In America, marriage is generally regarded as a constant, never changing commitment that has stood firm throughout the ages. However, this image is perhaps more distorted than most realize. In reality, marriage has evolved through the years, mostly for the better, but occasionally it takes a turn for the worse.
The first records we have of marriage are from the Bible. Sometime before 500 BC, Abraham was married his half-sister, Sarah. To gain riches and political power, he forced her to sleep with the Egyptian Pharaoh and King Abimelech. When Abraham later realized she was unable to have children, he married another woman, Sarah’s Egyptian slave, who bore his son Ishmael. From the earliest time, woman were treated as the property of their father, and when they were married off, they became the property of their husband. Rather than being a symbol of love, or commitment, marriage was an exchange to rise in political position or financial power.
As time went on, marriage began to progress. Only the top third of Roman society was legally allowed to marry, and if they were not married by a certain age, they were punished. The ideal Roman partnership was an adult man and teenage boy. If a man did instead marry a woman, extremely sexist laws applied. The marriage was a contract between the bride’s father or brother and her groom. The bride had no choice in the marriage. If a husband wished to divorce his wife he could, but the wife could not do the same.
Very early Christian churches believed that marriage was a sin. Ideally, one should remain single and celibate. If this became untrue, St. Paul said that marriage should be accepted. He said, “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (New King James Version, 1 Corinthians 7:9). Same-sex marriage was still accepted until 342 AD. After that, divorced men and women could not remarry, no matter what the cause of the divorce, and polygamy was less encouraged. After several hundred years, Charlemagne and Basil I each changed this in their own respective ways, but their changes did not last.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that polygamy was again looked down upon. Same-sex marriage was completely out of the question, and marriage was for the sole purpose of producing children. Both the bride and the groom were required to consent to the marriage, but the women were still treated as property. Once they were married, the woman’s husband began her legal guardian, and all of her property belonged to him. Divorce was virtually impossible, so many wives simply took their children and left their unwanted husbands.
The 19th century brought many changes to marriage, including divorce. If a man wished to divorce his wife, he was required to prove an act of adultery that she had committed, but if a woman wished to divorce her husband, she had to prove that he was both an adulterer and that he was cruel to her and her children. If they were divorced,...