The institution of marriage is nothing new. Stretching back thousands of years, couples have been promising themselves to one another in various ceremonies, under various rules and expectations, for centuries upon centuries. The specifics, of course, have changed over time and across different cultures, yet the basic idea remains the same – a couple commits to one another for mutual benefit…
But here’s the thing: marriage for love and romance is a relatively recent addition to the whole arrangement – something that rose out of the romantic era only about 150 years ago. See, before the rise of romanticism, most people didn’t get married for love at all. Tying the knot happened for many other reasons – arranged marriages between prominent families, economic stability, a “good match” determined by others, a “command” from a parent… All kinds of ways that seem pretty distasteful to us nowadays.
But let’s take a step back for a moment, and think about how those types of “historical” marriages had to function…
It wasn’t about passion, it was about stability. That means that people mostly married for protection from violence, consistent food and shelter, and well, because of a sense of duty. This “duty” carried over into the sexual parts of marriage too – it wasn’t necessarily about attraction or passion, it was about doing your duty and raising a family.
Now, somewhere in the mid-19th century, this idea started to change, and people started marrying for love and companionship in addition to the reasons mentioned above. By the 1960s, people began to see marriage as entirely optional – not just something your family (and the rest of society) required of you.
This adds a whole “new” dynamic to marriages – one that also comes with a good deal of trouble. Overall, it’s a good thing that we’re not forced into arranged marriages, that we can choose the people we fall in love with, that marriage allows two people to grow together as companions and lovers because they want to, not because they’re expected to…
But it also means that much of that “duty” can fall by the wayside, simply because we’re thinking of marriage much more personally in these modern times. We put all of the focus on love, companionship, and personal fulfillment, and perhaps forget the work it takes to build a stable life with another person.
This is NOT to suggest that we go back to the “old way” – just that, to make relationships as strong as they can be, we could all stand to think of the important pieces beyond love and passion.
Think about a marriage like a human body… Love is the heart. It is essential for survival, and the central piece of the whole system – it’s what keeps the whole thing supplied with “oxygen.” As we well know, however, a heart alone is not enough to keep a body running. We need less glamorous organs like kidneys and stomachs to do their jobs too. In a marriage, you can think of those other organs as some of those “duties” we mentioned – being patient, financial stability, a sense of commitment to one another regardless of current feelings of passion, joint responsibility for a household, and so on…
When we only focus on love and passion, some of the other, more “practical” parts of marriage can be overlooked. A marriage based only on these practical things (like they were in centuries past) isn’t ideal by any means, but it can likely offer some insight on why we see so many relationship problems here in the modern era.
We don’t just expect our spouses to be providers and partners – we also expect them to be lovers, confidants, friends, and lifelong companions. We also live longer, face more complex social and financial pressures, and have more temptations than ever before.
The point is that a marriage can’t be all things to all people – that there are many components, and having appropriate expectations will save you a lot of heartache in the long run. As a society, we’ve built up marriage into this mythical thing that combines the stability of “old” marriage with the passion and fulfillment of “new” marriage – yet many people don’t acknowledge the work (and really, lack of passion) that the “old” model entails.
There is a middle ground here, where you can have a loving, romantic relationship that also brings financial stability, shelter, provides for family, etc. – you just have to know what you’re after, and put in the effort accordingly.
If your marriage is full of passion, but lacking in stability – you know where to focus. Both of you can recognize the “duty” you have to each other and the life you’re sharing, and that means doing your part to raise kids, keep a budget, clean the house, and so on.
Similarly, if you have a marriage of responsibility and stability, but lacking romance and passion – you can put your focus there as well by going on dates, experimenting in the bedroom, and making a point to put love at the front and center of the marriage.
Both the “new” and “old” ways of viewing marriage have their problems, but by understanding the benefits of each and striving for a middle ground, you can keep your passion and build stability – and vice versa. Both are integral to the marriage, so find what needs improving, and get to work!