Frequently, I hear it declared that adults should live a certain way that I cannot even define. Many times those making the declaration think they can define it, but then when asked to do so, they hem and haw, fumble for words, or repeat meaningless clichés. A few state what they assume to be facts which they have gleaned from oft-repeated proclamations by others.
What those making the declaration are espousing while being unable to define it is “traditional marriage.” Their call is for rational, delineated boundaries for the most emotional, complex, multifarious, kaleidoscopically varied relationship humans enter. True, they think they can define it, and when pressed for a definition, they usually finally go with “a union between one man and one woman that lasts faithfully for a lifetime.” I suspect that what they are championing, defining, and prescribing for everyone is an ideal marriage or, more accurately, an ideal world—perhaps God’s perfect kingdom. They might as well espouse the necessity of everyone’s running a four-minute mile as we are as likely to accomplish one as the other.
Even in the face of much evidence that that perfect kingdom does not exist on earth, some continue to assert that everyone’s experiencing a single, faithful marriage lasting a lifetime here is possible. During one recent casual conversation, a friend supported that assertion by stating that people thirty and more years ago did not divorce; they stayed married for life. In another more formal discussion with a group of women and men a few days later, several members asserted as evidence of our separation from God and biblical teachings that our society today is broken and lost, citing current-day divorce statistics and a breakdown in “traditional marriage” as opposed to what they were sure would be statistics proving that marriages were solid, faithful, and lasting “back in olden times.”
While mulling those statements and the many calls for “traditional marriage” heard in all media in the last few years, I thought as I always do about my own experiences and also what I have learned in the past from my research and study of history. That sent me to more research to check out my thinking. As I suspected, what most of us suppose when we hear the word “marriage” is not what marriage has always been or even is today in many other cultures. And furthermore, what most of us suppose when we hear the word “divorce” does not include all its possible manifestations as it once was or is now.
It is true that a higher percentage of married couples file for divorce officially now than did a century ago. Little else that is declared regarding marriage and divorce is true. I went looking for more of what is true of “traditional marriages.”
In late 1904, my great-grandfather deserted his wife and nine children. By most accounts, he was a drummer—not the kind that keeps the rhythm steady in a band, but the kind that goes on the road to sell. No one seems to know with certainty exactly what he sold, though some believe he sold Bibles or other religious materials, or religion itself, or even household products. Whatever he sold, he seems to have been a drummer who stepped to the music which he heard from far away, to borrow from H. D. Thoreau. One day, he left his home in Alabama as usual to travel and sell, but he did not return.
His wife (soon to be considered his widow) and nine children, aged 17, 16, 14, 13, 11, 6, 4, 1, and not-yet-born, thought he had died or been killed somewhere. Left completely destitute, they did not mourn him; they simply began trying to support themselves. My great-grandmother had very little education and no skills other than bearing children and being a wife and mother. She planted a garden and sent her sons off to work at menial jobs. Eventually, the children went into different professions. Some became ministers, some small-business owners, but all became husbands or wives, parents, and upstanding citizens—no thanks to their father.
In the meantime, their 34-year-old-supposedly-dead father had changed his name, married a 14-year-old girl in South Carolina, and, in time, fathered six more children. He apparently continued his drumming until his death in 1930 by heart attack, reportedly exacerbated by alcoholism, while walking along a road near his home. He was 63. The five children (one of the six died in infancy) whom he had reared in South Carolina also grew into upstanding citizens who loved him far more than did his Alabama children.
His story, or rather not knowing all his story, is what triggered my interest in genealogical research. I had heard the rumors surrounding his disappearance, including that his mother had always known where he was, that he had returned briefly in about 1927 and met with a few of his Alabama children, and that a couple sons and one grandson had attended his funeral because they wanted to see for themselves that “he was dead for certain that time.” But critical facts of his life remained unknown to his Alabama descendants.
A history minor as an undergraduate and always interested in history as it reveals common people rather than in its usual focus on the powerful and celebrated, I found genealogical research fascinating. I eventually branched out from my study of that one great-grandfather to search for all I could find regarding all my family. More than thirty years later, I have over 9,000 people listed in my genealogy program, Family Tree Maker.
