On the Institution of Marriage

Column by new Root Striker Steven Holman.

Exclusive to STR

This has been a long time coming. Recently, many of my friends and family have been getting engaged and married, so I thought I would report my understanding of the institution. First, I’d like to say that I love my friends and family and support them in their life choices, and wish nothing but happiness for them. I don’t understand why they would entertain the institution of marriage, though. I understand the appeal of a monogamous relationship, particularly when kids are involved, but marriage and monogamy are entirely different things culturally and historically. I recognize any relationship as acceptable so long as all parties involved are amenable. Marriage is not a relationship, though. It’s an institution and one invented for control.

Marriage Fantasy
Due to movies, music, culture, TV, and to a lesser extent even video games, a fantasy about what marriage is, was, and should be has arisen. Almost no one understands the reality, however. This fantasy is, in no small part, responsible for much of the debate concerning so-called homosexual marriage, and in fact much of the so-called culture wars. This fantasy is not one-sided, either. Many if not most advocates of homosexual marriage believe it to be what will finally legitimize their relationships because what is more legitimate than marriage? Conversely, you have advocates for so-called “traditional marriage” who believe that allowing such weddings would have the opposite effect. Rather than legitimizing homosexual relationships, it would delegitimize the institution of marriage, putting their own relationships in jeopardy. The fact is, marriage is illegitimate already and is only propped up by the culture and the institution that has co-opted it, namely the state.

Many people believe, as a part of the fantasy, that a marriage is an institution ordained by their god(s) and delivered to them from the heavens, making it sacred and unbreakable. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The institution of marriage is one used as a control mechanism, with little religious involvement before the fall of the Roman Empire.

The History of Marriage
I don’t pretend to be a historian, let alone an expert on the history of marriage. The history of marriage varies greatly between cultures, and it’s not my intention to give you an exhaustive reference. What I will show, however, is the general path and forms marriage has taken, particularly through to the modern Western culture of America today.

Marriage began as a simple property exchange contract between the father of the bride and a man and/or his family. A man or his family would pay a father who would guarantee the woman’s virginity. Virginity was very important for purposes of property/real estate inheritance. A man wanted to ensure that what he owned was passed down to his posterity. There were no DNA tests at the time, so the only way a man could ensure that he was raising his own child and that his own child would inherit his property would be if the woman with whom he had a child only ever had sex with him. In some cultures, marriages were also a way to form alliances, settle disputes, expand a family’s influence, etc. But it was always a transaction in which the woman involved was chattel.

This is where the state comes in. As the proto-state tribes formed into actual states through conquest and war, taxes became prevalent. Thus marriage laws came into being for the state to accurately track property owners and legitimate heirs. Still, this wasn’t the institution we recognize today, though this was the institution recognized throughout most of human history and can still be seen in many cultures today. Women were chattel and marriage was the means to control them.

The word matrimony comes from the Latin mātrimōnium, which combines the two concepts mater meaning "mother" and the suffix -monium signifying "action, state, or condition." In other words, a woman was only as important as her ability to be a mother to the son of her husband. In fact, often if a woman was determined to be infertile (whether the man or woman was infertile or there was some other problem, the woman was usually blamed and declared barren), the man she married was entitled to a divorce.

Should a woman’s husband die or be unwilling or unable to provide for her, there would be little recourse for her. Women had very little worth as ranch hands or other labor, and this posed a problem. Most widows became instantly destitute. In order to partially resolve this problem, many cultures created a system of dowry. A dowry was property given to the woman on the occasion of marriage. This was usually a certain percentage of the inheritance her oldest brother was set to receive. Different cultures had different laws governing the dowry. In Rome, for instance, a dowry was often paid in installments over the course of several years. Only the very rich would pay in one lump sum. It wasn’t necessarily just the family of the bride who would pay, either. Others often would pay a dowry, and there were different laws that governed this. Some would be returned upon divorce or the death of the bride. In almost all cases, the dowry was connected and sometimes controlled by the bride, so in the case of widowhood, she wouldn’t become destitute, which was a real possibility without it. Since women were seen as not fit for marriage once losing her virginity and there were few jobs for women as they were seen as lesser beings.

The church gets involved
During the reign of Constantine, the Christian church became intertwined with the government. Christianity became the official religion of Rome, and much of its rituals and dogmas became codified at this time. As Rome began to fall, many civil duties once performed by government officials began to be performed by church officials, including marriage. Despite the intrusion of religion into this civil institution, little changed concerning its form or function within society. Monogamy, however, became the prevailing form of marriage. Prior to this and for most of human history, men taking multiple wives was the norm, but the church of the day decided that monogamy would finally be the official form of marriage.

