Wedded blisters

As a woman, something very strange happens as you approach 30 — friends who seemed quite sensible either start shelling out incredible wads of cash for their weddings, or whipping themselves into frenzies because they’re still single. Faced with this recently, I found myself questioning why marriage retains such a hold over us. I suspected that, like all conservative institutions, marriage helped preserve the status quo and thus the dominance of men — specifically middle-class white men.

Let’s get this clear: I like men. My opinion isn’t based on bitterness, bitchiness or spinsterish rage. It is about marriage itself — a bloated, aged, outdated institution that consistently screws women over, while selling them a snake oil vision of romance.

Just consider its history. Once upon a time marriage tied a single woman to a single man for life, to the extent that, legally at least, said woman became part of her husband.

Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s, says: ”The very being of legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” Marriage asserted paternity; in doing so, however, it also entrusted men with the ownership of women’s bodies and reproductive abilities. Marriage was a deathly serious contract that bound two people in the sight of a god that, these days, few of us even believe in.

Wedding rings have been the symbol of this contract. In ancient Rome a man claimed a woman by giving her a ring; it was a sign of ownership rather than affection. Greek and Italian custom dictated the giving of complex puzzle rings — difficult to remove or replace quickly — as a way of ensuring a wife’s fidelity. In European countries the ring was exchanged with a promise of money from the bride’s father, often the primary motivation for marriage. Cash, mistrust and ownership — not a recipe for romance.

Until 1840 English brides were wed in a variety of colours, but that year Queen Victoria set the trend by wearing white. It’s not a coincidence that her era was when the traditional belief that women were lustier and earthier than men (remember temptress Eve?) was replaced by the notion of the sacred feminine, of women as symbols of ethereal purity. This desexualising, patronising vision led to generations of belief in ”the little woman” and the notion that women’s delicate sensibilities are unsuitable for harsh life outside home.

Another custom that still crops up is asking for a woman’s hand in marriage. These days this is often viewed as charmingly old-fashioned, but what woman wants to be handed from father to husband like a prize cow? Likewise, the custom of fathers giving their daughters away at the altar: a symbolic handing of the woman from one owner to another. And don’t get me started on the changing-your-name debacle.

The fact is marriage is statistically still much better for men than for women. It is common now to suggest that marriage — and particularly divorce — is wonderful for women’s pockets. If a marriage goes well, it’s often supposed, a woman can sit eating bon-bons while her husband sweats away his youth; if the marriage breaks down, she can score a great settlement.

In fact, women are better off financially without marriage. Research by the University of Kent, England, found that in more than half of British marriages the men have more money to spend on themselves than their wives do. A recent United States study found that, while 20% of unmarried women outearned their partners by at least $5 000, only 15% of married women did the same.

A global survey of 17 000 people in 27 countries found that married men do significantly less housework than their wives. The research suggested that marriage altered the division of labour, pushing the female partner to do more ”woman’s work”, while her husband presumably relaxed with a beer in front of the football.

If economic penury and piles of washing up don’t bother you, you might want to think about another insidious effect of marriage. We are constantly inundated with reports about how marriage is good for our health. While marriage might generally be beneficial, when a relationship descends into fighting, it’s far more harmful to women than to men.

Research by the University of California at Berkeley illustrates that wives suffer the ill-effects of arguments far more than their husbands, because they remain stressed for longer, with negative consequences for physical and mental health.

Dr Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, of Ohio State University, monitored the healing process in the bodies of couples whose relationship was initially supportive but later deteriorated into nastiness and found that wives invariably suffered more than their husbands. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and San Diego State University, who looked at data from more than 400 healthy women, found that marital dissatisfaction tripled a woman’s chances of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors for heart disease, with unhappily married women more at risk than single women or divorcees. In 2000 a Swedish study found that women with coronary heart disease had a greater risk of recurrence if there was severe stress in their ­marriages.

Marriage is a pointlessly venerated, thoroughly out-of-date institution. It is hard to see what the benefits for women are. So why do we do it? Marriage obviously quite suits a patriarchal society, helping to keep women in their place for the estimated 200 years it will take for the pay gap to close. Next time you are tempted by a big white dress, remember: it might just damage your health … — Â

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Nicky Falkof
Nicky Falkof is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies department at Wits.

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