Why marriage is unnatural


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Category: Relationships Date: 01 May 97

‘Women have known for centuries about this universal hypocrisy of men... We know that men have created societies so that they can have it all. And it’s all sanctified by the... word tradition’


Columnists shouldn’t be able to get away with self-indulgent, opinionated, unsubstantiated views just because some editor trusts us with space. So I was glad when Mr MD (his initials, as I’m not sure he’d want to be identified) responded to a throw-away comment in my last column. He writes,

“One particular viewpoint struck a sensitive chord in my mind when you stated that marriage is the most unnatural institution in the world. Is that what you said, or is it what I interpreted it to mean?” (Yes Mr MD, that is what I meant.) “I hope I am right because I have held the latter view for as long as I can remember.

“Whereas in your article the point was made in passing, I would have loved to hear your justification for what I believe is an anti-monogamous view - or what I perceive it to be.” (You are wrong I’m afraid, it was not an anti-monogamous view.)

“When I was a very young man I had the privilege of working with a South African white male” (it may have been a privilege then Mr MD, but these days it’s a liability) “who expressed this view, albeit in pig Latin:

‘Higamus hogamus 

Men are polygamous;

Hogamus hogamus

Women are monogamous’.

“I do not believe this expresses the modern-day versions of wives’ attitudes to marriage. They too have their moments of lucidity” (oh we are always lucid - juggling work and children, marriage and our varied moral responsibilities to society and family - it seems to be our lot) “and occasions for and inclinations to acts of indiscretion which they do commit in violation of their marriage” (boredom and tyranny within the marriage does that).

“I do believe however that among East Indian wives of yesteryear, it was a form of conduct (extra-marital affairs, that is) that was subject to serious social condemnation.

“However, I do endorse an extended view of monogamous relationships, since I do believe it contributes to an organised and social life, lends sanctity to domestic family life and ensures to a large extent the care, protection, maintenance and welfare of the offsprings of the marriage - the children.”


Mr MD, I don’t consider marriage an unnatural institution because I “believe in polygamy” or in the natural polygamous nature of men. And as for that pig Latin rhyme by your South African friend, it is tired, it is banal, it is boring, an old and dull echo of chauvinism. It is an excuse to jump on any woman in view while hypocritically being able to condemn a married woman who as much as looks at another man with interest.


We women have known for centuries about this universal hypocrisy of men. It suits men to say “men are polygamous, women are monogamous.” We know that men have created societies so that they can have it all. And it’s all sanctified by the use of the word “tradition”. Marriage hasn’t and often doesn’t work because “traditionally” the whole deal has been about property. I have not taken my husband’s name because I love and respect him and not despite it. And he doesn’t mind because his confidence or manhood doesn’t hinge on being known to be owned by him.


I ask every man who looks incredulous that my husband should “allow” me this privilege of keeping my maiden (how quaint) name, “How would you feel if you had to change your precious name to that of your wife’s?” For example, a woman, call her Grace Brown, marries a man called Bob Jones. Now she is known as Mrs Bob Jones. A quarter of her life and experiences and parentage are ignored. The branding of the husband’s name is done not crudely or painfully anymore on the arm but on passports and cheque books and invitation cards, in introductions and captions - “meet the wife of so and so.”


When a woman gets married she has to change from a neutral and Ms to Mrs. (Why the added “s”? Answer: another form of branding.)  So let’s reverse it. Let us decree that from the day a man gets married we add an m to Mr so we know he is undeniably married. Upon return from the honeymoon the former Bob Jones gets an invitation to a cocktail party addressed Mrm Grace Brown. And worse if he dies and there is an obituary we can say Mrm Grace Brown, formerly Bob Jones, died today in a tragic accident. Now how would you like that if you are a man? So here we are husband and wife - not dissimilar from many couples - both command reasonable incomes, both contribute to the household, holiday children and entertainment expenses, both equally educated and equally informed. I don’t really need protection. I have my pepper-spray and 999 and can shout louder than my husband, so why all the branding?


The property business has been taken to the extreme - again universally. In some Islamic countries women are not to show even their faces to any man other than their husband, father or brother. They are denied the right to study or work or be independent. And God forbid that they commit adultery. In the older days they’d be stoned to death, and today’s reports show quiet drowning of the adulterous female member in the family pool. No questions asked. The country is after all run by men.


