11/21/08 - three models of marriage

In today's excerpt - the three conflicting models for marriage inherited from early modern England and our ongoing struggle to define and reconcile these models:

"What do we even mean by 'marriage'? While debate usually focuses on who can or should marry, the most basic question remains: what does it mean to be married? This question resonates on two levels. First, what or who determines that one is 'married'? Second, what are the consequences of being identified as married? One way of thinking about consequences is to focus on the rights, privileges, and responsibilities attached to being married. For the purposes of this study, I am most interested in assumptions about what kind of relation marriage imposes, enables, or sanctions between spouses. Our definitions of this 'fundamental' institution are contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is defined as a loving, erotic bond between two equal individuals. On the other hand, it is construed as a hierarchy in which someone, usually the husband, has to be the boss. Marriage is celebrated as the melding of two into one and as a contract between two autonomous parties. While some see the present conflict among different models of marriage as constituting an unprecedented crisis, I will argue that this conflict between incompatible models and irreconcilable expectations is the history of marriage. It is thus a manifestation of continuity rather than rupture.

"Some would trace the history of marital conflict as far back as cave dwellers. While the institution of marriage does have deep, tangled roots, I focus on our debts to one particular cultural tradition, arguing that we have inherited three models of marriage from early modern England (1550-1700): marriage as hierarchy, as fusion, and as contract. These three models are incompatible and, to make matters worse, each is riddled with internal contradictions. Each can be understood as promoting love between spouses and fulfillment for each or as subordinating one to the interests of the other. In early modern England, a radically visionary model of marriage as a loving partnership between equals flourished in part because of the Protestant Reformation. While this ideal was not wholly new, it first found stable institutionalization, full articulation, and broad dissemination in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its promise remains unfulfilled because it never replaced a model of marriage as a hierarchy in which the husband must take the lead and the wife must obey; it also drew on the erotic and emotional appeal of a vision of marriage as the fusion of two into one without resolving the practical problems that vision obscures. Working with traditions that were already fractured and contradictory, then, the early modern period added new, equally vexed expectations for marriage.

"The emergent model of marriage as a contract seems to correspond to and ensure a partnership between equals; yet as we will see, it did not escape or resolve presumptions about the unequal status of the parties to the marriage contract. Furthermore, the notion of spouses as contracting parties, each of whom acts out of self-interest, coexists uneasily with the ideal of marriage as a near mystical fusion in which one loses oneself. Each model proposes to explain the relationship between spouses. Yet, for all of the supposedly 'new' emphasis on spouses as companions and partners, early modern religious, legal, and popular discourses reveal a deep distrust of equality. Associating equality with conflict, they suggest that once spouses confront one another as equals only one can win the resulting battles. Conflict can only be evaded or resolved by privileging one spouse at the expense of the other. Thus the ultimate message is that marriage only has room for one. The question then becomes: which one?"


Frances E. Dolan


Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


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