Happily never after

Sex gets boring, eyes wander, but according to the author of "I Don't," knowing the history of marriage can help save yours.

Published August 9, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

To listen to a podcast of the interview, click here.

To subscribe: Click here to add Conversations to iTunes or cut and paste the URL into your podcasting software:

When it comes to marriage, author Susan Squire takes the long view -- as in the 5,000-year-long view. In "I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage," she traces the roots of the modern ideal of marriage -- a passionate partnership based on love -- to such unlikely sources as the Reformation writings of monk-turned-happy-husband Martin Luther.

In Squire's popular history, the idea of marriage in the West morphs over the centuries from a breeding factory for the ancient Greeks to a lust containment facility for early Christians. It takes literally thousands of years for love to be seen as an essential ingredient for a good marriage.

Think married life is challenging today? Squire's breezy historical tour includes wives in ancient Rome taking to the streets in protest, agitating for the right to dress in finery equal to that worn by their husbands' horses. In the sixth century, wives seek absolution for the sin of attempting to stoke their husbands' libidos with magic potions or for performing oral sex on their husbands. And who could forget the 15th century couple who give up their healthy, marital sex life (which had produced 14 children) and choose to live in a "spiritual marriage" after the wife receives a vision from God?

As today's married couples negotiate their own roles, Squire argues that they shouldn't be surprised when old ideas pop up about a husband's duty to rule his wife, or a wife's obligation to manage the home. Equal partnership in marriage is still a newfangled notion. Yet, Squire, whose previous books concerned eating disorders and couples adjusting to parenthood, believes that learning more about the history of marriage might help take some of the pressure off of today's husbands and wives.

Salon spoke with Squire, who lives in New York with her husband of 19 years and their daughter, by phone from her office in Manhattan.

What was married life like for the ancient Greeks?

The husbands of Athens divided women into three roles. Wives were for breeding, courtesans were for socializing with and sleeping with, and then there were prostitutes -- male and female. Athens invented organized prostitution, as well as democracy.

The average age of male marriage in Athens was about 25 to 30, and they usually took a wife of about 15. Women were educated in wifely arts, like spinning and domestic pursuits, and courtesans were educated to be culturally and intellectually sophisticated, entertaining and amusing to men.

Men had this menu of sexual services from three different classes of women. The Athenian wives were not allowed out of the house because they would be seen by other men, and that might cause them to stray. It was considered unseemly for men to love women -- either their wives or, more likely, their courtesans -- because women weren't worthy of the highest form of love. The highest form of love was cerebral love between men.

You write that early Christians came to see marriage as a "lust containment facility." What do you mean by that?

Up until that time, marriage had been viewed as essential for social stability. It was the reproductive factory, essential to protect paternal identity. Women were held to a standard of fidelity that was absolute. But nobody equated sex in marriage, or any pleasure that you would get from sex, as being innately evil.

For early Christians, celibacy was superior to marriage. Virginity was the highest value. Never being polluted by the sexual act was far superior to marrying and reproducing for men and women.

This was a new idea -- that sex itself was sinful, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether the social rules were observed. Part of this is because the early Christians expected the apocalypse, and figured that the world was going to end anyway. What was the point of populating it any further?

They grudgingly allowed sex only within marriage as a compromise, not for the sake of reproduction but for satiating lust. And if you were truly a superior being, if you truly wanted to please God, you would eradicate your own lust, or temper it.

As Christianity advanced, what happened to attitudes about sex within marriage?

Couples were supposed to be trained to only have sex to accomplish the "task of propagation," in the words of St. Augustine, which makes it sound really deadly, and that was the point. To just have sex because you felt like it -- you'd have to confess that. That was sinful.

The sexual urge was an evil thing, but the sexual act could be justified if the motive was propagation or, secondarily, if the motive was to prevent either partner from fornicating. Fornication is defined as sex anywhere with anyone in any way outside of marriage. People really believed that if you had sex on a Sunday, which was against the church rules, you'd end up with a deformed baby if you conceived. The rules allowed conjugal sex on fewer than half the days of the year.

And it was actually a sin for women to try to stoke their husbands' libidos?

The church ended up making all these really intricate rules. A woman performing oral sex was the worst. It was considered less of a sin to sleep with your mother than to go down on your husband.

How did aristocrats rebel against the church's rules about sex and love?

