Traditional marriage needs fixing


Conflicted couple

The last time I was in Turkey, a rug salesman offered me 500 camels for my daughter. Not a bad offer. In other parts of the world I would have been expected to send 500 camels with her as dowery.

In either case, she probably would not have fared very well. But we think of all that as primitive; we are way beyond camels.

Admittedly, we have moved on from the days when King David had eighteen wives and, gathering pace, King Solomon had a thousand, though, to be fair, about three hundred of them were concubines.

We no longer pay heed to the musings of the likes of Sts. Thomas Aquinas ('children, imbeciles and women') or Paul ('seen and not heard') or Jerome ('when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man').

By the middle of the eighteenth century we were still hearing from Blackstone, father of English law, that: 'the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage'.

Each opinion is worst than the last. Even today, with apparently the best intentions in the world, the current Catholic patriarch offers a shocking metaphor, describing Europe as a 'grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant' but instead 'elderly and haggard'. I wonder does he think of himself as no longer vital and effective at 78 years of age?

Our view of women has changed, and mercifully, is still changing. This change sheds further light on the contours of traditional marriage. We no longer sanction polygamy, and we set age limits to prevent the marriage of children while we joyfully celebrate the weddings of elderly, infertile couples. Today there are laws against wife-beating and rape within marriage but because these crimes happen in private they still happen.

The one thing about marriage that does not seem to change is its popularity. We are entranced by the new dream of love and mutually sustaining support which will enable us to become our best possible selves. Until we start leaving.

Today, nearly a third of marriages will end in divorce and this figure is expected to rise to 45 per cent in the next few decades, and women are the initiators. Of divorces initiated by one party, 69 per cent are initiated by women.

Not surprisingly, the more education and money a woman has the more likely she is to end the marriage. When a woman holds the belief that the household tasks of housework and parenting should be shared equally, there is a greater risk of marital breakdown and divorce.

The pat answer given by traditionalists is that feminism is responsible for marital breakdown. But that answer is untrue to the degree that it is incomplete.

Young women are now educated to the same level as men. Their income enables them to buy their own car and then their own home. Contraception allows them to enjoy their sexuality in a way that has always been open to men. They are self-sufficient, materially and psychologically, and they are not going to put up with inequality within the home.

The more complete answer is that a growth in the divorce rate occurs when a man believes that housework and parenting should not be shared equally. He says, 'I love you' and she replies, 'Well, it doesn't feel like it over here'. Because most couples cannot afford a stay at home parent they are both working full time jobs but she is double-jobbing as 'super mum'.

While parenting and housework are the essence of family life, they both believe that his work is more important than hers. Her caring work within the home is not considered of primary value. Oh, we say it is but men are not rushing home in droves to do it. Not only is there there concern for his sense of self worth, there is also the very salient question of salary.

Government cements tradition when he gets paid more than she does and she alone gets what should be parental leave. It is such an unhappy place for women that, even knowing they will be poorer, they leave it. Traditional marriage is on very shaky ground because we are continually trying to extract equality out of inequality.  

We need to acknowledge that traditional marriage is, and always has been, a chimera. Feminism confronts not only sexism but also racism and classism, indeed, the interweaving of all forms of oppression. Marriage changes its shape as we change our culture – and we are. If we really believe that more love and equality within marriage is better than less, then, perhaps, it is time to include gayness within its ever evolving expression.

writerGail Grossman Freyne is living in Melbourne after practising as a family therapist in Ireland for 35 years. She is author of Care, Justice & Gender: A New Harmony for Family Values (Veritas 2006).

Marriage conflict image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Gail Grossman Freyne, marriage, family, marriage equality, gay marriage



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Existing comments

Oh dear Gail, what a fabulous article that deals with marriage in all its wondrous dimensions. But I fear that after the first half dozen or so comments about your article, there will be up to a hundred or more that simply 'debate' the richness or wrongness of 'gayness', within and without marriage.
Ginger Meggs | 01 September 2015

Treatment couples is something seldom performed by couples youthful couples. away from separation and-recovery the-marriage/
cila | 01 September 2015

Especially good is the last sentence. My own experience of marrying a woman past child-bearing age and now living that marriage, has led me to a similar conclusion.
Jim Jones | 02 September 2015

With the word gayism, why not have everyone attend a civil union ceremony by marriage celebrant and then religious couples have a religious ceremony as in western Europe?
maria fatarella | 02 September 2015

Well written Gail and families today see the importance of having at least one parent if possible at home raising kids if pay is equal then I would be the first to split my work between family and home. I would gladly stay home and cook, clean and shop. Modern successful marriage does allocate job tasks with equality in mind. My wife runs a beauty business for her own enjoyment and not the money and it fits into her lifestyle. Being both self employed our work revolves around our family.
Paul camilleri | 02 September 2015

What "WE" mean by traditional marriage is very different from what it has meant over the years. Marriage is an agreement between consenting adults, normally a man and a woman to live together, and existed aeons before 'church' or 'state' became involved. It is the partners who marry each other. Church or state are merely witnesses to ensure that their concerns are complied with. The process, by which 'our' concept of a traditional marriage evolved, resembles something more like a 'Chinese Whisper' than an orderly progression.
Robert Liddy | 02 September 2015