While researching, I have learned much about history and people, especially those who have lived in the southeastern quarter of the United States. Oftentimes, what I have learned comes up in conversations such as those already cited because many of us have interests in and misconceptions about what and who came before us. My research reveals the following.
Early in the history of marriage, in biblical times as well as before and after, marriages were arranged to achieve goals usually having to do with acquiring or preserving family (or clan) property or strengthening family ties to property or power. (Marriage usually was a financial contract. Love had nothing to do with it. There were no vows binding a man and a woman to “love, honor, cherish, or obey.”) If those financial/property/power goals changed or were not met, the marriage was over. To better achieve the goals, the majority of marriages were between first and second cousins and, rarely, brothers and sisters.
Polygamy, not monogamy, was the norm until at least the sixth century AD. As is still true in some cultures, adultery by males was accepted from the beginning, although adultery by females was often punished severely, even by death. Neither marriage nor divorce was recorded anywhere—not in religious records, not in government records, and not in secular records, but both marriage and divorce existed, albeit in forms we would hardly recognize today. Without records, how can anyone state that there is a higher percentage of marriages ended before death today than then? Or if so, how great the difference is?
In our own Western culture, from biblical times until the thirteenth century AD, marriages were contracted between families without the state’s or religion’s or Catholic Church’s involvement. If the family said a marriage had taken place, then it was accepted that a marriage had taken place, and what that meant was that sexual relations had taken place and been recognized as representing the formation of a union that resulted in a contractual relationship intended to last for the rest of the couple’s lives. And those contracts could involve several different husband/wives or wife/husbands combinations. Again, no official records of marriages were kept anywhere before 1200 AD.
Then, from the 1200s to the 1800s AD, marriages were arranged by families and, sometimes, recorded in Catholic Church records. The Catholic Church did not actually perform marriage ceremonies in cathedrals until 1563 following the Council of Trent (1545-1563) at which it was agreed that a priest had to be present at the ceremony for the marriage to be made part of the official church record. It wasn’t until 250 years later in the 1800s that laws requiring state-issued marriage licenses became common in the United States.
Almost as soon as marriages were possible in the Catholic Church, annulments were, too. But even today, the Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorces in light of the belief that the state cannot dissolve that which is indissoluble.
In other words, “traditional marriage” was nothing like what people espousing it today seem to think it was. It was most often a formalization of a sexual relationship that had existed for some time before the wedding celebration (probably not a formal ceremony) for the purpose of legitimizing a financial, real estate, or business transaction or that benefited a family or group. Likewise, the dissolution of those “traditional marriages” could be accomplished by simply dissolving the contract.
Therefore, marriage and divorce were conceived at almost the same time.
Official divorce has a long history. The first official divorce recorded in England was granted by an Act of Parliament in 1670. The first divorce granted to a woman was to Jane Addison, also by an Act of Parliament, in 1801. The only ground for divorce was adultery. In a case of adultery claimed by the husband, he needed only to state that adultery had occurred. In a case of adultery claimed by the wife, adultery had to be proven to be “aggravated adultery” or adultery including bigamy, incest, sodomy, desertion, or rape. That was true until the twentieth century.
The Divorce Act of 1857 in England had most of the same elements of earlier divorce law except that an Act of Parliament was no longer required, making divorce less expensive and more available to the masses. The divorcing husband was required to swear he would never remarry, and he was able to bring charges against the man with whom his wife had committed adultery. He still had to prove his wife had committed adultery, and a woman still had to prove her husband had committed aggravated adultery. Through the succeeding centuries, divorce law has become generally more lenient, resulting in greater accessibility for couples today; however, it is still more difficult and more expensive to divorce than it is to marry in most regions.
Even though comparing divorce rates from year to year is very complicated because statistics are kept in different categories, it appears that the years that saw the highest rates of divorce in the United States were 1947 following the return of the WWII soldiers and 1980 after divorce had been made easier during the 1970s in many states. The divorce rate increased by 150% between 1869 and 1889 and then by 250% between 1960 and 1980 (most of it between 1970 and 1980), periods of highest divorce-rate growth in the last two centuries. Surprising to many, 1960, following the boom years of the 1950s, was the year with the lowest divorce rate. Since 1980, the divorce rate has declined, not increased as is generally assumed.
