t seem to do this.  Early on in a relationship, we freely ask a lot of questions.  But so often we fail to actively check later on in the relationship whether anything has changed.  Knowing your partner is essential, according to Gottman, and keeping up with them is a vital part of that.  So, know his or her goals, worries, and hopes; their images of themselves; their relationships to the key people in their lives; and the major events in their history, among many other things.

 • Second,  nurture fondness and admiration.  In various studies, Gottman claims to have been able to predict with an accuracy of between 80% and 94% whether a couple will soon divorce.  Although his rates of prediction are still controversial, it seems that his insight into what factors to look for as dangerous warning sights a couple is on the verge of divorce are somewhat less controversial.  The key factors are: (1) criticism of partners’ personality, (2) contempt (from a position of superiority), (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction.  Of the four, Gottman believes contempt is the most important.

To counteract at least some of the four factors, make it a habit to remind yourself of your spouse’s genuine virtues — even in the midst of a conflict.

• Next, turn towards each other.  Gottman believes that in marriages, people periodically make “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. For instance, your partner might say to you, “Come take a look at my newest stick figure drawing of you, dear!  I think it might be my best work to date.  Do you think we can have it framed to hang above the fireplace?”  If you somehow positively acknowledge your quite possibly deranged partner’s bid in circumstances like this, then — according to Gottman — you are laying a foundation for emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

On the other hand, if you routinely “turn away” from these bids,  then you are doing the opposite.  That is, you are undermining the foundation for emotional connection, etc.

• Let your partner influence you!  As Gottman puts it:

The happiest, most stable marriages are those in which the husband treats his wife with respect and does not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagrees, these husbands actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way. It’s just as important for wives to treat their husbands with honor and respect. But our data indicate that the vast majority of wives—even in unstable marriages—already do that. Too often men do not return the favor.

 

• Solve your solvable problems.  Not all problems are solvable, but you should certainly solve those that can be solved.  Gottman proposes how to go about it, too.  To quote:

  • Step 1. Use a softened startup: Complain but don’t criticize or attack your spouse. State your feelings without blame, and express a positive need (what you want, not what you don’t want). Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you.” Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up.
  • Step 2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts: De-escalate the tension and pull out of a downward cycle of negativity by asking for a break, sharing what you are feeling, apologizing, or expressing appreciation.
  • Step 3. Soothe yourself and each other: Conflict discussions can lead to “flooding.” When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, and you are too agitated to really hear what your spouse is saying. Take a break to soothe and distract yourself, and learn techniques to soothe your spouse.
  • Step 4. Compromise: Here’s an exercise to try. Decide together on a solvable problem to tackle. Then separately draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle list aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle, list the aspects you can compromise about. Try to make the outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Then come back and look for common bases for agreement.

Apparently, those steps were not invented by Gottman, although they are recommended by him.  I myself, however, used to use a version of them back in the day to great effect.  The challenge is to turn them into habit so that you stick with them even in the heat of a conflict.

• Overcome gridlock by honoring your partner’s dreams.  Gottman believes that many “perpetual conflicts” have at their root possibly unexpressed dreams, goals, or visions.  These can be simple things, such as what neighborhood to live in, or they can be as huge as what one partner believes is the meaning of life.  In dealing with gridlock then, you should try the tactic of discovering your partner’s dreams for themselves and your marriage, and then honoring them.  You don’t need to make them your own, but you do need to honor them.

• Last, create shared meaning.  Once again, as Gottman puts it:

 Marriage can have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, family values, and cultural legacy that forms a shared inner life. Each couple and each family creates its own microculture with customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of a baby), and myths—the stories the couple tells themselves that explain their marriage. This culture incorporates both of their dreams, and it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

It strikes me that, to the extent they are effective, Gottman’s insights can be applied far beyond marriage.  They can, for instance, be applied to any partnership inside or outside of marriage.  And they can even be applied to “mere” friendships.

In my opinion, his insights look to be of some use, but of course, as I said earlier, the final authority on that is you and your own experiences trying to apply them.

