A Breezy, 'Contrarian' View Of Marriage In a delightful new book, journalist Susan Squire traces the first 5,000 years of marital behavior and reveals just how much of a historical odd couple love and marriage are.
NPR logo A Breezy, 'Contrarian' View Of Marriage


Book Reviews

A Breezy, 'Contrarian' View Of Marriage

'I Don't'
I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage
By Susan Squire
Hardcover, 223 pages
List Price: $25.99

Read an excerpt.

As someone living happily ever after in the secular West at the beginning of a new millennium, it is hard for me to imagine anything more elemental: First comes love, then comes marriage. Bad news, matrimonial romantics.

In her delightful book, I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, journalist Susan Squire traces roughly the first 5,000 years of marital behavior, and the real matrimonial axiom is not nearly as catchy: First comes proof of paternity, consolidation of property rights and the occasional ravishment (sorry, Sabine ladies!); then comes marriage.

Squire's long history of connubial blisslessness starts in the caves and proposes that the marital relationship didn't really become complicated until our ancestors had an epiphany: All that humping in the fields? It wasn't just to pass the time between hunting and gathering.

Man's realization of his comparatively minor role in baby-making put him in an existential pickle. He had to find a way to preserve his power over those cunning female incubators. It wouldn't be easy. Across the next several centuries, he had to cope with some tough broads: Eve, Jezebel, Lucretia, Helen of Troy.

I Don't posits the Adam and Eve story as a cautionary tale (Dude, look what happened to humanity when you were fool enough to listen to your wife!) and charts, from there, changing sexual and marital mores through Athens, Rome, the Dark Ages and the golden age of 11th century "courtly love." (Guess what: We should be relieved that chivalry is dead.)

By the time the Reformation rolled around, marriage had slipped to a scorned and sad second-place option behind celibacy. Enter German theologian Martin Luther, an unlikely but effective champion for marriage as a pleasurable and mutually beneficial partnership. It is there, in the startlingly tender matrimonial bed of Mr. and Mrs. Luther, that love and marriage began their embrace.

It would have been easy for Squire to make an early history of marriage a mere rant; it was, to say the least, a trying time for the ladies. Women were chattel, the virgin/whore conceit was in its prime, and anyone whose mother read Betty Friedan knows things didn't improve for a long, long time.

But Squire has a deft touch; the book is a chatty read, with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. It's filled with fascinating tidbits and great scene setters, too. Picture Roman wives marching in the first women's rights demonstration, for the freedom to wear purple and gold. (Their husbands' horses had better wardrobes.)

In the end, you're likely to gain some sympathy for our ancestors, cruel and clumsy though they were. You'd be cranky, too, if you had missed out on lust and love. All the more reason to learn from this ample history of marital injustice, lest you be doomed to repeat it — by chucking the book at your hubby's head.

Excerpt: 'I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage'

I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage
By Susan Squire
Hardcover, 223 pages
List Price: $25.99


To call it "lovemaking" eons before anyone develops the idea of love, let alone links it to sex, would be absurd. In primal time there are no romantic delusions, no secret trysts, no promises, no privacy, no future plans. There's only lust, followed by sex — mindless sex, even for the creatures with minds.

So humans aren't "making love", not yet, but they've already assumed the position without which lovemaking will be virtually unthinkable: belly to belly, length to length, face to face, eye to eye. And in this human proclivity for frontal sex — for "making the beast with two backs," to use the crude Elizabethan phrase — lies the potential for romance, emotional entanglement, erotic passion, and love love love, marital and extramarital.

In the future, who has sex with whom, and when, and where, and in what position will become a very complicated business indeed. What matters in primal time is survival, which depends on rapid reproduction, which depends on copulation unfettered by conscious thought. History will demonstrate ad nauseam that once sex becomes mindful and thereby meaningful — once people figure out, for example, the cause- and- effect relationship between copulation and conception — making the beast with two backs will be subject to impediments. This can't happen too soon, or we wouldn't be here. Evolutionary logic suggests that the endgame of sex escapes awareness until humankind nails survival. There will be plenty of time for impediments later on.