A study of the divorce rate since it was about 3% in the late 1800s reveals a direct correlation between the increasing divorce rate and the increasing economic freedom women have gained by working outside their homes and between the increasing divorce rate and improving economic conditions globally. In the late 1800s, women rarely had money of their own and even more rarely had jobs. They had no resources if they left marriages; today they do.
From 1900-1930, the divorce rate increased from 8% to 16% because the laws had been relaxed enough to allow less-wealthy people who had been living in marriages characterized by abuse, adultery, and abandonment to divorce officially.
Through the 1930s, because of the Great Depression, the divorce rate grew only a little from 16% to 19%. Again, few could afford to divorce.
But in the 1940s, with the country engaged in the Second World War and immediately following the war, the divorce rate spiked significantly from 20% in 1940 to 43% in 1946. Clearly, war is not conducive to happy marriages. (Note also the 150% increase in divorce during the two decades following the American Civil War.) Women of the 1940s had found new security within themselves and in the worlds of business, military, and manufacturing while their husbands were absent.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the divorce rate dropped again to 21% and 26% respectively as the United States enjoyed post-war growth and prosperity. Another increase followed in the 1970s as no-fault divorce laws were passed and women increased their participation in the work force. In the 1980s, the divorce rate for women of first marriages grew to 42% because of easing of divorce laws, increased value given to independence, declining stigma of divorce, and increased educational and vocational opportunities for women. The fact is that people nowadays can afford the cost of divorce with its renewed hope for happiness, refusing to pay for unhappiness by staying in their marriages.
Obviously, divorce became far more prevalent from the late-nineteenth century through the twentieth century than it had been before then. But does that mean that a much higher percentage of couples enjoyed long, committed relationships and strong marriages before then? From genealogical research, I say a strong NO.
So what was happening before the 1940s—if not divorce—to end marriages prematurely?
Genealogy research and some fact-finding provide answers. Three factors stand out when studying the premature ending of marriages in the absence of divorce before the mid-twentieth century: maternal death rates, average life expectancy of males and females, and ease of desertion.
The death-of-the-mother-in-childbirth rate, known as the maternal death rate, in the United States today is too high at about 1.5 per 100,000 births. Even with our small families, with each pregnancy, a woman’s chance of maternal death grows. Back in the 1600s and 1700s, the maternal death rate was about 1,200 per 100,000 births and in the 1800s about 600 per 100,000 births!
Adding to those chances is the fact that families were much larger then than they are now, so individual women had many more chances to die in childbirth. Without modern contraception (especially birth control pills and IUDs), married women gave birth about every two years. If they began having babies before they were 18, they could bear ten to even fifteen children by the time they were 42. But every pregnancy and birth increased the likelihood of maternal death.
While researching male ancestors, I have seen census records of their first marriages at about 19 or 20 years old to wives who were about 15 to 20 years old. Because the census is taken every ten years, oftentimes when I have found them ten years later, they are 29 to 30 with wives 15 to 20 years old. Ten years after that, they are 39 to 40 with wives 15 to 20. And every wife has given birth. And many of the early wives’ death dates match the birth dates of the youngest of their children. Or a child’s birth date has been followed a few months later by the father’s new marriage date and about a year later by another child’s birth date. Sometimes the wife’s death date and her last child’s combined birth/death date match as they died together.
Thus, although there were few official divorces among couples of the 1600s through the 1800s, marriages with children were often made tragically short by maternal death.
Maternal death was not the only death event that ended marriages. Any death did—and much earlier than it does on average today. In 1850, the average life expectancy at birth for males was 38.3 years; for females, it was 40.5 years. In 1890, the average life expectancy at birth for males had risen to 42.5 years; for females, to 44.46 years. In contrast, today, life expectancy at birth for males in the United States is 76.3 years; for females, it is 81.1 years.
The average age for a first marriage is not greatly different today from the late 1800s when it was 26 for males and 22 for females. However, 26 years in the late 1800s was 61% of the male’s lifespan, today only 34%; for women, 22 years was 50% of the way through her life, today only 27%. Causes of death included those with which we are most familiar today, heart disease and cancer, but without antibiotics and preventive vaccines, deaths due to infections such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and influenza were more common. Also, accidents in the agrarian world and deadly wars took large numbers of young men. The possibility of being widowed during child-bearing years was great for both spouses.