The very rarefied movement that we call courtly love was about adultery. Marriage was about preservation of the family, enhancing economic holdings -- property and wealth -- through generations. Especially in the aristocracy, you didn't marry the person you wanted to marry. That had nothing to do with it. You bred with the person who could bring peace to the land, or bring you more feudal servants, or enhance your bloodline.

Since their marriages were not about romance or passion, the aristocracy always located love and passion outside of marriage in adultery. Courtly love is the ritual courtship of a married woman who is not married to you.

So how did that then get translated over the centuries into love in marriage, like the ideal that we have now?

It seems unlikely that a code of adultery would become our code of marriage. But what the code did is that it basically said that love between a man and a woman -- forget the fact that they're not married -- is as great, is as spiritual, is as worthy of celebration as love of God, or possibly greater. This was heresy to the church, which said that human love was nothing compared to love of God.

The notion that heterosexual love was something to be put on a pedestal, to value and worship, eventually filters down from the upper class through the middle classes and into the center of the modern idea of marriage.

Wasn't it Martin Luther who helped move it into marriage?

By the time Luther came around in the early 16th century there was a lot of hatred of the church -- [its] greed and [its] antisexual notions. Even popes were famous for having out-of-wedlock children and millions of mistresses.

Luther came out of a monastery saying that celibacy was a depraved state and that marriage was a holy state. He said this even while he was still a monk and still celibate. God wanted marriage, because God said "be fruitful and multiply." He was going back to the original Genesis stipulation.

He also said that marriage should not be primarily about reproduction or property, that its highest value was emotional comfort, affection, companionship, not necessarily passion.

Luther popularized this idea that middle-aged men should not marry teenagers, that there had to be some compatibility in age and background, and that the people who were getting married should not be forced into marriage by their parents. This brought up this idea of choice in marriage. Marriages were arranged for many, many, many centuries up and down the classes, because young people were not considered capable of making such a huge choice that was going to impact on generations.

Luther said the bride and groom should have some say in who they're marrying -- at least they should have the power to say "no" to a match -- and that they should be compatible, and that they should work on developing affection, and realizing his concept of married love.

But he went along with all the centuries of thinking that men were superior to women, and that men ruled the family and ruled their wives. Nobody in society up to that point, men or women, could really visualize anything but a hierarchy in marriage. That would have to wait until the democratic revolution.

Luther said that couples should be compatible and be friends and have affection for each other, but he didn't take in the fact that you can't really look to an inferior as a great companion. Society embraced the idea of love in marriage before people were able to come around to this idea that women and men should be partners, that women's brains were no less competent than men's brains. This is an attitude change that's very recent.

If you look at Hillary [Clinton] and all the press coverage, the thought that a man is more capable of leading a nation than a woman is [lies] underneath all of this, whether we want to admit it or not.

What do you think is our current ideal of the good wife?

The good wife is sexy, which was never a component of the other wives. She's clever, smart, discreet. It's kind of a melding of all the old stuff with a few new ingredients.

We are now taught to expect that we would find in our spouse a great lover, a best friend, a constant companion, a financial partner. All of those things that went into the old "good wife" are true, but she also has to be like the courtesan. She has to also be charming and entertaining -- a wife and a courtesan together.

But we don't have the same ideal of wifely obedience.

Well, no, but there have only been two forms of marriage, really. There has been the hierarchical structure, which basically lasted until about the 18th century, when the French Revolution occurred and democracy became the thing. The structure of marriage is still in the process of changing over. Over the last 300 years, we have tried to invert roles that have been set in stone for 4,700 years. It's going to take a while. It's very hard to have two heads of the family.

What unrealistic expectations do couples have about marriage today?

Marriage as an enduring romance -- sex can be hot like 30 years down the road!

Sex can be good, and it can be satisfying, and it can be vital, and it can be important, but it's not like you want to rip your clothes off with somebody that you're sleeping with for the 1,000th time.

We should know going into it that the nature of love and sex changes from what it begins as, and that a great love affair doesn't necessarily make a great marriage. It might, but you have to look for other things, too.

So much emphasis, certainly in movies and pop culture, is placed on falling in love and getting married. But then everyone kind of shuts up and doesn't really look at what happens during married life, and how married love is very different from the premarital love that got you to the altar.