How much later? That question can be answered only speculatively, and loosely, by considering the archaeological timeline. The ability to make tools — a sign of rudimentary intelligence at work — dates back about 2.5 million years. But there's a vast cognitive distance between putting together a spear and putting together something as abstract as, say, a mythological explanation of life's origins, and it takes practically forever to close. Given that distance, and the fact that while maternity is obvious, paternity is not, people probably don't connect sex to reproduction for many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years.1 Until this vital association is made — until men realize that women do not conceive new life all by themselves — there's little reason, in the Darwinian sense, to put the brakes on sexual activity, men's or women's. Notions of morality, propriety, guilt, and sin haven't been formed. Nor has the double standard of fidelity, that future anchor of marital law. And marriage itself — the civilizing agent of sex — hasn't been institutionalized. These developments await a series of external events that begin to converge in prehistory, some time after 12,000 BCE.

By then, modern humans have fully evolved and subdivided into three races. Traveling in groups, or tribes, they're on the move, fanning out from Africa around the globe. Some tribes have already settled around the great river valleys of the Near East, and others inhabit caves farther north in what is now Europe, but most remain nomadic; they follow the food supply wherever it leads.

Tribal members, men and women, pool their skills and their cunning to fend off the recurrent perils of common life. Their united struggle against starvation is waged on two fronts, animal and vegetable — both essential food sources — by two different teams. Innate logic dictates that the labor be split along gender lines. Men's greater strength, higher muscle- to- fat ratio, and unencumbered biology obviously suit them to the rigors of hunting; the breeding cycle limits women's mobility (and when it bears fruit, compounds their tasks), making the job of gathering plants and grains best suited to them.

Crossover is possible. There may be the occasional woman who is rugged enough to haul a spear over treacherous terrain and who's also blessed with the acute vision to spot fast- moving prey, along with the sharp reflexes and sheer raw nerve to kill it — or be killed. There may well be the occasional man who does better in the field than on the trail. Still, it seems safe to say that female hunters and male gatherers are about as representative of the tribal population as female breadwinners and male homemakers are of the average middle- class marriage today: not very.

But while men and women labor daily at different tasks in different places, as they will in the future, it's likely that "women's work" has yet to be downgraded in comparison to men's; women themselves have yet to be downgraded in comparison to men. In the common struggle for survival they are mutually indispensable — each sex contributes something essential that the other isn't equipped to procure or produce on its own — and therefore of relatively equal stature.

Everything is shared: food and water, fire and shelter, the care of children, and the grown- ups' reproductive equipment. Men and women participate in a fluid, inclusive sexual system that anthropologists generally call "group marriage." Its existence can only be assumed (this is prehistory, after all), but the musical-chair- like mating game the term describes is certainly feasible and even probable — simply because such an arrangement would favor survival. Biology alone inhibits mating, although only for women who are already pregnant; as long as there are other ovulating women available, men's work is never done.

Group marriage is plausible while sexual behavior remains uncivilized and instinctive, outside of conscious control. But once the mystery of conception is solved and the idea of ownership is born, it becomes untenable. Organized communal sex will never work again — and not for lack of trying. Both the Marxist- inspired free love movement of the mid- 1800s and the open marriage idea spawned by the so- called sexual revolution of the early 1970s, to name two recent incarnations, will be embraced by the outré few and quickly consigned to the dustbin of history's "radical social experiments" without ever attracting more than voyeur is tic interest among the majority.

As it happens, the death knell for group marriage (and mindless sex) has already begun to ring. The gender parity that has presumably been the pattern for eons will be reconfigured in relative seconds — a casualty of the civilizing process. What catalyzes that process? It's undocumented by human hand, but there are enough environmental clues to suggest a plausible scenario. Those clues lie in a sequence of interrelated events, precipitated by something that could not sound more mundane: a change in the weather.

Let's say that sometime between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE, in the vicinity of the Mediterranean Sea, a wandering tribe hacks its way through dense underbrush. Upon emerging, these nomads stop dead in amazement. They stand at the edge of a field fertile beyond imagining, a vast edible tableau of golden grains and wheat begging to be harvested, and promising to yield more than enough food to feed everyone for a year. The air is warm, the soil is rich, the sun glitters. Why not stay for the night — and the next, and the next? The gatherers get busy gathering; the hunters, having investigated the verdant forests surrounding the open land and found them full of well- nourished animal life, get busy hunting (and saving time, too, without fruitless hours and days spent tracking elusive prey). Pretty soon the group concurs that chasing the food supply when it's right in front of you, replenishing itself as fast as it's consumed, no longer makes sense. The wandering days are over. The group settles down.