It wasn’t until 1215 that marriage became one of the church’s seven sacraments. It was at this time the idea of consent began to take hold. Before this, marriage had very little to do with what the woman wanted. She was just the goods being exchanged. Now, it was considered uncouth to marry a woman against her will. This was a formality, of course. Her will was what her father told her it would be. This was still an exchange of goods so to speak, except now the goods could choose not to be sold to a particular man. At this time, still no official ceremony or tradition had yet been laid down.

It was not until the Council of Trent in 1563 that strides to codify marriage were made. They decreed that there must be a witnessed ceremony officiated by a priest for a marriage to be legal. What form that ceremony looked like or how it was to be performed had yet to be decided. Still, love had nothing to do with marriage and the relationship between man and wife was not one of equals joining together. The French essayist Montaigne once even quipped that love's a bore—any man in love with his wife must be so dull that no one else could love him.

Love enters the scene
Finally, love and romance became introduced to the idea of marriage in the 17th Century. Still, many Protestant ministers warned about loving your spouse too much or using pet names that could undermine the husbandly authority. In the 18th Century, love and romance became more prominent, but this did nothing to remove the control mechanisms. A loveless marriage at that time was seen as regrettable, but the old traditions of money and security were still seen as far more admirable reasons for marriage. Also, at that time the honeymoon replaced the older tradition of the bridal tour where the couple traveled to visit family and friends who couldn’t attend the wedding. The honeymoon at this time was not one of pure romance, however. Often the couple was accompanied by others on these trips.

Modern Marriage
Finally, at the beginning of the 20th Century, marriage had started to take the shape that may be more recognizable. Virginity was still very important, however, as evidenced by laws such as “breach of promise to marry.” These laws stated that if a man became engaged to a woman and backed out, he must pay her father for the inconvenience. As these laws began to be abolished, a new tradition gained traction: the engagement ring. The engagement ring was a way for the man to show his fiancé’s family that he was still financially invested without the promise of repayment if he backed out. As a side note, diamonds became popular for engagement rings due to clever marketing by the De Beers Company who at the time owned 70% of the diamonds and mines in the world and still today control a significant share. They prop up the price by warehousing most of the diamonds excavated and releasing a small amount each year.

Today, although people believe that marriage is the natural result of a loving, committed relationship, it is still used as a means to control. Through tax codes, marriage, divorce, custody laws, etc., controlling a population becomes much simpler. Additionally, marriage is a way for couples to control each other. Where traditionally marriage was a way for men to control women, now both can use the institution to control the other. This is called progress? As I showed earlier, religion has very little to do with the institution historically, but the churches have recognized it as an effective tool for the control of individuals as well. Marriage is an antiquated control mechanism that ought to be thrown away with every other government institution. It is unnecessary for any true, loving relationships, as are all control mechanisms.

One might say, “Well my partner would feel more secure in our relationship if we got married.” To which I would respond, if your partner is insecure in the relationship and needs a control mechanism over you in order to feel secure, then there may be a problem with your partner or relationship that ought to be addressed before such a commitment. Let me be clear. I am not against commitment or monogamy at all. I am against the control mechanism designed by the state and co-opted by religion that we call marriage.

One might say, “All this may be true, but marriage is good for keeping couples together.” To which I would reply, if you need to force your partner to stay with you through the institution of marriage, it may be better that you split. There is no virtue in force and the institution of marriage is an institution of force.

BUT WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!! It is true, as best I understand, that children excel in stable home environments, but as I said before, marriage is not necessary for such stability. Marriage is an institution of force, and no one has the right to control you, even for the sake of children.

Marriage began as an institution of force and control, has historically been an institution of force and control, and remains to this day an institution of force and control. Marriage as an institution, therefore, ought to be opposed if you follow the Non-Aggression Principle. Some may still cling to it as a security blanket, and I understand that. I was once a minarchist for the same reason. I believe the consistent, principled approach, however, is to oppose the institution of marriage.

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An Atheist and Voluntaryist
Cofounder of the Natural Rights Coalition
Organizer of the Complete Liberty Meet-Up


Jim Davies's picture

Interesting history, Steven, and welcome aboard!
I wonder if the idea of marriage as a contract might be given greater prominence. A contract not between a father and the bridegroom, but between bride and groom. A mutual promise to stay together, rather than to part company as soon as turbulence arises.
If so, would you still oppose the honoring of such a contract?

ReverendDraco's picture

This is similar to the way my wife and I entered into our marriage (5 years this coming May). It was publicly declaring our intent to *work* for our relationship rather than giving up/moving out at the first sign of trouble. The way we see it, when a couple is "merely" living together, it's too easy to say "screw it," and leave - we've both been in those kinds of relationships. . .

