When I was in my 20s, I pitied the girls who galloped to the altar. I thought they were throwing away their lives. Marriage was a bourgeois, patriarchal institution that stifled women’s freedom, and I wanted no part of it. I believed, like Gloria Steinem, that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. If I ever did get married, only Mr. Perfect would be good enough for me.
When I was in my 30s, I began to change my mind. Marriage started to look good. Unfortunately, the pool of Mr. Perfects had pretty well dried up. So I made a desperate plan: I decided to stop being so picky. Soon enough I met a man whose subtle virtues gradually revealed themselves, and not long after that – only 11 years, in fact – we got married and lived happily ever after. The other day was our 21st anniversary.
Our wedding was pleasantly low-key, because we paid for it ourselves, and we are cheap. That is not the fashion these days, but it never occurred to us to drag our guests off to some beach in Mexico or hold them to ransom for fancy wedding gifts we didn’t really need. We got married in our backyard – and had the reception there, too. It was all over in three hours. We didn’t want to tie up people’s day. That was just as well, because I was shaking so badly I could barely stand up.
I will tell you why. Nothing can equal the gravity of getting up in front of all the people you love most and declaring that something in the world – this marriage – is even more important than you are, and that you are willing to give up something for it.
Marriage changes everything.
In fact marriage – monogamous marriage – did change everything. Far from being an instrument of oppression, the development of monogamy was one of the great civilizing influences of Western history. The spread of monogamous marriage reduced the male-male competition over women by ensuring that (in theory, at least) there’s a woman for every man. This shrinks the pool of low-status, risk-oriented, desperate, unmarried men – the ones who are responsible for nearly all the crimes. Fewer unmarried men means a sharp decline in rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and other social disorders. Monogamous marriage makes the world more civilized. This is what Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology who’s now at Harvard, argues.
Monogamy spread because it was a competitive advantage for the societies that adopted it. Prof. Henrich did his research while he was at the University of British Columbia, and his paper, The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage, is a robust anthropological defence of the institution. He points out that monogamy is far from “natural.” The default mode for 85 per cent of societies in human history has been polygamy – multiple wife-taking. The trouble was that polygamy created too much trouble, because a few high-status men got most of the women and the low-status men were reduced to vicious fighting over the rest.
The main advantage of monogamy, says Prof. Henrich, is a more egalitarian distribution of women – an arrangement that also works better for women and much better for children. Instead of expanding their harems, high-status men will focus more on paternal investment. Family bonds will strengthen, and gender inequality will decrease. Men who know they can probably find a mate will become more risk averse and more patient – better citizens and better family men.
All of this simply proves what I’ve maintained for years (to the annoyance of my bachelor friends). Unattached men can’t possibly be happy. They are irregulars. They should find someone nice and settle down. My husband laughs at me for saying this, but I am simply being scientifically correct. Single men are a menace to society.
So as you see, the answer to “What is marriage good for?” is quite complex. All the qualities that flow from the invention of marriage as we know it – long-term planning, devotion to your children, and the cultivation of the family as the source of values and correct conduct – are the foundations of liberal society itself. They are essential to democracy. Marriage, far from being an oppressive institution, is a liberation from a Hobbesian world of social violence, and a force for gender equality.
So listen to your mother. She’s right. Not only are you making her happy. You are saving civilization as we know it.