Marriage has evolved quite radically, over time. So, too, really, has love. Matrimony started out as a business transaction. It was a way to consolidate status, combine wealth and secure a legacy for families who wanted prestige through partnership. Women were treated as property, to be passed from the man who helped bring her into this world to the man who agreed to let her do his laundry for the rest of his days. It was a cynical act, marriage, if you think about it. It didn’t prioritise love, it didn’t celebrate love – it didn’t really even require love. Perhaps some people who were married in this way grew to love one another, maybe some even doted on each other to begin with, and how lucky for them. For most people, it was simply an inevitable grab at a better life, dictated by social convention and commerce.
Before the second wave of feminism, women weren’t able to open a bank account or own property without the aid of a husband. That explains the urgency to get married that we so associate with young women; it was a private hysteria motivated by simply wanting to have the trappings of an adult life. Without a husband, women were left to live stunted lives, curtailed by the law and somewhat dictated by their family’s intentions and circumstance. Women accepted a deal when they got married generations ago: they would do the housework and raise the children while their husband worked, in exchange for security and access to the grown up world. It was a rigged deal, though, leading them from one sort of dependence to another.
When the law changed and released women from their constraints, giving them the right to work, earn money and own property, the meaning of marriage changed. Feminism really allowed women to set the terms of their own unions, at least more than they used to. It meant they could start thinking about love – real love, true love, the sort of love they’d fantasized about before. They could, some of them, choose to marry men because they actually had feelings for them – preferably epic, all-consuming feelings of the Hollywood love variety. For a long time, they still thought of themselves as accessories; people who traded in beauty and allure for companionship. Hopefully, for most of us, that idea is outdated.
Marriage now is complicated, but perhaps more hopeful than it’s ever been. The ideal now, really, is to marry for love and equality. To find a team mate as much as a romantic companion; someone who wants to share the burden of growing old, procreating and building a life together. It’s messy and it’s complex and it’s potentially wonderful. A wedding is essentially a patriarchal ceremony and certainly, many of them are still deeply problematic. But they can also be an act of faith – not so much in any deity, but in love itself. Getting married can be a gargantuan gesture of optimism. It can also be an unmitigated disaster. What happens after the wedding reception is as complicated as human emotion: unpredictable, dangerous, changeable. It is often utterly awful.
We deserve to read and watch and listen to stories that tell us honestly, captivatingly, intelligently what marriage and divorce and love can really be like. Pop culture has started to provide us with some very fine portrayals of married life – its joys, its dangers, its endings. If you’ve read Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, you’ll know why it’s the most hyped novel out this year. It elegantly, angrily tells the story of a broken relationship with almost unprecedented fervour. The ending is truly masterful. You should read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones to understand what tragedy, injustice and time can do to two people who once felt as though they were in love (Barack Obama loved it, so will you). Heartburn by Nora Ephron – about infidelity, food, sex and self – should be compulsory reading. You have never seen true chaos until you’ve watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, an Edward Albee play which was made into a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There’s scarcely been a more sinister depiction of marriage than Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck. Finally, we have all these powerful, entertaining stories about one of the most influential institutions in contemporary society: marriage and the havoc it can wreak.
Here is a reading list, a watching list and a bonus listening suggestion, if you want to really delve into the topic of marriage and what it means to us today. Grab the popcorn, get comfy, enjoy. But be warned: as in life, not all of these stories have a happy ending.
The Best Books About Marriage
Fleishman Is In Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Heartburn, Nora Ephron
Ordinary People, Diana Evans
Light Years, James Salter
The Course of Love, Alain De Botton
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy
The Lie Of The Land, Amanda Craig
The Best Movies About Marriage
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf
Julie and Julia
Walk The Line
The Family Stone
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
The Best Podcast About Marriage And Relationships
Where Should We Begin, Esther Perel
Best Of Future Women
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