Stable institutionalised man-woman marriage has the capacity to transform and strengthen society. Through our support for marriage, we can change society for the better. Marriage is an arena where the personal really is political, in an intimate but transformative way.
We have control over marriage because it is not dependent on our legal system, but precedes it. The desire for some kind of union with a person of the opposite sex symbolised through ritual is a human universal. It is one of the most deeply felt human needs.
Our man-made law (until recently) reflected our unwritten and unchanging natural law. And no matter what harm that man-made law tries to inflict on marriage, marriage is something which we can support and strengthen through our relations with friends and family and in our own private lives.
There is extensive evidence that marriage benefits married individuals and their children in all sorts of ways.
- Marriage has been found to be the most significant contributor to life satisfaction in the UK second only to health.
- Health is itself influenced by marriage. Some have suggested the impact is as large as giving up smoking.
- The beneficial effect of marriage on mental health has been estimated at $100 000 dollars a year.
- Marriage increases longevity.
- Married couples gain financially.
- Perhaps most importantly, marriage has significant benefits for the children of married parents, who are less likely to suffer from the mental health problems which can otherwise caste a long shadow over that child’s life.
These are the benefits of marriage to the individual. But it is the benefits of marriage to society which I would like to talk about here.
A pioneering anthropologist
First, I want to talk to you a little bit about the findings of British anthropologist J.D. Unwin. J.D. Unwin conducted extremely rigorous research into the relationship between sexual freedom and cultural development in 86 different societies, and in 1934 published his 600-page book Sex and Culture .
What he discovered was that monogamous one man, one woman marriage affects society in fundamental ways. He found that there was a strict relationship between those societies which practiced absolute monogamy and cultural flourishing in those societies. It turned out that sexual restraint was associated with hugely productive cultural energy.
The key factor appeared to be pre-nuptial chastity. A society which practices pre-nuptial chastity is much more likely to maintain the monogamy essential to cultural flourishing. Once the chastity goes, the monogamy follows soon after.
Unwin found that sexual constraints always lead to cultural flourishing, whereas sexual freedom always led to the collapse of a culture three generations later. There were no exceptions.
Now we can put his theory to the test. Sexual liberation started in our own culture in the 1960s. Unwin estimated a generation to be 33 years. If he’s right, by the middle of the 21st century, we can expect to be in a state of complete cultural collapse…
Why does monogamous marriage bring about this cultural flourishing?
Marriage and the creation of society
One of the features of contemporary society is that individual feelings, needs and wants are regarded as a legitimate compass to guide our actions and understanding.
But where each man is his own ultimate authority, this will not make for a harmonious life.
Marriage, I suggest is the first step in transcending the individual, and it is this aspect of marriage which makes it the cornerstone of society.
Jordan Peterson tells a useful little story. Friends of his were getting married. Part of their particular ritual involved the couple holding a candle up above their heads. The symbolism of this was that they were together subordinating themselves to something which was a source of light and illumination and had authority over them. This was their marriage and the sum was greater than its parts.
The Bible tells us that man leaves his mother and his father and is united with his wife and together they become “one flesh”. They are no longer individuals; marriage turns them into a greater whole.
Thus marriage, through a contract, creates a unit which is greater than the individuals involved. Marriage creates a situation where we put another person first. In this way, marriage becomes a building block for the wider society.
In some ways, it reminds me of the Hobbesian world where in order to transcend a constant state of war men unanimously renounce a portion of their liberty through a process of covenanting with each other. They transfer their power to an elected sovereign who becomes a representative of them all. In my version, this elected sovereign is the marriage itself.
Unwin notes that deism develops under the cultural flourishing which follows absolute monogamy. As men and women learn to put another before themselves, society develops. So does a belief in God.
Submitting to marriage compelled us to be focussed on the wants and needs of others, firstly through the contractual tie which focussed us on the needs of our spouse, then the physical tie which focussed us on the needs of our children.
Submitting to marriage, then to children, meant that it was the family and not the individual which was the ordering principle of the world. Legal systems, systems of inheritance and political representation were arranged to support the family. For the family, men and women subordinated their interests and worked so hard.
Marriage and fatherhood
The second thing which only marriage can do is create fatherhood. While of course the biological links would still exist without marriage, society would be reduced to mother and child units. And fatherhood as we know it and the family which follows from it, would not.
But fatherhood lies not just at the heart of the family. It was the provisioning done by fathers which helped us to develop into homo sapiens. For example, human juveniles take significantly longer to mature than other primates, facilitating the acquisition of language, culture, social cooperation and numerous skills. The possibility of an extended childhood was ensured by male providing and protecting, which would have created a safer framework for children to take longer to mature.
So why is marriage so essential to fatherhood?
Firstly, marriage binds a man to a woman, and it is only through this formalised link with a woman that fatherhood in its fullness can occur.
This is because of the primacy of the mother-child bond. For example, the social scientist Andrea Doucet researched stay-at-home dads in Canada and was struck by the extent to which even among this group of fathers there was a belief in the primacy of the mother-infant bond.
Thus if parents split up, the father’s relationship with children can be severely attenuated or even ended. That mothers are the gatekeepers is confirmed through plentiful research.
Marriage also creates the roles and responsibilities which sustain fatherhood.
It is the institution of marriage which encourages men to take on the obligations of provisioning and providing. Married men accept an enduring obligation to provide for and protect any children born into the union and see their employment in these terms.
This is not the case with cohabitation, where equality and competition rather than difference and complementarity rule the day.
