The decline of marriage in the West has been extensively researched over the last three decades (Carmichael and Whittaker; de Vaus; Coontz; Beck-Gernshein). Indeed, it was fears that the institution would be further eroded by the legalisation of same sex unions internationally that provided the impetus for the Australian government to amend the Marriage Act (1961). These amendments in 2004 sought to strengthen marriage by explicitly defining, for the first time, marriage as a legal partnership between one man and one woman. The subsequent heated debates over the discriminatory nature of this definition have been illuminating, particularly in the way they have highlighted the ongoing social significance of marriage, even at a time it is seen to be in decline.
Demographic research about partnering practices (Carmichael and Whittaker; Simons; Parker; Penman) indicates that contemporary marriages are more temporary, fragile and uncertain than in previous generations. Modern marriages are now less about a permanent and “inescapable” union between a dominant man and a submissive female for the purposes of authorised sex, legal progeny and financial security, and more about a commitment between two social equals for the mutual exchange of affection and companionship (Croome). Less research is available, however, about how couples themselves reconcile the inherited constructions of romantic love as selfless and unending, with trends that clearly indicate that romantic love is not forever, ideal or exclusive.
Civil marriage ceremonies provide one source of data about representations of love. Civil unions constituted almost 70 per cent of all marriages in Australia in 2010, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The civil marriage ceremony has both a legal and symbolic role. It is a legal contract insofar as it prescribes a legal arrangement with certain rights and responsibilities between two consenting adults and outlines an expectation that marriage is voluntarily entered into for life. The ceremony is also a public ritual that requires couples to take what are usually private feelings for each other and turn them into a public performance as a way of legitimating their relationship. Consistent with the conventions of performance, couples generally customise the rest of the ceremony by telling the story of their courtship, and in so doing they often draw upon the language and imagery of the Western Romantic tradition to convey the personal meaning and social significance of their decision.
This paper explores how couples construct the idea of love in their relationship, first by examining the western history of romantic love and then by looking at how this discourse is invoked by Australians in the course of developing civil marriage ceremonies in collaboration with the author.
A History of Romantic Love
There are many definitions of romantic love, but all share similar elements including an intense emotional and physical attraction, an idealisation of each other, and a desire for an enduring and unending commitment that can overcome all obstacles (Gottschall and Nordlund; Janowiak and Fischer). Romantic love has historically been associated with heightened passions and intense almost irrational or adolescent feelings. Charles Lindholm’s list of clichés that accompany the idea of romantic love include: “love is blind, love overwhelms, a life without love is not worth living, marriage should be for love alone and anything less is worthless and a sham” (5). These elements, which invoke love as sacred, unending and unique, perpetuate past cultural associations of the term.
Romantic love was first documented in Ancient Rome where intense feelings were seen as highly suspect and a threat to the stability of the family, which was the primary economic, social and political unit. Roman historian Plutarch viewed romantic love based upon strong personal attraction as disruptive to the family, and he expressed a fear that romantic love would become the norm for Romans (Lantz 352).
During the Middle Ages romantic love emerged as courtly love and, once again, the conventions that shaped its expression grew out of an effort to control excessive emotions and sublimate sexual desire, which were seen as threats to social stability. Courtly love, according to Marilyn Yalom, was seen as an “irresistible and inexhaustible passion; a fatal love that overcomes suffering and even death” (66). Feudal social structures had grounded marriage in property, while the Catholic Church had declared marriage a sacrament and a ceremony through which God’s grace could be obtained. In this context courtly love emerged as a way of dealing with the conflict between the individual and family choices over the martial partner. Courtly love is about a pure ideal of love in which the knight serves his unattainable lady, and, by carrying out feats in her honour, reaches spiritual perfection. The focus on the aesthetic ideal was a way to fulfil male and female emotional needs outside of marriage, while avoiding adultery.
Romantic love re-appeared again in the mid-eighteenth century, but this time it was associated with marriage. Intellectuals and writers led the trend normalising romantic love in marriage as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s valorisation of reason, science and materialism over emotion. Romantics objected to the pragmatism and functionality induced by industrialisation, which they felt destroyed the idea of the mysterious and transcendental nature of love, which could operate as a form of secular salvation. Love could not be bought or sold, argued the Romantics, “it is mysterious, true and deep, spontaneous and compelling” (Lindholm 5).
Romantic love also emerged as an expression of the personal autonomy and individualisation that accompanied the rise of industrial society. As Lanz suggests, romantic love was part of the critical reflexivity of the Enlightenment and a growing belief that individuals could find self actualisation through the expression and expansion of their “emotional and intellectual capacities in union with another” (354). Thus it was romantic love, which privileges the feelings and wishes of an individual in mate selection, that came to be seen as a bid for freedom by the offspring of the growing middle classes coerced into marriage for financial or property reasons.
