25 January 2005

I do, I do, I do

Does the idea of a traditional wedding and a walk down the aisle make you come up in hives? You are not alone, which is why there have been so many alternatives to the traditional

Does the idea of a traditional wedding and a walk down the aisle make you come up in hives? You are not alone, which is why there have been so many alternatives to the traditional form of marriage. Forget for a moment what your parents would say and take a look at these (not all legal) alternatives:

Common-law marriages. These marriages, in which a man and a woman agree to live together as man and wife, without being formally married, are recognised in many countries. But common-law marriages are losing popularity, as many people are living together these days without being formally married, without necessarily considering themselves married. People who want to marry, do so formally, as they can now easily get divorced – formerly not an option available to the vast majority of people.

Trial marriage. A trial marriage involves a simulated marriage situation, in which a couple lives together for a set length of time, before making any final commitment to each other. At the end of the set length, of time, they can agree to separate or they can decide to get married – whatever they agree upon. The thought of eventual committed marriage lies at the heart of it. This form of marriage was frequently found in the 18th en 19th centuries in European countries.

Contract marriage. By writing a marriage contract, couples try to make a legal, civil agreement tailored to their individual needs. They may put things into their contracts about anything they find important such as household chores, employment, individual behaviour and their social lives. At the end of the contract period, they may decide to dissolve the contract, a far less traumatic occurrence than a legal divorce. Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy had a contract that contained 170 provisions.

Serial monogamy (through divorce and remarriage). Today in South Africa, almost half of marriages end in divorce, and many divorcees remarry. But for many years, divorce could only be obtained in many countries under a few special circumstances, usually impotence, proven infidelity or insanity. In many other countries, divorce is very easy, often involving as little as the repetition of one sentence three times: "I divorce thee," or the sending of a postcard as in post-revolutionary Russia. Today, divorce and remarriage is so frequently found in most western countries, that it scarcely raises an eyebrow anymore.

Open marriage. In this kind of marriage, the couple live together as companions and sexual partners, but both openly become intimate with others. Open marriages hinge on male-female equality and is impossible in a society where women are not seen as social equals. But few succeed at open marriages, largely because people tend to be naturally possessive. In practice, it often happens that one partner has sexual relations with other people, while the other one does not, which brings about its own set of problems.

Polygyny. This is when one man has many wives. It is often found in societies where males have a much higher social status than women and this form of marriage has come down through the ages as a practical source of cheap household labour. It is often also found in societies where the only alternative for women to marriage is prostitution. The concubines of old were practicing a form of polygyny, although many of them were little more than household slaves. Well-known practitioners of this form of marriage were Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and it is also found in some Mormon communities and certain Islamic communities. But it is generally not popular, as it is expensive to maintain and often sows discord in the household if the wives do not get on with each other.

Polyandry. The rarity of polyandry, where one women has several husbands, stems from the historical powerlessness of women. Generally, it is found in a few scattered communities, where a single man is unable to afford a wife, or wants to keep land in the family. Generally, this practice is found in farflung and inhospitable regiosn, such as Tibet or Siberia. The problem is that tribes often resorted to the killing of female babies in order to keep the male-female ratio to hold the population in right balance for polyandry.

Celibate marriage. This does seem to be a contradiction in terms, but was popular in the 2nd to 6th centuries in Christian communities, in which sex was sometimes viewed as a weakness and a sin. But through the ages many people have had unconsummated marriages and to this day it is still found. It is perfectly legal, especially if both parties agree to it in advance, but if it is not preceded by a prior agreement, it remains grounds for divorce.

(Source : the People's Almanac #2: David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace)


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