Marriage has traditionally defined the husband’s role as head of the family. So for example in 1993, 91 percent of married individuals defined the husband as the main householder, i.e. the person through whom the house is owned or rented. While feminist laws have been systematically eroding the legal effects of marriage, the tradition still remains. Where an opposite-sex couple live together, the man is counted as the head of household to this day.
Research shows that fathers do not need to spend equal time to mothers to be incredibly important to their children. Love, respect and attachment to fathers is created even where fathers spend all day out at work. Thus fathers teach children how to love even in the absence of direct care and attention. In terms of Christian eschatology, it might be possible to suggest that it is not just that the Christian concept of God the Father teaches the love of the father, but love of the absent but providing and protecting father is the first step in teaching the love of God.
Marriage and identity
Marriage is crucial to identity, because marriage underpins the family and it is the family which tells us who we are.
Mary Eberhardt discusses this in her book Primal Screams. She explains how the huge attention given to identity politics is because the family, the prime identity-making institution, has almost irretrievably broken down.
She shows how children from intact and divorced families exhibit a starkly different concepts of identity. Children of divorced parents felt like a different person with each of their parents. They felt as if they had two families. The evidence suggested a self torn in two.
We develop our identities by knowing our relatives. But when so many live in patterns of serial monogamy with shifting sets of family members, this becomes increasingly difficult to do.
But marriage doesn’t just help us identify “our people”. Marriage is key to identity, because marriage lies at the heart of establishing sex differences. And a fundamental building block of identity is knowing our own sex.
The importance of sex differences has been disastrously misunderstood. For the past three generations, we have been labouring under the illusion that any expression of sex differences is the product of discrimination and oppression against women.
Consequently, there has been a persistent effort to erode sex differences and prevent their expression from infancy upwards . This was presciently encapsulated in Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life where the mother asks, following the birth of her baby:
“A boy or a girl?” The doctor replies: “I think it’s a little early to start imposing roles on it, don’t you?” Forty years later, that is exactly the world we are living in.
Yet, knowing whether we are male or female is essential to healthy human development in a number of ways. Visible sex differences or stereotypes play an essential role in helping children develop their awareness of “sex constancy”.
Sex constancy is an understanding that things don’t change their essence when they change their appearance. And actually, it takes a long time for a child to achieve. But when there is a constant denial that males and females are actually different, that essence is going to very hard to find.
Identity is formed through a process of identification and differentiation. But how can children know whether to identify or differentiate from mothers, fathers and siblings and so on, when we are intent on denying all the clues which help us to identify sex?
This is where marriage plays such a crucial role. Male and female differences are likely to be more evident in the household than in other settings. This is because the public realm of work has been built on the model of the individual, which transcends our sex differences. But because the family based on marriage is usually intimately concerned with reproduction, these differences will come to the fore.
What about cohabitation?
With cohabitation, the individual rather than the family remains primary; the father is a more peripheral figure; and the role stability and role differentiation which we find in marriage simply do not occur.
Marriage is a public commitment shored up by social norms and sanctions. These normative structures and social expectations subtly constrain the way married people behave even when our exceptionally permissive divorce laws don’t.
As a result, marriage provides the security which allows a couple to take risks. It allows individuals to invest in the partnership with less fear of abandonment. Men may be more likely to invest their money in joint purchases and women may be more likely to invest in the couple’s children. If they were not married, he might prioritise private purchases and she might shore up her security by investing in education. This makes marriage a much more stable relationship.
The hard evidence is that whereas 24 percent of couple parents who are married before having children split up before the child is aged 16, 69 percent of parents who remain unmarried do so. Most couples who marry stay together whereas only a minority of unmarried cohabitees do so.
And it is the increasing rate of cohabitation which explains why fatherless families are on the rise.
So we can see why Unwin’s findings about monogamy makes sense. But what about prenuptial chastity? This seems a much harder pill to swallow.
Unwin found that once pre-nuptial chastity went, monogamy would fall like a house of cards. This makes sense. If sex outside marriage is acceptable the steps to infidelity are more easily bridged. Where sex outside of marriage is stigmatised adultery involves the breaking of two significant social taboos. Where sex outside marriage is acceptable, adultery only involves the breaking of one.
But it goes further than this. The Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof showed in his research on contraception and abortion that once pre-marital sex was seen as acceptable, out-of-wedlock births followed close behind. When contraception became widely available, women who made sex freely available set the standard because others felt that when it came to the dating market they would be left behind. Once sex outside of marriage was seen as acceptable, single parenthood followed and the family started breaking down.
It is also worth pointing out if sex outside of marriage had never become widely accepted, homosexuality would not have flourished.
Where does all this leave us?
I think there will be a return to marriage. Because cohabitation is “normal”, those who do marry have an acute sense of the responsibility involved. And victims of divorce often seem to make a really concerted effort to stay married.
But this will not happen unless we privilege pre-nuptial chastity. This seems impossible, but it has to happen. Unwin found that it only required a portion of society to practice pre-nuptial continence and monogamy for civilisation to take root. He explained that “the group within the society which suffers the greatest continence displays the greatest energy and dominates the society”.
Akerlof’s research suggested that women gave up on pre-nuptial chastity because they feared missing out in the dating market.
However, as Louise Perry shows in her new book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, all this has changed. It is the women who have made themselves sexually available, who have engaged in hook-up culture and other contemporary practices who are most emotionally confused and devastated as a result. They are also the women whom men are least likely to choose as their life long mates.
Tomorrow belongs to those who take these values seriously.
As more and more people realise the value of pre-nuptial chastity, marriage will become an increasingly desirable social institution and behaviour will start to change.