I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage

Image on the leftEver wonder why marriage is such a complicated business? Why do those on the inside love to complain about it, those on the outside yearn to get in, and those who’ve come and gone tend to go back for more? Why is it the relationship that people can’t live with and can’t live without? Is such wondering unique to the current era, or par for the marital course in any era? To answer that question, it would help to know what the marital course was before we caught up with it. In I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage(Publication date August 1, 2008 from Bloomsbury USA) Susan Squire pares away umpteen centuries of propaganda, rumor, and general myopia obscuring that course in order to follow it onward (and backwards, and sideways). She finds, perhaps not surprisingly, that while the form has changed, the substance remains the same: Complicated—a minefield of Catch-22s. Full of thorns and mysteries and sweetness and, sometimes, light. So far indispensable, despite periodic muttering about irrelevance.

After considering the probable circumstances that sparked the connubial idea in the first place--think global warming, circa 10,000 BCE--Squire digs up the roots of the common assumptions that shaped traditional marriage (and have yet to be eradicated from memory, like it or not). Just for starters, there’s Genesis, in which God himself commands women to obey their husbands, men not to trust their wives, and both men and women to marry and reproduce; the Athenian sexual system that allowed wives for breeding, courtesans for pleasure, and no combining the two; Augustine’s theory that no human conceived through sexual intercourse can be born without sin, and even conjugal intercourse is sinful unless the purpose is conception; the medieval aristocracy’s code of adultery, also known as courtly love—a rarefied expression of the conventional wisdom that passion was dangerous to marriage.

In the 16th century, along comes Martin Luther to change things up. While still a monk unknown to the public, this 40-year-old virgin begins singing the praises of matrimony to a small circle of fellow celibates. Only several years after Luther jumpstarts the Protestant Reformation, becoming a popular hero in the process, does he wade into connubial waters himself—with a renegade nun who makes him an inordinately happy husband and father of six. By then he’s an international star, not only as a theologian or as the David who crushed the papal Goliath, but as the marriage expert’s marriage expert.

Luther’s ideas on conjugal issues are sought by pastors and others who counsel the wedlocked, at least the newly Protestant part of that population. And Luther’s ideas are not what people have been accustomed to hearing from their priests—for the most part. Like everyone else up to this point in time, male or female, Luther can’t imagine a husband sharing authority with his wife; democratic marriage will follow democratic government, still a few centuries away. But aside from mutual fidelity, he makes no rules about sex, leaving the why, when, how and where up to the couple themselves for a change. And by emphasizing the emotional rewards that can be found in marriage--mutual companionship, support, and love (sexual love included)—over economic and even reproductive concerns, Luther sets the marital course onto its current track. This is the backstory of marriage as we know it; this is the tale that I Don’t tells.

For the more recent and seemingly more familiar story, the one that covers the last 400 years, just wait for the sequel. Now it will all make sense.

I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage
By Susan Squire
Published by Bloomsbury USA

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