Impressively Profound Summary

For various reasons,  old, patriarchal marriages seem to be on their way out the door not just in the Western world, but increasingly elsewhere, too.  It may yet take another hundred or two hundred years, however, before they are almost entirely a thing of the past.   The success or failure of those marriages was largely measured in terms of such things as the number of children born to them, whether they resulted in anyone’s economic betterment, and, of course, their duration.  Considerations such as whether they were loving marriages didn’t arise until nearly modern times.  But today that consideration has so much come to the forefront that even most proponents of traditional marriages now like to say love is key to a good marriage.

The old patriarchal marriages are being replaced by new, more egalitarian marriages based primarily on love.  Ironically, these allegedly “new” marriages are very likely to have more ancient roots than the allegedly “old” marriages, for they seem to date back to our hunting/gathering past, when societies in general, and not just marriages, were more egalitarian.

The new marriages, however, do raise some problems, for they usually are not shored up by oppressive or coercive societal pressures or laws.  Because they are based on love, they are freely entered into, and perhaps almost as freely exited.  Thus, to keep them together puts a premium value on nurturing and maintaining love in the relationship.  And that, of course, is great news for therapists and marriage counselors!

But where do you think marriage is headed?  Is it true that egalitarian marriages are increasingly shoving aside patriarchal marriages — perhaps even worldwide?  How key is love, really, to a happy marriage?  Are there any remaining reasons or justifications for unhappy couples to stay together these days?  And will civilization survive the Age of Excruciating Blogging?  Please weigh in with your thoughts, feelings, comments, and drunken offers of marriage!


A closely related post:  Women’s Sexuality: “Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous”

10 thoughts on “A History of Love and Marriage, and How to Survive Both

  1. Great post Paul! i am not married, but i can make use of it as well! All relationships can benefit from your post, romantic and platonic! And thank you for the history lesson! I did not know the Arab world made room for romantic thought into marriages! Though not surprised, The Middle East was worlds ahead of Europe then 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the warm encouragement, Teresums! I should specify that what I said about the Arab and Persian world comes from Joseph Campbell. He was brilliant at interpreting art, but not always the most rigorous of scholars. So please take what he said about it with a smidgen of caution. He probably wasn’t entirely wrong, but he might not have been entirely right, either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As an idealistic panentheist I see love as what “travels back before gravity was born” as more than poetically true. I haven’t read Fisher, but I think looking at DNA and brain research especially after the invention of brain scanning technology is more useful than looking at cultural changes for why we behave the way we do. One survey book I would recommend is Larry Young and Brian Alexander’s “The Chemistry Between Us”. This does not mean we are determined by the biological structure they model but it does tie us more closely to other pair bonding species such as prairie voles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Would you say, “God is love”, then?

      I so agree with you about the physiological basis of behavior, Frank! I have been more than fascinated by the chemistry of emotions ever since I stumbled across Theresa Crenshaw’s, The Alchemy of Love and Lust almost twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to keep up with the subject, which is rapidly changing. The Chemistry Between Us is new to me. Thank you so much for the referral!

      Like you, I’ve come to think of fundamental human nature (genetically based behaviors) as in some sense more influential than culturally learned behaviors — and also individually learned behaviors. I do think, however, that the ideas we learn often enough act like maps to guide our behaviors. They usually modify — and a bit more rarely — over-ride our genetic influences. Which leaves the issue of free will where? Primarily in certain specific functions of consciousness, I think.

      Does any of that make sense?

      Liked by 1 person

      • “God is Love” is one way to express it.

        We have our free will and so our culture can’t be completely reduced to our biology. Pair bonding chemistry seems to me more like a tease rather than a mechanistic constraint. Sex is pleasurable so we tend to enjoy it. Separation is painful so we tend to keep the bonds intact. The winners are our children and we learn more deeply about love.

        It makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. So many studies about Love. All well and good, I suppose. Personally, I prefer 1) to know Love by being in it 2) to write poems about it. See Garnet’s Virtual Salon for Garnet’s “Tips to a Happy Marriage.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Garnet, poems are not merely optional, but all but necessary, if one is to understand the qualia of love. The sciences seem unable to get at that. The quaiia of love must be approached in other than scientific ways, and they are in many ways, the most important part of life.

      I’m looking forward to dropping by for “Tips” as soon as I can. I’ve been sadly backlogged for a few days.

      Like

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