Global warming, of a sort, has made this new phase of human existence possible. The fourth, the longest and (so far) the last, Ice Age has ended. The frozen sheets, hundreds of feet thick, which had turned most of the northern hemi sphere into a gigantic skating rink for the past hundred thousand years, have finally re- turned to their Arctic origins. The newly temperate worldwide climate brings hot, dry summers and cool, moist winters to the Near East, and umpteen generations of European cave dwellers migrating south in search of hospitable temperatures find their way there.

The change in the weather changes everything. It makes settled life possible and sparks the development of farming, which leads directly to an electrifying epiphany — an intellectual eureka moment of incalculable significance. Now that men have become shepherds rather than hunters, they're able to observe animal behavior at close range, day after day. One day the lightbulb goes on.

Here's the scenario: A shepherd watches a ram trot over to a receptive ewe and mount her. When the act is completed, the ram doesn't lie down and go to sleep (as the man, given his druthers, might at such a moment). Instead, he mounts a new partner — sometimes a dozen more before the day's over. Several weeks later, the shepherd notices that the bellies of these same ewes appear to be swelling. The shepherd knows the likely result of this peculiarly female shape- shifting process, but until now has never guessed the cause. In lieu of evidence to the contrary, he assumed that baby making was self-generated by females and wholly unrelated to the sexual act. Suddenly, he gets it.

The shepherd has stumbled upon what will soon be the glaringly obvious truth about male sexuality, human and animal alike: Ejaculation, gratifying though it may be, is not the end of copulation but the midpoint, the indispensable — and heretofore missing — link between copulation and conception. He already knows that his sexual anatomy, which enables him to penetrate a woman's body, is a source of physical pleasure and release. Now he begins to grasp that it is also a source (the source, he will soon decide) of life itself. The bellies of women do not swell of their own accord; men must first sow their seeds within. He grasps that his own life-giving power, awe-inspiring in itself, is also — more awe-inspiring still — potentially without limit. While a female is capable of being impregnated only when she's ovulating, and only by one male at a time, allowing the human female to give birth about once a year, a healthy man has the ability to impregnate numerous women — at any time, on any day, of any month, between puberty and death.

In this matter of procreation, men have spent eons upon eons underestimating themselves, and eons upon eons overestimating women. They won't let either happen again anytime soon. On the contrary, now that lightning's struck, they will steadily magnify their reproductive role — until, with a major assist from Aristotle, fatherhood comes to mean nearly everything and motherhood almost nothing. It helps, of course, to be able to document this self- directed progression to stardom. Thanks to the invention of writing, that documentation will be ample indeed.

Exhibit A: The word "seed" is mentioned no less than 222 times in the Old Testament, where it is deemed so precious that to spill it anywhere but inside a reproductively capable woman's reproductive orifice (and none other) is to incite the murderous wrath of God. Exhibit B: In classical Athens, the citizens (all of them, by definition, male) are so enamored of their life-engendering equipment that sculptures of massive erections dominate the cityscape as ubiquitously as crosses later will in Christian Rome. Exhibits C to F: the words incubator, container, receptacle, vessel. To describe the entirety of the maternal role as it will shortly be perceived, pick any one.

Men have always surpassed women in physical strength. The newfound knowledge of paternity helps to anchor in consciousness the idea, or the hope, that men surpass women on the more profound level of being — of intrinsic human worth. Over time the notion becomes axiomatic for both men and women and a matter of public policy, what ever the private truth may be. From it, the principle of patria potestas, literally "the rule of the father," follows logically.

How curious, then, that men should seem so threatened — so oppressed, especially in marriage — by women, affirming and reaffirming their physical, intellectual, and moral superiority, yet claiming repeatedly to be outmaneuvered and undone by what all presume to be the weaker sex. The intertwined story of women and marriage is largely filtered through a testosterone prism. Because of that, it reveals very little about women's experience, but plenty about what men think or imagine women's experience to be. Which is to say it reveals men's experience of women. Which is to say it reveals men. And men, throughout this story, often seem stymied by women, no matter what measures they take to protect themselves. Western history and literature teem with treacherous females who have their way with men. They have it by stealth, by seduction, by coercion, by dissembling, by their wits; in any case they have it regularly.

