Has the definition of marriage changed over the years?

Raksha Bharadia

The ideal of love as a primary reason for marriage began to spread in the late 18th century and early 19th century, partly due to the French and American revolutions. Two factors changed marriage structure: wage labour, which allowed young people to be independent and establish their households sooner, and new ideas of equality and justice.

The shift also became clear during the Romantic Movement and the Victorian era with its expectation of romance as the dominant way of conceiving love and marriage. As Enlightenment thinkers pioneered the idea that life was about the pursuit of happiness and people took more control of their love lives, they began to demand the right to end unhappy unions. As Stone puts it, “It was not… until the romantic movement and the rise of the novel, especially the pulp novel, in the nineteenth century, that society at large accepted a new idea—that it was normal and indeed praiseworthy for young men and women to fall passionately in love, and that there must be something wrong with those who have failed to have such an over-whelming experience some timein late adolescence or early manhood [sic]. Stone, “Passionate Attachments,” 18–19. Suddenly, couples were supposed to invest more of their emotional energy in each other and their children than in their natal families, their kin, their friends, and their patrons. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness.

married life

Related reading: How couple-dynamics have changed across generations, for the better

The ideals of marriage shifted from a tool for survival and protect property and land to one that had personal fulfillment and happiness as its central goals. Where in the past, marriage was sacred, and love, if it existed at all, was a consequence of marriage; now, love was sacred and marriage, secondary.

While the medieval and early modern models assumed a fundamental incompatibility between romance and marriage, we now assume their inseparability. Marriage is still popular and predominant as the primary way of arranging families, but its meaning has shifted; once a binding contract which fixed one’s position within the social structure, it has become an optional and soluble sign of commitment to someone with whom one has fallen in love.

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