To my way of thinking, too many interests have done too many fixes, and 'the Church' seems to be complicit in some of those fixes A marriage is always a work in progress with two artists who don't always agree. I am praying very that the Holy Spirit will be a strong presence at the Synod and that compassion will win out. I don't want governments to change the meaning of the word marriage but I do acknowledge the need to celebrate deep friendships. It is that kind of friendship and caring for the welfare of their partner that is often missing in marriages that fail. I would like to see the Synod strengthen the concept of the SACRAMENT of marriage as a source of strength and encouragement throughout the years. Perhaps couples should renew their marriage vows, say, every five years. Most of us just survive from crisis to crisis after that overly emphasised important WEDDING.
Margaret McDonald | 02 September 2015

The concept of two newly vowed people living in a home of their own is the foreign concept. The village has gone ,and we are social beings, not nuclear families. New ideas of sharing family living areas is another way to go. We need to help each other and get over this isolation of marriage. Equality and mutual respect for any issue needs to be dealt with on it`s own merits.
marlene | 02 September 2015

I don't find the situation nearly as pessimistic as Gail. 2/3 of marriages do survive and even thrive! What she seems to be suggesting is that to be successful there needs to be a commitment to a radical loving relationship of sharing and equality in marriage. But that is what it is supposed to be like! Indeed, if the woman (usually) entered the marriage with that expectation but finds it absent, then it seems to me doubtful whether a marriage truly existed. This is the level of sophistication that the Church needs to find in its deliberations this year.
Eugene | 02 September 2015

The Church placed great store on the words "What God has put together, let no one put asunder". But numerous marriages conducted as Sacraments by the Church has later been annulled, indicating that they were not put together by God.
Robert Liddy | 02 September 2015

I strongly support Maria's suggestion because it separates the civil and religious notions of marriage without compromising either. Our present system, whereby a religious celebrant also acts as an agent of the state is untidy, messy, and unnecessarily confuses the two contracts.
Ginger Meggs | 02 September 2015

I am unsure whether there could be a single correct response to your intellectually and theologically jam packed article, Gail. If ever there was an intellectual gauntlet thrown down at some people's cosy assumptions on the subject of traditional marriage, which, as you suggest, is conditioned both by time and place, it is this. Marriage, of whatever sort, is not something that "just happens and then everyone lives happily ever after". A respected Jungian analyst and author, Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig, thought marriage was much more like the traditional ordeal undergone by the heros of Classical Mythology than the sort of insipid state we often assume it to be. I think he is right.
Edward Fido | 02 September 2015

In a world where God is Love and religion, morality, spirituality and legality are connected, I can't see why there should be any conflict of interest between civil and sacramental marriages for either traditional or gay couples. Maybe I'm idealistic, and I don't expect churches to endorse SSM, but I would like to think that one day religions could recognise the presence of God's salvific plan even in same sex marriages.
AURELIUS | 02 September 2015

"The concept of two newly vowed people living in a home of their own is the foreign concept" . Well no not really from an hostorical point of view in Western Europe.That is exactly what marriage did mean: the setting up of a separate household committed to the long term perpetuation of that household. "Lawfully begotten" children were part of that overall aim but not the only part.
margaret | 02 September 2015

How refreshing to stroll along the river bank in the first burst of spring and see (albeit on benches and tree trunks) inscriptions such as "James L. Maddie 4 ever."
John | 03 September 2015

Sorry to interrupt the fan-mail, Ginger, but don't you think "marriage in all its wondrous dimensions" is a tad vague? After all, we're talking about an issue that involves radical change in a debate already clouded to the point of distortion by poll-itis, euphemism and artificial definition.
John | 03 September 2015

Well yes John, I accept your criticism - my expression was probably more than 'a tad vague'. But I was impressed - over-excited perhaps - by the way that Gail had presented marriage as something like 'work in progress', as Robert and Margaret suggest, rather than as some narrow binding constraining and contract as it is sometimes presented in ES. Because for those of us who have truly experienced marriage it is a work in progress, where the nature of the bond and the mutual responsibilities are being continuously renegotiated, where both independence and inter-dependence thrive, and where the effect is felt not only within the marriage but also by those with whom the couple interact in society.
Ginger Meggs | 03 September 2015

As a family therapist and marriage counsellor I do not agree with this comment, "The more complete answer is that a growth in the divorce rate occurs when a man believes that housework and parenting should not be shared equally. He says, 'I love you' and she replies, 'Well, it doesn't feel like it over here'." It is not about issues of equality it is about attachment, bonding and connection. When partners feel securely bonded they are not primarily concerned with equality. Issues of the marriage are deeper than equality. To really understand why women are ending marriages, look at their attachment styles. When she says "it doesn't feel like it over here", she is talking about more than who does the lion's share of the domestic work. She is talking about when I reach for you, are you there for me, can I rely on you to have my back, are you in this partnership with me or are we on separate pages?Issues of equality and justice are certainly relevant but they are not the determining factors. When we know how to heal our attachment rifts we can so much more easily take care of issues of equality and fairness.
Margie Ulbrick | 04 September 2015

Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing Gail's article. I'd like to see her get a Guernsey for the Synod on the Family. I think too much discussion on Marriage and The Family is culture-bound. I once chipped an Indian student about his upcoming arranged marriage. He replied; 'Ah, Pat, you Westerners fall in love and then get married. In India, we get married and then we fall in love.' Since I had no personal experience of either approach to marriage at the time I had no answer to his rejoinder.
Uncle Pat | 05 September 2015

God of Abraham created Adam and Lilith as equals, but Adam wouldn't take no for an answer, so Adam complained and God created a second more compliant wife who was made from his rib. How many Christians have been told about the 1st wife club?
Julie | 07 September 2015

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