We could learn a lot about what is in the nature of marriage and separate that from what our personal problems might be. We could probably have fewer divorces if people realized that some of the problems have to do with the nature of married life. It's the only relationship that is both domestic and sexual. It's very hard when you're living day in and day out with one person. That's the antithesis of passionate sex. Passion withers in a daily routine. It just does. It doesn't mean that you don't desire each other. It doesn't mean that marriage isn't hugely rewarding.

The life span has more than doubled since 1900. We're talking about marriages that at best lasted 18 years before someone died. Now you're looking at 50 years of marriage to one person. That's a great thing and a terrible thing, because there are going to be bad times.

What do you think is the effect of the kind of feast of news about celebrity marriages that we're constantly fed in our pop culture?

You can't even understand your own marriage -- how are you going to really understand what Brad and Angelina [who aren't married] are up to, or Madonna and Guy Ritchie? It's just a feeding frenzy.

But why is there so much appetite for it?

It's kind of a way of fencing off our own anxiety, our own confusion about our own marriages and when they go wrong. We feast on this idea of public exposure of other people's infidelities, as long as it's not our own. We can use it to distance our own discomfort with whatever may be going on in our own marriages, to look at some famous people who should have everything.

In our culture, sometimes we get confused. If we feel bored sexually then that means there is something wrong with the marriage. Here is this other person we're totally attracted to. We want to sleep with them. But then that betrays the marriage. How many times do people leave marriages just to sleep with someone else and have it come back to the same thing? Maybe marriage is about something bigger than that. That's something that people understood traditionally that I think we've maybe lost sight of.

It's really helpful to know what marriage was supposed to be about before it was supposed to be about what it is now. It's like knowing who your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents were. You have to have that picture, or you have this very narrow view.

I think most people don't look beyond the time in which they're living. It's not like everything started fresh in the 1970s. All of those old concepts that women are inferior, that we should feel guilty about sex outside of marriage, all of those ideas that we think we've gotten rid of, we haven't. They're still in there. It has built up in layers.

We're not overt about saying it, about admitting that we're uncomfortable when we meet a couple where the wife makes all the money and the husband diapers the kids, but there seems to be something a little off about it. We're still not adjusted. It's like the party line has changed, but the way that we really feel about it might be quite conflicted.

So, from that point of view, these changes have happened remarkably quickly?

I think so. I think it's remarkable that they've happened at all. Until the edge of the modern era, 16th and 17th century, everyone believed one thing. The social agreement about men and women and sex and marriage, and what people's roles were supposed to be, that common consensus lasted for about 4,700 years, and in the last 300 we started to change that. Why does it not seem amazing that any change has happened at all?

Why does it seem discouraging that there is still a glass ceiling when the glass ceiling used to be unbreakable steel? Men and women subscribed to the idea that men were superior, that women had no brains, that women were all sex drive and incapable of friendship or trust. The old assumptions, like that men had to rule their wives or else they were less than men, are so much more inbred in our brains than the new ones. It's kind of like window dressing at this point. It hasn't really penetrated beneath the surface.

I just go insane when I read stories that seem to start as if time began in 1972, when Ms. magazine was invented. Women were only able to vote [starting] in 1920. We're talking about less than a century, before which women didn't have any public voice. Now, we're complaining that a woman didn't get to be president in 2008? It's not that I don't think women are totally capable of being president. I just think that we have to take a longer view of things and realize what is beneath our conscious beliefs.

The kind of marriages that we consider ideal today would be unrecognizable to people 500 or 1,000 years ago.


Do you wonder if marriages in 200 or 500 years will be just as unrecognizable to us?


We haven't even completed this change. So far, until the modern age, there is only one idea of marriage basically. Society depended on marriage to be this hierarchy, and that all rested on various theories about men and women. That idea has only been challenged really since the 16th century. We're talking about [more than] 400 years of slowly changing ideas. Do you think that we've totally adapted to this inversion?

No, but I just wonder if there is something looming in the future that would just be equally appalling to us.

I'll tell you what will be appalling. Progress is not linear. Changes in the idea of marriage have come up, and then been pushed back, because [change] is too threatening. It's very threatening even if it seems promising.

If anything is going to shock us, it might be that in 200 years, we'll be looking at traditional marriage again, where women just kind of go back into their maternal roles, and men lead the public lives, because maybe the family operates better that way. Maybe it helps to have a chief.

I mean, I would hate it, but I would say that's more likely than some radical change. Or maybe we'll just keep lurching forward into this brave new world of equal partnership, and it will become old hat for a woman to be president.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Infidelity Love And Sex Sex