Throughout the 19th century romantic love was seen as a solution to the dehumanising forces of industrialisation and urbanisation. The growth of the competitive workplace—which required men to operate in a restrained and rational manner—saw an increase in the search for emotional support and intimacy within the domestic domain. It has been argued that “love was the central preoccupation of middle class men from the 1830s until the end of the 19th century” (Stearns and Knapp 771). However, the idealisation of the aesthetic and purity of love impacted marriage relations by casting the wife as pure and marital sex as a duty. As a result, husbands pursued sexual and romantic relationships outside marriage. It should be noted that even though love became cemented as the basis for marriage in the 19th century, romantic love was still viewed suspiciously by religious groups who saw strong affection between couples as an erosion of the fundamental role of the husband in disciplining his wife.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries romantic love was further impacted by urbanisation and migration, which undermined the emotional support provided by extended families. According to Stephanie Coontz, it was the growing independence and mobility of couples that saw romantic love in marriage consolidated as the place in which an individual’s emotional and social needs could be fully satisfied. Coontz says that the idea that women could only be fulfilled through marriage, and that men needed women to organise their social life, reached its heights in the 1950s (25-30).
Changes occurred to the structure of marriage in the 1960s when control over fertility meant that sex was available outside of marriage. Education, equality and feminism also saw women reject marriage as their only option for fulfilment. Changes to Family Law Acts in western jurisdictions in the 1970s provided for no-fault divorce, and as divorce lost its stigma it became acceptable for women to leave failing marriages. These social shifts removed institutional controls on marriage and uncoupled the original sexual, emotional and financial benefits packaged into marriage. The resulting individualisation of personal lifestyle choices for men and women disrupted romantic conventions, and according to James Dowd romantic love came to be seen as an “investment” in the “future” that must be “approached carefully and rationally” (552). It therefore became increasingly difficult to sustain the idea of love as a powerful, mysterious and divine force beyond reason.
In seeking to understand how contemporary partnering practices are reconstituting romantic love, I draw upon anecdotal data gathered over a nine-year period from my experiences as a marriage celebrant. In the course of personalising marriage ceremonies, I pose a series of questions designed to assist couples to explain the significance of their relationship. I generally ask brides and grooms why they love their fiancé, why they want to legalise their relationship, what they most treasure about their partner, and how their lives have been changed by their relationship. These questions help couples to reflexively interrogate their own relationship, and by talking about their commitment in concrete terms, they produce the images and descriptions that can be used to describe for guests the internal motivations and sentiments that have led to their decision to marry. I have had couples, when prompted to explain how they know the other person loves them say, in effect: “I know that he loves me because he brings me a cup of coffee every morning” or “I know that she loves me because she takes care of me so well.” These responses are grounded in a realism that helps to convey a sense of sincerity and authenticity about the relationship to the couple’s guests. This realism also helps to address the cynicism about the plausibility of enduring love.
The brides and grooms in this sample of 300 couples were a socially, culturally and economically diverse group, and they provided a wide variety of responses ranging from deeply nuanced insights into the nature of their relationship, to admissions that their feelings were so private and deeply felt that words were insufficient to convey their significance. Reoccurring themes, however, emerged across the cases, and it is evident that even as marriage partnerships may be entered into for a variety of reasons, romantic love remains the mechanism by which couples talk of their feelings for each other.
Australian Love and Marriage
Australians' attitudes to romantic love and marriage have, understandably, been shaped by western understandings of romantic love. It is evident, however, that the demands of late modern capitalist society, with its increased literacy, economic independence and sexual equality between men and women, have produced marriage as a negotiable contract between social equals. For some, like Carol Pateman, this sense of equality within marriage may be illusory. Nonetheless, the drive for individual self-fulfilment by both the bride and groom produces a raft of challenges to traditional ideas of marriage as couples struggle to find a balance between independence and intimacy; between family and career; and between pursuing personal goals and the goals of their partners. This shift in the nature of marriage has implications for the “quest for undying romantic love,” which according to Anthony Giddens has been replaced by other forms of relationship, "each entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it” (qtd. in Lindholm 6).