More exhibits: Eve hands Adam temptation without disguising it, and he bites. In her wake are Delilah and Jezebel, who somehow force a great warrior and an enthroned king, respectively, to betray or dishonor everything that matters to their society. Elsewhere, in the Mediterranean, Homer constructs an epic poem around the presumption that one woman's beauty will prove toxic enough to start a war and ultimately level an entire society. Recurrent suspicion that women can render men flaccid or tumescent at will, through witchcraft, helps to fuel four hundred years of mass hysteria from Spain to Germany to the American colonies, leading to the ostracization, torture, and execution of alleged evildoers, 80 to 85 percent of whom happen to be female.

What compels the designated stronger sex, whose members produce and preserve the work that defines Western culture, to view itself repeatedly as an easy mark for members of the designated weaker sex? If one side is really convinced of its superiority to the other, why the need to issue ceaseless reminders on that score? How can men have at their disposal an arsenal of weapons, including law and custom weighted heavily in their favor, to be used against women — who have, in any tangible sense, zilch — and yet project themselves as defenseless victims of women?

As men's tangled history of their lives with women unfolds through fact and fiction there's a refrain that emerges, a subtextual complaint that the composers may not even recognize, and it reverberates between the lines century after century. In the domestic and sexual union that is unique to married life, there seems to be an inherent contradiction between authority and power. The difference is far from obvious. A husband's authority over his wife is endorsed, accepted, indeed commanded — by God, by law, by social consensus, every which way — from the beginning, without question. It should go without saying that he who has the authority automatically has the power as well, but in marriage this turns out to be not quite true.

In marriage, men cannot help revealing themselves, exposing themselves — physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, one way or another — to their wives. This is also true in reverse, of course, but the stakes are so much lower that a wife's exposure can do no worse than to confirm the assumption at the heart of patriarchal marriage: Women are inferior to men as servants are to masters, and no one expects much from inferiors. But masters have a hell of a lot to lose and a hell of a distance to fall. Either way, they're vulnerable.

And here "the rule of the father" comes back to haunt the fathers themselves. That's the source of the power that men unwittingly bestow upon their wives. Whether the women wield it or not is up to them — and if literature mirrors life, sources ranging from the Bible and Roman mythology to Renaissance tragedy, Restoration comedy, and straight through to the modern age teem with women who do. "Men," states one of them in 1993, "exist in a state of perpetual enmity towards women."

But these hellishly complicated feelings men hold toward women across the ages track back to the paternal awakening, to the moment when the rapture fades and the anxiety creeps in. The heightened sense of potency has a flip side: heightened vulnerability. Against it men try to armor themselves. Instituting "the rule of the father" provides a semi- safe harbor along the shoals of daily life. It means that wives enjoy the same legal status as children and slaves, which is to say none. They're deprived of civic voice, property rights, and all the rest. But the buffer systems men devise are no more than that. Awareness of paternity afflicts them with apparently permanent insecurity. They often seem stumped by their need for women, starting with the undeniable reality that women possess the only suitable containers in which seed can thrive. And that's the heart of the dilemma: How can a man be sure that it is his seed alone she breeds, not his brother's or cousin's or neighbor's? The answer, until the advent of DNA technology in the 1980s: He can't.

"It's he who has no wife who is no cuckold," Chaucer writes in the latter half of the fourteenth century, crisply distilling one of the most per sis tent themes in Western culture since the start of history. The belief spans ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and even Victorian eras: women are sexually rapacious, indeed insatiable. A catch- 22 arises out of the prehistoric paternal euphoria, eventually becoming a historical constant: Women must be controlled, but women can't be controlled.

When civilization finally stirs in its Near Eastern cradle, men have just begun to feel uneasy. How can they safeguard the precious paternity they've just discovered? They've awoken to a problem that they identify as Woman, and now they set about solving it. At the outset there's no reason to think that success might elude them. After all, if goats and dogs and cows can be domesticated and possessed, why not women?

So the civilizers make the control of sex their first priority. It's the right move at the right time: To control sex is to control reproduction, and to control reproduction is (theoretically) to control women, by controlling their access to sexual partners — and to control women is to ease or even eliminate entirely the threat to men. They devise numerous strategies to achieve this goal, and though their successors adjust the mix, tailoring the details to fit the times, at all times men reach for the same end, and fall short.

Of those strategies, three eclipse all others: patriarchal marriage ("the rule of the father"); the double standard of sexual fidelity (loose for husbands, rigid for wives); and confinement at home ("woman's place"). Men put these tactics in play at the start and keep them in play throughout history.

We'll see how well they work.

Books Featured In This Story