Rereading MARRIAGE, A HISTORY, by Stephanie Coontz (author of the incisive study of so-called “traditional” families in the 50s and 60s, THE WAY WE NEVER WERE), I’m fascinated by the astonishing variety of marriage arrangements described in Chapters 1 and 2. Any romance writer would benefit from reading this book; it reveals so much potential for culture clash and interpersonal conflict springing from marriage customs. The subtitle, HOW LOVE CONQUERED MARRIAGE, emphasizes a major theme of the book, that throughout most of history marriages were formed for economic and political advantages, not to fulfill the partners’ need for love and intimacy. If love grew between spouses, that was a nice bonus, but it would have seemed absurd to base something as important as an alliance between two families on mere emotion. In fact, some cultures were downright suspicious of romantic love between husband and wife, because a right-thinking person owed more loyalty to his or her family of origin than to a spouse.
Believe it or not, there’s one Earth culture that doesn’t have the institution of marriage in any form—the Na people of southwestern China. Adults live in households composed of their brothers and sisters, where the children of the sisters are brought up. Babies are conceived through casual sexual encounters, and a father has no rights or responsibilities in regard to his offspring. Among all the other societies that do have marriage in one form or another, the true “traditional” marriage is, of course, polygamy, specifically polygyny, a family of one husband and several wives. That’s the dominant form marriage has taken in the majority of places throughout history. Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to two or more men, exists but is much rarer, and the co-husbands are usually brothers. We take it for granted that husband and wife live together, but there have been many cultures in which the spouses have separate residences and the husband simply visits his wife and children occasionally. While European traditions assume that inheritance passes through the paternal line, in matrilineal cultures a child belongs to his or her mother’s lineage, and the dominant male figure in the child’s life is the mother’s brother, not the child’s father. (Heinlein uses this model in the future society of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD. Also, in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS he portrays a human colony on the Moon where several types of marriage are practiced.) Among Eskimos, “cospousal” arrangements existed in which two couples regularly had sexual relations with each other’s spouses. The community viewed all children of both couples as siblings. Coontz mentions South American tribes that believed a child could have multiple fathers. Any man who had sexual relations with the woman during her pregnancy was deemed a father of the child, and the more fathers, the better. In China, some women were wedded in “ghost marriages,” pledging themselves as wives to dead men. This custom served as a method not only to forge ties between families but also to allow women who didn’t want to marry in the “normal” way to keep some degree of independence. Moreover, some African and Native American societies allowed same-sex marriage, regarding gender roles as more important than biological sex. Socially sanctioned temporary marriages have existed, such as “wife for a day” in some Middle Eastern cultures (the partners have no subsequent ties, except that if a child is born, he or she is counted as legitimate and the father has support obligations) or the trial “year and a day” marriage in some medieval European settings.
In fiction, if a human character should fall in love with a humanoid alien whose world follows one of these customs, imagine the conflicts that could arise. Could love overcome the culture shock? Suppose, for instance, a proposal of marriage was offered and accepted, and only later did the human character discover the union was meant to be temporary. Or suppose a human protagonist brought up with the ideal of monogamy finds that the passionate alien lover already has a spouse and expects the new love to feel perfectly happy about a polygamous union. Romeo and Juliet had smooth prospects by comparison. (Their families belonged to the same culture, socioeconomic level, and religion. If it hadn’t been for that silly feud, the union would have been viewed as ideal.)
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt