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The strange history of marrying for love

Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a - well you know . . .

Edward Lamson Henry (American genre artist, 1841–1919) Stopping For a Chat

But this idyllic vision hasn’t been the norm for very long. For most of recorded history, love was not a consideration. If love between husband and wife happened to be part of a marriage it was considered a fortunate byproduct. But in some places it was frowned upon as counter productive to the success of the union.

The idea of marriage primarily as a business arrangement seems antithetical to most people today (at least the ones I know). Love is definitely the driving force for marketing the institution and enticing new subscribers to sign on the dotted line.

I might be a naive romantic, but I’m sold on love as the foundation of a strong marriage. If you can survive the trials of children, careers, finances, health, and the occasional disaster - the carriage ride can be a long and happy one. Even if it does get a little bumpy at times.

Stephanie Coontz: "Rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married"

But the history of getting married because of love, summarized brilliantly by Stephanie Coontz in her 2016 essay ‘The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love’ challenges many of the assumptions we hold to be self-evident. The 'unalienable' right to happiness enshrined in the US Constitution was considered a bit radical when it was drafted in 1776 and even blamed for inspiring young couples to put their own happiness ahead of the wishes of disapproving parents when it came to selecting a mate.

Coontz says that love in marriage is not nearly as universal as we might think. Up until the last few centuries, it was not only highly unusual, but also considered a threat to the existing social order. In contrast, and just to make things more complicated, a variety of churches and governments over the last millennium recognized love (or perhaps consensual lust) as a key ingredient in defining a ‘licit’ marriage.

My research on this topic sprang from trying to understand the practice of marriage in 18th century Scotland as it relates to my work in progress (Book II, Song for a Lost Kingdom).

What I found surprised me. In Scotland at the time, mutual consent was the only thing required for an ‘irregular’ but still legally binding marriage. However it could be contested if either party denied that a marriage existed. Court cases were held to determine if a woman claiming to be a ‘wife’ was in fact a ‘mistress.’

Marriage records from 18th century Scotland

The line between the two could be a fine one, at least in the eyes of the Edinburgh Commissary Court, where the final pronouncement on the legality of Scottish marriages was settled. The record of those proceedings could serve as the basis for a Netflix television series I’d love to watch.

A brief history of love in marriage

Historians tell us that for thousands of years, no sensible person selected a life partner based on the fleeting nature of romantic love. In Chinese, the word for ‘love’ does not apply to the feelings between a husband and wife, because that kind of silliness was reserved mostly for teens. When applied to older people, it referred to an affair done in shame and secrecy.

And even today China Educational tours, an organization that helps Westerners prepare for visits to China, provides the following helpful advice about marriage in China: “It’s ok for adolescents to have feelings of love, but when they reach marriageable age then love is thought to be not only unnecessary, but probably even dangerous. More useful and important to prepare for choosing a spouse would be a good education, having a job, and maybe owning a flat.”

In Europe among the nobility, marriages were arranged with little input from the affected parties, for political and financial gain, and of course, to propagate the next generation of suffering royals. By the 12th century, treaties on the true nature of love and the aversion to it within a normal marriage, were topics of hot debate.

More useful and important to prepare for choosing a spouse would be a good education, having a job, and maybe owning a flat.

At the request of Marie de Champagne, betrothed at the age of 15 by her father King Louis VII of France, a manifesto of true love was written by her priest Andreas Capellanus in 1184. It defined the differences between love and the affections that might exist between married partners. In the work entitled De amore, Capellanus described ‘courtly love’ as having the power to enoble both the lover and the beloved.

Capellanus asserted that tender feelings between a man and a woman in marriage are not true love. “Love can have no place between husband and wife,” even if some couples do experience “immoderate affection” for each other he wrote.

He also believed that the most enobling love is secret, extremely difficult to obtain and serves to inspire men to great deeds. He developed a set of rules for love, with number one being: “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving” by which he meant loving someone outside the marriage.

Even into the 16th century, marriage and love were seen as very distinct states that rarely intersected. The influential French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote that “a good marriage would be between a a blind wife and a deaf husband.” He also maintained that any man in love with his wife was a man so dull that one else could love him.

Love conquers marriage

It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century that love came to have equal importance to economics as the primary reason for selecting a mate. Around this time men and some women could now earn a living working at jobs that paid regular wages, so getting married became an option without regard for the ability of parents to put up a dowry or waiting for an inheritance.

And so love with all its breathless irrationality, became the cornerstone for selecting a life-long partner. Other cultures did not share the same enthusiasm, and continued with more traditional approaches including arranged marriages, where love might blossom after, but rarely before, the wedding.

A good marriage would be between a a blind wife and a deaf husband.

Back in Scotland, during the 18th century, young women and men who publicly declared their intention to marry and consummated the arrangement with sexual intercourse, were considered to have an ‘irregular’ and perfectly legal marriage.

The difficulty arose when one partner challenged the status of the marriage. At this point, every word from every witness was recorded, every letter or correspondence pertaining to the case examined and the court was left to sift through a couple’s intimate relationship to determine if they were indeed legally 'married.'

Love played no part in the decision, as that affection was just as equally shared with a mistress who had no legal standing or property rights, in the eyes of the court.

The final word from a marriage skeptic

Perhaps it was Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century, the same man who doubted that love was integral to marriage, who provided the insight that we can still agree with even today.

“If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love.”


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