Changing face of marriage

American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930.

American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930.

Marriage is changing. The terrain has shifted in terms of who can marry whom, but there are other trends as well. According to quite a few of the advertisers in this publication, the very nature of weddings is shifting. People call for flowers, officiators, and even wedding planners a week or two before the blessed event. Or they announce that a marriage will take place sometime in the far future and then leave things at that.

Personally, my wife and I have witnessed a year of many breakups. We ourselves made it past the big threat to ours several years (and hours of therapy) in the past. All the parties whom we know seem to have been handling their separations and divorces better than many we witnessed several years ago. That change may be another trend in the making.

Marriage was a big topic this past year. Its relative newness as a human relationship has been much written about. But its historical development as an institution has been a long one. Legal contract or divine blessing? Culmination and acknowledgement of love or a way to have kids?

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Marriage’s already tenuous ties to the ideal of love have been stretched to a breaking point.

What we are celebrating here remains big business. Something that happens this time of year, or gets planned for taking place later.

Looking at the facts, ideologies and anecdotes of marriage still allows us to leap into and celebrate that larger river of love that’s been a main source for poetry, song, art and dance over the centuries. Our writers, old and new and young and old, share their thoughts.

Did you know that American couples weren’t photographed or even painted together until relatively recently? There are portraits of families, or individual partners from a couple in separate frames, facing each other. Very occasionally you find a Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln together in a daguerreotype, or more often two actors playing lovers in a play.

Think about it. Close your eyes. The first real married couple that comes to mind may bethat unsmiling man and wife in Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic.” Early photos caught stunned-looking men and women with plastered hair and grimacing expressions, or progeny caught after their passing. Painting was for single portraits, or allegories.

For  images of couples one needs to reach back further into the Reformation, idealized scenes from medieval works, then the High Renaissance, eventually the liberating years of the Impressionists, Expressionists and hyper-romantic Pre-Raphaelites.

That may explain why many of us think of love and its cousin marriage in terms of historic figures like Napoleon and Josephine, tsars and tsarinas.

Have you wondered why happy marriages are so rare in literature? For every Nick and Nora Charles or Beatrice and Benedict, there are many Tristans and Isoldes or Eloises and Abelards. For every wooing lyric or poem of undying love are more songs of unrequited love, or lost amour. September reminiscences of what flowered in May.

We still base as much of our economy on the ideal of courtly love, and lasting relationships, as on the allure of sex and its hidden twin, profits (or violence). And the subjects still draw responses and explorations that demonstrate human creativity. The results can be exciting, thoughtful and maybe even inspiring.

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