We both feel an intense dislike for the modern "throw-away" society. We both have cars over 10 years old (hers is 20, and mine is 27); we held on to our CRT television until it died entirely; most of our furniture is family heirlooms. What we see, much too often, are people who treat marriage in the same "throw-away" manner as they treat everything else - whatever is new and shiny must be had; tried-and-true be damned.

We also believe that the concept of a "50/50" relationship is nonsense - it's either 100/100 or what the hell are you even together for? Marriage is a full-time job.

Funny thing - if you look at the "traditional" wedding vows, they read much like a contract - Do you promise to Love, honor, cherish, obey, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness & in health, til death. . . the only significant difference is, there are no listed penalties for failing to abide by the terms and conditions. Nothing in the traditional contract stating that, if either party fails to uphold their end of the bargain, the contract is dissolved - no-one gives up X property for breach of contract (you don't find that out until divorce court - or by word-of-mouth). . . Nothing.


You make an excellent point and I think you're absolutely right. My point is though, you don't need a contract for such a relationship. I think the key is making a good decision with whom to be intimate. I don't think, for instance, (and I don't really know the two of you so this is pure speculation) that you and your wife would have split up without the marriage contract. You sound like people who understand and deplore the disposable mentality. I don't think it's wrong that you made such a written commitment and I don't think commitment ceremonies are entirely useless. My point is that historically and even in modern society, marriage is an institution for control and in cases such as yours I think the contract is unnecessary.


Of course I would honor anything voluntary but my reaction would be to ask why. Why would you feel you NEED a contract? I don't make contracts with my friends. Contracts, as I see it, are meant for people I have less evidence for trust or a deal with a high amount of investment. For instance, I might sign a contract even with someone close to me for living arrangements or a deal involving the exchange or pooling of resources. Anyone could make contracts like that though. It would hardly require a romantic relationship. Any valid contract also includes a term limit. I don't believe any contract held in perpetuity should be considered binding. I could understand a contract in the case of kids, for the sake of raising and caring for them as well. I think that would be appropriate but a romantic relationship or any relationship really with someone you highly trust shouldn't require a contract. Really a contract is inappropriate for such a relationship in my opinion.

Thunderbolt's picture

Nice article, Steven, with powerful implications. Most men are aware of how badly they fare in divorce court. This is truly a paradigm shift in power.

Scott Lazarowitz's picture

"One might say, 'All this may be true, but marriage is good for keeping couples together.' To which I would reply, if you need to force your partner to stay with you through the institution of marriage, it may be better that you split. There is no virtue in force and the institution of marriage is an institution of force."
So a voluntary contract is "force"? (Unless you're talking about a "shotgun wedding"...)
No, marriage is not "force," it is voluntary. There's nothing wrong with a contract associated with personal and/or romantic relationships. (I wonder if you've been through a bad marriage and are resentful, or perhaps no marital experiecnes at all?)


Voluntary contracts employ force. That's the point of them. They employ legal force to create a sense of stability and trust through legal control so that a given translation(s) that benefit both parties can take place. Marriage, has never been a valid voluntary contract historically or even in modern society. Valid contracts include a variety of concepts to be valid. Any valid contract must be voluntary AND include an offer, acceptance, consequences, consideration, and term limit. With marriage the offer, acceptance, and consideration is present but it doesn't include consequences or term limits. Consequences are determined later arbitrarily by a judge with a monopoly to make such decisions and the term is "till death" which can hardly be considered enforceable which is part of the reason a judge can be so arbitrary. In the interest of full disclosure, I was married and divorced but the relationship was not a poor one and the divorce wasn't nasty. We drifted apart due to a lack of time spent together and separated with no great fighting. Again though, my question would be "why?". I have friends that are as close to me as family. I wouldn't dream of even asking them to sign a contract for our relationship. Why would you think a romantic relationship would require a contract unless you sought to control that other individual?

Jim Davies's picture

You make a good case that customary marriage contracts are poorly drawn, but if each partner wants to formalize the association, good. One or both does not, also good. Freedom!  Some kind of pre-nup can save a lot of heartache (and lawyer fees) later, though.
You would not be implying, I hope, that voluntary contracts are undesirable generally. In the coming free society, they will as I see it be the mainstay of all time-dependent exchanges and the root of order. Yes of course they place an enforcible obligation on each voluntary participant; if you agree to pay me for my valuable services and I deliver, you have an obligation to produce the moolah; and a well drawn contract will specify the judge who will resolve any dispute.

Jim Davies's picture

If I may, a further comment on traditional marriage contracts. I checked Wiki here, and while a couple should certainly decide for themselves what agreement they wish to make, if any, those forms of words are not all that bad and might serve as starting points.
So the groom promises: "I take thee to my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part..." and further says "With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow..."
And the bride responds "I take thee to my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey..."
Those are pretty heavy undertakings!
There is no term, because it's intended to be permanent, ended only by death. The care is mutual; each promises to cherish the other, unconditionally. The groom promises to "endow" his bride with all he owns, and that looks odd if a lowly guy marries a rich gal, but makes sense in the general case in which the husband earns the bread and the wife makes the home and cares for the kids; he is promising to share the net present value of all his future earnings, which will be substantial.
And the little lady promises to obey him, currently a contentious notion. But that's a quid pro quo, firstly, and secondly it's one way in which the contract deals with and anticipates how to resolve differences. Alternatives would be to toss a coin, to consult a guru or judge, to have a fight, etc.; but when the number of participants is even and not odd, majority rule is not an option. Whatever; the point is, that important issue is addressed.
Certainly it can be improved, particularly with pre-nup paragraphs about how things and children are to be divided in the event of agreement to end the deal (and not, hopefully, to divide each of the latter down the middle.) But as a first draft, it ain't bad.

Jim Davies's picture

There may be some readers interested to learn whether you have yet discovered a good source of "hot, sexy, twenty-something Anarchist bikini-babes" :-)

Tony Pivetta's picture

Murray Rothbard, lifelong agnostic, wrote about "lifestyle libertarians." Google the essay if you're interested. I can tell you he had no use for them.
These are the libertines who conflate the culture's freely embraced moral authority with the state's imposed legal authority. The difference is one of kind and not degree. Faith and civilization have authority over you only if you recognize their authority, whereas government doesn't give a flying fig whether you recognize its authority or not.
Of course, libertarians are free to pursue whatever lifestyle they choose. All that matters is that they refrain from initiating violence. So how does marriage--traditional or otherwise--initiate violence? Who's forcing whom to get married?
It's bad enough that "liberals" regard faith and civilization (and employment!) as equivalent to slavery. Discussions like this among professed libertarians get us nowhere.


I may not have been as clear as I would have liked at the beginning of my article. I fully believe all that's voluntary should be allowable and stated at the beginning of my article that I love my friends, I wish them the best, and fully support them in all their endeavors and decisions including their marriages. I disagree with that decision but it's their decision to make. I would also like to point out that I don't worship Murray Rothbard nor do I believe his opinions to be sacred. I'm sorry that you feel that topics outside of condemning the state are useless but I feel there is a greater freedom to be found outside of mere statelessness and I wish that for my friends and family and indeed everyone. I don't consider someone my enemy if they disagree but to quote Paul "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify."

Jim Davies's picture

I became a libertarian in 1980, but for several years failed to grasp that to embrace individual freedom is a matter of intellectual necessity,  not one of transcendental faith; that self-ownership is an axiom, not just a premise. Accordingly, I founded a libertarian religion and ordained myself its first (and only) minister.

In that capacity I was invited to marry a couple, of whom the bride lectured in economics at Yale, so the ceremony took place in the august chapel of that University. It was suitably grand, but the whole of it was scripted by the couple themselves, as should be the case. I therefore married them, and though we have lost touch since I believe they stayed married and raised a family. The libertarian glue seems to have been reasonably sticky.


Tony Pivetta's picture

For the record, I don't worship Murray Rothbard, either. Neither do I regard his opinions as sacred. But when a man speaks sense, a man speaks sense.
Any libertarian worth his salt recognizes the yawning gulf that separates persuasion from coercion. Thus, in the labor-relations realm, "an employer is not a stick-up artist," as Rand succinctly put it, notwithstanding the protestations of leftists. How much less, then, is the institution of marriage in the realm of love? 
"Marriage as an institution, therefore, ought to be opposed if you follow the Non-Aggression Principle"?! Any professed libertarian writing such a statement stands in rather desperate need of a good epistemological housecleaning. Violation of the NAP rightly meets with retaliatory force. Against whom shall we direct it? The bride? The groom? The person officiating? Perhaps "society" itself?
Bad beliefs, like the poor, we will always have with us. They will remain, however defined, even in that devoutly (!) to-be-wished future day when we anarchists relegate the scourge of State to the dustbin of history. But we'll not make any progress toward that goal if we confuse the State's modus operandi with that of voluntary associations, no matter how flawed or antiquated we may deem them.  
By all means, lambaste marriage, family, faith, friendship and community to your heart's content. Just keep half-baked applications of the NAP out of it.