The impact of these social changes on the nature of romantic love in marriage is evident in how couples talk about their relationship in the course of preparing a ceremony. Many couples describe the person they are marrying as their best friend, and friendship is central to their commitment. This description supports research by V.K. Oppenheimer which indicates that many contemporary couples have a more “egalitarian collaborative approach to marriage” (qtd. in Carmichael and Whittaker 25). It is also standard for couples to note in ceremonies that they make each other happy and contented, with many commenting upon how their partners have helped to bring focus and perspective to their work-oriented lives. These comments tend to invoke marriage as a refuge from the isolation, competition, and dehumanising elements of workplaces.
Since emotional support is central to the marriage contract, it is not surprising that care for each other is another reoccurring theme in ceremonies. Many brides and grooms not only explicitly say they are well taken care of by their partner, but also express admiration for their partner’s treatment of their families and friends. This behaviour appears to be seen as an indicator of the individual’s capacity for support and commitment to family values. Many couples admire partner’s kindness, generosity and level of personal self-sacrifice in maintaining the relationship. It is also not uncommon for brides and grooms to say they have been changed by their love: become kinder, more considerate and more tolerant.
Honesty, communication skills and persistence are also attributes that are valued. Brides and grooms who have strong communication skills are also praised. This may refer to interpersonal competency and the willingness to acquire the skills necessary to negotiate the endless compromises in contemporary marriage now that individualisation has undermined established rules, rituals and roles. Persistence and the ability not to be discouraged by setbacks is also a reoccurring theme, and this connects with the idea that marriage is work. Many couples promise to grow together in their marriage and to both take responsibility for the health of their relationship. This promise implies awareness that marriage is not the fantasy of happily ever after produced in romantic popular culture, but rather an arrangement that requires hard work and conscious commitment, particularly in building a union amidst many competing options and distractions.
Many couples talk about their relationship in terms of companionship and shared interests, values and goals. It is also not uncommon for couples to say that they admire their partner for supporting them to achieve their life goals or for exposing them to a wider array of lifestyle choices and options like travel or study. These examples of interdependence appear to make explicit that couples still see marriage as a vehicle for personal freedom and self-realisation.
The death of love is also alluded to in marriage ceremonies. Couples talk of failed past relationships, but these are produced positively as a mechanism that enables the couple to know that they have now found an enduring relationship. It is also evident that for many couples the decision to marry is seen as the formalisation of a preexisting commitment rather than the gateway to a new life. This is consistent with figures that show that 72 per cent of Australian couples chose to cohabit before marriage (Simons 48), and that cohabitation has become the “normative pathway to marriage” (Penman 26).
References to children also feature in marriage ceremonies, and for the couples I have worked with marriage is generally seen as the pre-requisite for children. Couples also often talk about “being ready” for marriage. This seems to refer to being financially prepared. Robyn Parker citing the research of K. Edin concludes that for many modern couples “rushing into marriage before being ‘set’ is irresponsible—marrying well (in the sense of being well prepared) is the way to avoid divorce” (qtd. in Parker 81).
From this overview of reoccurring themes in the production of Australian ceremonies it is clear that romantic love continues to be associated with marriage. However, couples describe a more grounded and companionable attachment. These more practical and personalised sentiments serve to meet both the public expectation that romantic love is a precondition for marriage, while also avoiding the production of romantic love in the ceremony as an empty cliché. Grounded descriptions of love reveal that attraction does not have to be overwhelming and unconquerable. Indeed, couples who have lived together and are intimately acquainted with each other’s habits and disposition, appear to be most comfortable expressing their commitment to each other in more temperate, but no less deeply felt, terms.
This paper has considered how brides and grooms constitute romantic love within the shifting partnering practices of contemporary Australia. It is evident “in the midst of significant social and economic change and at a time when individual rights and freedom of choice are important cultural values” marriage remains socially significant (Simons 50). This significance is partially conveyed through the language of romantic love, which, while freighted with an array of cultural and historical associations, remains the lingua franca of marriage, perhaps because as Roberto Unger observes, romantic love is “the most influential mode of moral vision in our culture” (qtd. in Lindholm 5).
It is thus possible to conclude, that while marriage may be declining and becoming more fragile and impermanent, the institution remains important to couples in contemporary Australia. Moreover, the language and imagery of romantic love, which publicly conveys this importance, remains the primary mode of expressing care, affection and hope for a partnership, even though the changed partnering practices of late modern capitalist society have exposed the utopian quality of romantic love and produced a cynicism about the viability of its longevity. It is evident in the marriage ceremonies prepared by the author that while the language of romantic love has come to signify a broader range of more practical associations consistent with the individualised nature of modern marriage and demystification of romantic love, it also remains the best way to express what Dowd and Pallotta describe as a fundamental human “yearning for communion with and acceptance by another human being” (571).
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