On average in the late 1800s, marriages lasting to death would span only 16.5 years for males; 22.6 years for females. Today, on average, marriages lasting to death for males must survive 50.3 years; for females, 59.1 years. Making any relationship last 16 to 23 years is immeasurably easier than making any relationship last for 50 to 59 years! And the chance of being widowed during child-bearing years today is almost nil. We presently live another 48% to 51% of our lives after the age of 40. They did not.
Thus, while there were few official divorces in the 1800s, marriages were often made tragically short by the death of one of the spouses.
The third strong possibility for ending an unwanted marriage before 1936 was desertion or abandonment. In 1936, the first social security number was issued. Until then, no centralized record kept track of employees. Even federal taxes were paid under the honor system. Only the Federal Census taken every ten years recorded citizens’ occupations, usually as “farmer,” or “laborer,” or “carpenter,” or “minister,” or “housekeeper,” or “at home.” Military registrations asked for the name of an employer, but only men of service age answered that question.
There were few telephones, only slow mail, only handwritten courthouse records, no employer/employee records, little access to newspapers from around the country, and little movement from town to town, much less from state to state. It was easy to walk away and keep walking.
Additionally, the only federal records recorded at that time, Federal Census records (which have been compiled every ten years since 1790) are not made available to the public for locating missing citizens for 75 years, but just in case that might change, my great-grandfather, at least third generation Alabaman and son of a Civil War soldier dead of war wounds, carefully reported in 1920 that he had been born in Canada to Canadians who spoke only French. There was simply no way to find him and many, many more marriage deserters even if their families had thought they were alive and been determined to do so. How common desertion was, no one knows. But historians recognize that it was easy and far more common than it is today.
Thus, while there were few official divorces in the 1800s, many marriages were made tragically short by desertion or abandonment.
We have valid reasons for being concerned for the institution of marriage and individual marriages. We have valid reasons for studying, discussing, evaluating, and re-evaluating marriage as an institution in current society. But to be effective as we study, discuss, evaluate, and re-evaluate, we need first to know history. And if we are going to cite biblical references, we need first to understand what those references actually say—not how they have been restated by people with agendas either for or against particular issues. Online resources are readily available. Bible sources are readily available. What we think we know oftentimes is not what actually was or is.
Furthermore, when we do read descriptions in writings including biblical writings from long ago, we may not understand now what the writers had in mind then.
I used to ask my students a simple question when teaching Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: When you read the “General Prologue,” how did you picture the “hostelrye,” situated “in Southwerk” and called “the Tabard” at which the pilgrims met? Students usually described either a pub with single rooms upstairs much like a saloon in cowboy films or a motel with large front room including restaurant or bar and single rooms in a line outside much like they had seen on trips to Florida. They could not imagine a large room containing an area with fireplace for preparing and eating food as well as an area with a huge bed made of strips of wood roped together in a wood frame hanging by chains from the ceiling and covered with filthy straw on which every pilgrim and his parasitic companions slept with every other pilgrim and his parasitic companions without privilege of baths. (It’s little wonder that the Tabard host wanted to “goodly with [the pilgrims] ryde.”) But imagining that room and bed (and more) is quite helpful when seeking to understand the relationships among the Canterbury travelers as well as their tales.
In the same way, knowing history (and more—especially if experience is part of the knowing) and carefully studying biblical language are quite helpful when seeking to understand traditions, statistics, and laws pertaining to marriage and divorce today. Even then, we will find much about which we disagree and which we see differently, but we will also find much about which we can agree and see alike. Doing that might enable us to find new ways to strengthen both the institution of marriage and individual marriages.
For sure, we cannot collaborate to make those improvements for the future without first knowing the truth of what was in the past and what is in the present. And we cannot even begin to have the discussion unless and until we can define what it is we are discussing. To say that we should duplicate a relationship we cannot define and, in fact, that never existed as so many imagine it did accomplishes nothing and stops us from making changes we need to make.