The Royal Wedding and the changing institution of marriage. A Q&A with historian Elizabeth Abbott.
The world is watching the U.K. this week as excitement builds over the wedding of Prince William, heir to the throne, and Kate Middleton. We spoke to Dr. Elizabeth Abbott, senior research associate at Trinity College, about the royal wedding and the changing institution of marriage. She has just written a book entitled The History of Marriage, the third in a trilogy which also includes A History of Celibacy and A History of Mistresses.
Why is there so much focus on the royal wedding right now?
Some of the hype has to do with the fact the monarchy is a bit shaky and by focusing on the best, most palatable royal—William—there’s a hope that people will accept his being king when the Queen retires or dies.
As for the actual wedding, it’s almost become a tradition to focus on the wedding day, as if that’s what’s really important in a marriage: How will she wear her hair? What will her dress be like? How does she compare to Diana, the last charismatic royal?
It all harks back to Queen Victoria. Her wedding was not the first elaborate one, but it was the first one that really hit the news. The media in those days were newspapers and magazines and illustrators sketched her dress, the elaborate setting and the entire proceedings. It got to middle class people—within two weeks it was in fashion magazines in North America. And it became the gold standard of what a wedding should be.
This is what we expect when the heir to the throne marries—a big elaborate wedding that will be riveting, that will dominate the news and that will take our mind off the ugly realities of current events—of earthquakes and unemployment.
I want to follow up on what you said about the focus being more on the wedding day than the actual marriage. This is true in general, beyond just the weddings of royals or famous people, isn’t it?
Yes. This is fuelled by the “wedding industrial complex.” The more the actual day of the wedding becomes the focal point of the union, the more stuff can be bought, the more money can be spent, the more services rendered. You have a dress that you’ll wear once that costs perhaps thousands of dollars and it’s designed so it’s not anything but a wedding dress. You can’t show up in church the next day wearing it. This is quite different from historically when you got married in a good dress that you could then sensibly wear as your best dress for the next 10 years.
Is there a relationship between this and feminism? Does this say anything about women’s progress?
Women control this. There aren’t many men saying, “you need to lose weight, you need to have a nose job, you need to look as different as possible from the woman I love.”
It’s a “stepping aside” for a day. Women make a childhood fantasy true for one day, but they do it in a controlled, compartmentalized way. The same woman might be studying neurosurgery, or law. But there’s this one little thing that must be satisfied. Feminist after feminist subjects herself to this. It’s very hard to resist. There are magazines devoted entirely to the wedding. I often had this conversation with really intelligent U of T students when I noticed wedding magazines in the recycle bin. They can’t stop themselves.
The wedding-industrial complex aside, isn’t there something genuinely appealing to people about a wedding, about what it symbolizes?
Yes, in a difficult world, it’s a reminder that real life is people living, people preparing to have families. Most people will have families. That’s the goal of most young couples—but by no means all. They do not intend to get divorced. Almost all of them think they will be the ones who won’t.
The unit of marriage remains the core organizing principle of all societies including our own. We worry about the birth rate plunging—which it has since women have gotten access to successful, affordable birth control. It’s a reassuring thing that life goes on in a way that we like to imagine as stable, traditional, familiar.
When did our modern idea of marriage based on love come into being?
Marriages traditionally were not about love at all. Now they are, of course, they’re about fulfillment, finding a compatible mate—marching together through life reinforced by the companionship, caring and affection of a self-chosen partner.
But traditionally, marriage was an arrangement about financial matters or in the case of royals or patrician people, political matters. It could be to settle a debt, it could be to get rid of an ugly older daughter because otherwise the younger ones couldn’t get married.
It was well into the 19th century before love became an important element in the establishment of a marriage. There were still many other factors that mattered, though—social status, financial means, religion. But at this point, people could say “no” to parents who tried to foist a marriage on them.
What are your thoughts about the future of the institution of marriage?
I think it has a really good future for fewer people. It’s becoming one option among several.
The choice of remaining single is increasingly attractive. The infrastructure supports this now. A home can be a small house or condo suitable for one person. You can be single and have children.
Cohabitation is also a real option now. The law doesn’t penalize children born out of wedlock anymore—the concept of bastardization has been eradicated. There’s no stigma anymore.
Gay people who wish to marry can do it, so that has reinforced the institution. It’s allowed a whole new excluded segment of the population into it as potential spouses. This reinforces marriage.
Are we talking only about Canada here?
Yes. The U.S. is different. Eighty-five per cent of all Americans will eventually marry at least once. We do it less here, especially in Quebec, which leads the world in common-law unions.
And certainly the issue of gay marriage is treated differently. We sometimes hear arguments in the U.S. about marriage being about bearing children—you spoke earlier about the plunging birth rate—and this is offered as a reason to prevent gay marriages.
This argument also applies to older people. Should a menopausal woman be barred from marriage because she can’t have children? And gay people can have children. They can’t with each other but one of them can have a biological child or they can adopt.
The issue of children is an interesting one that is broader than just gay marriage. Birth control in particular has changed marriage. Women have always tried to find ways of preventing births that they didn’t want. But historically, these methods were almost always unsuccessful, so there were all sorts of unwanted children. It used to be that abortion was the principal method of birth control because contraceptive methods were so unreliable.
When women got access to affordable and reliable birth control, the birth rate plunged. It’s probably the case that when women and their partners can control the number of children that they have, the population will not even be maintained. They don’t even want the 2.3 that is required to maintain the population.
Should we be concerned about statistics showing high divorce rates, or showing that there are more unmarried adults in Canada than married ones?
The raw statistics seem scary. But if you parse them in terms of education, age and so on, they are less scary. People who marry later and who are well educated have a much lower divorce rate. Also, the divorce rate includes people who have divorced and remarried several times. All these things skew the statistics. We think the divorce rate means that one of every two couples will divorce, but that’s not the case.
Do divorce rates go up as life expectancies do?
Yes. We live longer today and so marriage is a very different thing. It’s all very well to say “people used to stay together.” But it was hard to divorce. And if the average length of the marriage was 12 years because you married in your 20s and died in your 30s, it was a quite different experience from a relationship that’s supposed to last for 50 years.
I don’t think that divorce means that a marriage was a huge failure. When people divorce after 25 years, it’s possible that it’s just another life passage. Our lifetimes are so long now that to try to commit ourselves to anything for such huge periods of time is less likely to succeed than it used to.