In parts of Africa today there is still the horrible tradition of female circumcision which at worst can lead to death and at best is a brutish inhumane act - again demonstrating complete sexual and physical control over woman.


Following your husband into the funeral pyre was an ancient Hindu tradition called Sati and still not unheard of in modern India. As for the lot of the widowed Hindu woman in some conservative villages of India, she may as well commit Sati. She is now the property of her in-laws and forced to renounce life and serve them until death do they part. She will wear white for the rest of her life even if she is a teenaged widow. She is not to adorn herself in any way. She is never to even consider re-marrying. It is bad luck for her shadow to cross a bride’s face.


The married woman in all ancient cultures and continents is elevated to the rank of “mother”, even “goddess”, as a mark of respect, but in fact, what it does is, it neutralises her sexuality to such a point that it is non-existent. Which may explain why so many men who believe in “tradition” have the Madonna/whore syndrome. Wives are the saints to maintain their social order and respect their parents and give birth to their children. Whores are women you really relax and have uninhibited fun with. And “whores” are often defined simply as single women who don’t have the “protection” of their parents and their independence is often misconstrued as availability. It has never occurred to these conservative men that they could have fun and freedom within a marriage - with intelligent strong economically independent wives.


So you might argue that’s not our culture. Let’s look to the more liberal west. The story unfortunately is the same. From the Russian Tolstoy to the French Flaubert to the British Thomas Hardy. All these men (great writers) write about the fate of the “fallen woman”, the woman who gives herself up to passion and in defiance of society and husband takes a lover. Anna Karenina is ostracised, and disillusioned and flings herself in front of a moving train. Madame Bovary commits suicide after taking a lover and Tess was hung for being a “fallen woman”. The moral? “Live by the rules or else.”


What a terrible waste - all these women with potential who are cut down physically or intellectually just so they can be controlled by insecure men.


They control sometimes with blows and other times with words but the worst is when the calypsonian’s dictum “control your property” is taken for granted. I was shocked when an otherwise gentle and kind male colleague expressed surprise (even looked somewhat affronted) when he heard that under the Domestic Violence Act, rape within a marriage is an indictable offence. Of course it’s changing. But too slowly. Of course there are exceptions. But too few. There is one marriage I consider “natural” but one which was at the time and even today considered unnatural. It was the marriage of the aristocrat/writer Lady Vita Sackville West to a diplomat, Harold Nicholson (also a writer), in the 1920s in England.


When their son and biographer Nigel Nicholson published Portrait of a Marriage, a Sunday newspaper in the UK headlined its review of the book, “Portrait of a what?” Nigel Nicholson writes in his introduction to their letters to one another:

“The critics could not believe that a marriage that renounced sex after two sons, and were unfaithful to each other with people of their own sex, was a marriage.

“Their marriage was based on common enjoyments (gardens, books, children, travel, friends) and the generousity to encourage in the other separate achievements, separate pleasures, separate holidays, without loss of trust or affection. While they missed each other agonisingly during Harold’s long absences abroad it never occurred to them to suggest that Vita should sacrifice her independence by joining him permanently in his diplomatic posts.”


And their compilation of letters (they wrote over 10,500 letters to each other over their 40 years of marriage) is the most touching love story I’ve ever read, their need to declare their love repeatedly, their jokes, the obvious pleasure they took in being such kindred spirits, the fun they had.


Their son Nigel wrote of Harold Nicholson, “He could have spoken for both of them when he wrote to her, ‘When I die, nobody will think I failed to make the most of life’.”


Their infidelity and homosexuality are neither here nor there. I am by no means suggesting it is a premise for a good marriage. Couples have to go beyond the “ownership” issue and figure out what works for them. It could be that the woman wants to be a housewife or the man wants to leave major decisions up to her, and both trust each other to be faithful. The point is that power and decisions within the marriage should be shared and based on mutual respect.


Vita and Harold did not drown in domesticity, or grow apart with furtive affairs or fail to grow intellectually. They provided a stable stimulating environment for their boys who they loved dearly. Vita was not bullied. Their marriage actively encouraged them to “make the most of life.”


And that’s when marriage is no longer unnatural but wonderful, life-affirming and entirely natural.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur