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Facts and fallacies about marriage (1)

By Douglas Anele

It is virtually impossible to know exactly the number of marriages that take place all over the world daily or weekly. What is certain is that an overwhelming majority of men and women still consider it appropriate to formalise their close relationships one way or another through wedlock.

Paradoxically, given the tremendous socio-economic, cultural, and ideational changes that occurred globally since the scientific and technological revolutions of the 20th century, divorce has increased exponentially from what it was in previous times when break up of marriage, except on the ground of fornication, was thought to be a grievous sin punishable by God.

In recent years, several western countries have legitimised homosexual or homoerotic union, due mainly to the increasing recognition that serious expression of human sexuality and the need for intimacy and companionship transcends traditional, religion-approved, man-woman polarity, and that the choice of marriage partner is fundamentally a personal decision in which the community or state should not interfere. Most African countries are yet to key into the homoerotic world, because they are still rotating within the strong gravitational field of antiquated religions, especially traditional African religion, Christianity, and Islam.

Last year the Nigerian senate instead of tackling the hydra-headed challenges confronting the country mischievously passed a bill outlawing homoerotic relationships. At any rate, whatever mode is permitted in a given society marriage remains a very important social institution, and it is clear that it would continue in various forms as long as committed personal relationships satisfy some of the deepest physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs of human beings.

The fundamental problem with marriage is that most people go into it without a scientific understanding and appreciation of the law of unintended effects, together with the precariousness and uncertainties that permeate human existence. For instance, religionists tend to think that the mere recitation of certain texts from their favourite scripture during weddings and description of spousal relationship as a sacrament will increase the possibility of happy marriage, without realising that there are no guarantees anywhere that even with the best of intentions a marriage conducted in total compliance with religious teachings will last.

In addition, many people delude themselves that romantic love alone is enough to sustain marriage. Romantic love is a wayward emotion that on its own cannot sustain a serious relationship on a long-term basis necessary for marriage. Thus, misconceptions about marriage even among professional marriage counsellors are legion.

People are still repeating avoidable mistakes in marriage because they  hardly pay attention to research findings in the last few decades, which conclusively establish that traditional conceptions of marriage are breaking down under the weight of new knowledge, industrialisation and the economic and intellectual emancipation of women, among other factors. Therefore, a philosophical investigation of marriage is necessary to promote a levelheaded appreciation of the entailments of marital relationship, dispel illusions about matrimony, and enlighten those already wedded to improve their practice of marriage.

To kick-start our analysis, let us formally define marriage. According to the informative entry on the subject in Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, marriage is a legally accepted relationship between an adult male and female that entails certain rights and obligations. This definition is valid to some extent, but it is too narrow and reflects the Christian practice of marriage dominant in western countries. It is a dangerous delusion to presume, as Christians do, that monogamy is the divinely approved model of marriage.

There are other legitimate forms of marriage including group marriage, polyandry, and polygamy. Several variables determine the type of marriage prevalent in a given society; however, the economic structure and religious beliefs are fundamental. Polygamy was widespread in African communities before the cultural and economic colonisation of Africa by the European powers. In traditional Africa, it was a symbol of affluence for a man to marry more than one woman, and more children meant more hands to work in the farm.

Now, because of westernisation (especially the spread of Christianity), coupled with urbanisation and changes in people’s ideas of parenthood and appropriate size of a nuclear family, monogamy is supplanting other marriage patterns across the world, to the extent that most marriages contracted in towns and cities are between single males and females.

The traditional conception of marriage excludes homosexual couples, and although cohabitation is becoming increasingly accepted particularly among the youths and is now the usual prelude to marriage, people still differentiate between living together and a ”proper” wedding and marriage. In the Bible, Jesus reportedly said, in Matthew 19:4, that ”he who made them at the beginning made them male and female…for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.”

Apparently, Jesus was quoting the passage in Genesis 2: 24: he consolidated the theological interpretation of marriage by proclaiming, in Matthew 19: 6, that “what God had joined together let no man put asunder.” The Islamic viewpoint is, not surprisingly, identical with the Christian perspective, given that both Christianity and Islam are Abrahamic religions. The Quran 7:189 proclaims that: “He [Allah] it is who created you from a single soul, and therefrom did make his mate that he might take rest in her”.

The religious view of marriage is part of traditional African culture also. Of course, theological explanation of the provenance of marital relationship is untenable. To begin with, marriage is completely explainable in terms of the biological, emotional, intellectual, economic, and cultural factors, such that it is superfluous to import anything supernatural for its justification.

In otherwords, marriage is not an extraordinary social institution or phenomenon: it is well within the capabilities of human beings and does not require the postulation of a divine originator. The impressive literature on the origins and evolution of marriage contains elaborate descriptions of various forms of marriage practiced by people in different societies at different times.

Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, and Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals and so on strongly indicate that marriage is the culmination of a long process of trial and error as people grappled with the problem of relatedness. Thus, marriage embodies the culturally conditioned hopes, fears and aspirations of humans as a-being-with-others.



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