Marriage

A Brief History of Marriage, From the Stone Age to the New Age

Couplehood has been the primary social structure of our species.

Posted Dec 24, 2020

 Harville Hendrix, used with permission
Source: Harville Hendrix, used with permission

This is a guest post by Harville Hendrix, adapted from his foreword to Stan Tatkin’s book Wired for Love.

Couplehood has been, from the dawn of human history, the primary social structure of our species, giving rise to larger structures of family, community, society, culture, and civilization. But interest in helping couples improve the quality of their relationships is a very recent phenomenon. What help couples got in the past came from their families or social institutions, primarily religious ones. But given that what happens in the home determines what happens in society, and given the perennial presence of conflict and violence between partners and among groups and cultures, we can conclude that the help was not very helpful. If we operate from the logical premise that healthy couples are essential to a healthy society, and vice versa, then “helping couples” should be elevated from a romantic sentiment—and a professional career—to a primary social value. The best thing a society can do for itself is to promote and support healthy couples, and the best thing partners can do for themselves, for their children, and for society is to have a healthy relationship.

The radical position of shifting focus from personal-centered needs to the needs of their relationship, and by extension, to the transformation of society, has been in the making only in the last 25 years or so. Prehistoric couples formed a “pair bond” for the purpose of procreation and physical survival. That all changed about 11,000 years ago when, according to the same body of research, the hunters and gatherers learned how to grow food and coral and breed animals.

No longer having to search for food, they settled down into small compounds and villages, and the concept of “property” that had to be protected arose. This concept may have applied at first only to animals and crops, but since children and women also needed protection, the concept eventually extended to include them. The second version of couplehood, the “arranged marriage,” was born. It had nothing to do with romantic attraction, personal needs, or mature love and everything to do with social status, economic security, and political expedience.

The next incarnation of marriage began in the 18th century with the rise in Europe of democratic political institutions, which argued that everyone was entitled to personal freedom—and by extension, the freedom to marry the person of their choice. The door to marriage was increasingly romantic love rather than parental dictates, and this shift gave rise to the personal or psychological marriage designed to meet personal rather than social and economic needs. Until Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and the founding of psychotherapy at the end of the 19th century, it was little guessed that our unconscious minds are deeply involved in our personal choices and that our past interpersonal experiences have a powerful impact on our present adult relationships. The discovery that this was so led to the awareness that our choice of a partner, if it is romantic, is influenced by our unconscious minds more than our rational preferences. 

The partner we unconsciously choose is dauntingly similar—warts and all, and especially the warts—to the caretakers who reared us. Help for couples was expanded from traditional (religious, familial) sources to an emerging mental health profession, whose members had varying degrees of training and competence.

The early models of marriage counseling were based upon the assumption that a couple consisted of two independent, autonomous persons who could use their learning capacity and cognitive skills to resolve their differences by regulating conflict about their differences. This was helpful to some couples whose issues were not so difficult, but for others, the conflict-resolution process was a failure. These more difficult couples were advised to engage in-depth psychotherapy to work through their long-standing personal problems independent of their relationship and to separate from each other with the assumption that when they came back together, free of their personal neuroses, they could meet each other’s needs, current and past, and create a satisfying relationship.

This model did not work very well. Most partners who were successful in their private psychotherapy tended to divorce rather than reconcile. The divorce rate reached about 50 percent, and here it has held steady for the past 60 years. The statistics on the success of marriage therapy have held steady at around 30 percent, not a shining success for this fledgling profession.

In recent years, we have discovered that the major problem with this model is its focus on the “individual” as the foundational unit of society and on the satisfaction of personal needs as the goal of marriage. This all gives birth to this narrative of marriage: If your relationship is not satisfying your needs, you are married to the wrong person. You have a right to the satisfaction of your needs in a relationship, and if that does not happen, you should change partners and try again to get the same needs met with a different person. To put it in more crass terms, your marriage is about “you,” and if it does not provide you with satisfaction, its dissolution is justifiable no matter the consequences for others, even the children.

This narrative has birthed the phenomena of multiple marriages, one-parent families, shattered children, the “starter” marriage, and cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, as well as a trend toward tying the knot at later and later ages. I believe a new narrative that shifts the focus from the self and personal need satisfaction to the relationship began to emerge in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the '70s, a new view of the self as intrinsically relational and interdependent began to challenge the reigning view of the self as autonomous, independent, and self-sufficient. The isolated and autonomous self was exposed as a myth. The origin of the human problem was relocated from the interior of the self to the failure of the relationship “between."

In the past 20 years, these insights have become the theme of the fourth incarnation of marriage, which I refer to as the “conscious partnership.” In this new narrative, commitment is to the needs of the relationship rather than the needs of the self. It goes something like this, “Your marriage is not about you. Your marriage is about itself; it is a third reality to which and for which you are responsible, and only by honoring that responsibility will you get your childhood and current needs met. When you make your relationship primary and your needs secondary, you produce the paradoxical effect of getting your needs met in ways they can never be if you make them primary."

What happens is not so much the healing of childhood wounds, which may in fact not be healable, but the creation of a relationship in which two persons are reliably and sustainably present to each other empathically. This new emotional environment develops pathways that are filled with the debris of the sufferings of childhood. Couplehood becomes the container for the joy of being, which is a connected relationship. And since the quality of couplehood determines the tenor of the social fabric, the extension of that joy from the local to the global could heal most human suffering.