Sex and society (5): Love & marriage

by · June 29, 2015


Welcome to blog five in my sex and society series. Today we will ask the question, what’s love got to do with it?

Over the past four posts I’ve spoken extensively about the connection between the nuclear family (whether gay, lesbian, straight or other) and our class and capitalist society. But, how does that connect to relationships today? Relationships aren’t about economics; they’re about love.

So what does love have to do with it?


#Lovewins. That was the message from Friday’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage in the United States — a message from the marriage advocates, the President and even Justice Anthony Kennedy, who it was said wrote a “love letter to marriage — and gay marriage” in his ruling. In turn, the decision not only codified the connection between love and marriage, but effectively defined what love is — a love based around “fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”

But, since when has love been part of marriage? And why are our ideals of love based in the ideas of fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family? 

The idea of romantic love has clearly been an important part of our society for centuries. Way back in the 1500s William Shakespeare was writing plays in which people literally killed themselves because they couldn’t be with the person they loved.

Yet, despite much of this historic imagery, love has only played a major role in marriage for the past two to three centuries. As I’ve argued in my past posts marriage was all about economics with too much love being thought of as a threat to the institution. Love, it was seen, was best expressed outside the main union of marriage. Researcher Stephanie Coontz uses the French as an example:

Most societies have had romantic love, this combination of sexual passion, infatuation, and the romanticization of the partner. But very often, those things were seen as inappropriate when attached to marriage. The southern French aristocracy believed that true romantic love was only possible in an adulterous relationship, because marriage was a political, economic, and mercenary event. True love could only exist without it.

So how did love become part of modern marriage and what does it say about relationships today?

In my past two posts (on capitalism and women’s oppression and capitalism and gay oppression) I spoke about how the rise of industrial capitalism fundamentally changed the nature of the family. With people moving into the city, workers were able to live more independently of each other, in turn not relying so heavily on the bonds of the nuclear family.

This didn’t just have impacts on the power structures of relationships (as I’ve argued in those posts), but on the very fundamental question of why people entered relationships in the first place.

In previous centuries marriages was seen more as a contract between families, primarily designed to ensure financial stability. Families therefore played an important role, with parents in particular providing the resources and dowry required to make a marriage work. Families even used to attend a couple’s honeymoon, which was at the time seen more as a communal affair to reinforce new familial relationships.

But as people moved away from the land and into cities they relied far less on their families for economic stability. Working in factories, the working class was able to disconnect itself somewhat from family ties. Women, for example, were even able to start earning so they could pay their own dowry. Hence love became a greater motivating factor in relationships. This also occurred at the same time as the French and American revolutions, as well as the Enlightenment, which all promoted the ideas of the “right to happiness”. That right, it was seen, extended to relationships as well.

Yet this provided challenges, both for the capitalist class and, in particular, women. As noted before, while capitalism threatened to destroy the nuclear family, it also required it to survive more than ever. Love based marriage was seen as a major threat: “There was a fear that love would, in fact, lead not only to divorce but to out-of-wedlock sex and childbirth.” Initially the ruling class responded by trying to reinforce the traditional family ties. But young lovers kept at, meaning capitalism was required to adapt. And here the problem women faced in this new regime played directly into the hands of ruling social interests.

The problem for women was that while marriages now became about love, men still held the upper hand. In previous centuries the legal doctrine of coverture had been developed — a legal precedent that meant married couples were seen as one person, a person controlled by the man. As industrial capitalism grew this doctrine remained intact. Men maintained all of their power, making life much more difficult for women. In the old world, with marriages being arranged, women could be assured of a secure economic future. But now, in a love-based system, they were required to fight for that future — they had to prove they loved their man more than anyone else could.


Hunter Oatman Stanford argues women did this by becoming the perfect homemaker. The “cult of the domestic” was developed, “centering on a stereotype that desexualized women and made child-rearing their primary goal. In her role as a domestic angel, the perfect wife was completely pure in body and mind, submitting to her husband’s erotic advances, but never desiring or initiating sex herself.” To survive in a relationship a woman had to submit fully, proving both that she could look after her man, and more importantly that she had no sexual desires for other men (otherwise there was a threat that she would procreate with another man).

This standard was developed and pushed heavily by the ruling class. Having lost the battle against love-based marriage, this was the next best alternative. Queen Victoria for example was an advocate both for love-based unions, with her wedding in particular setting many of the traditions we still have today. Yet, Victoria was also an advocate for female puritanism. And here our standard narrative of love was developed — you fall in love with one person and that is who you stick with “till death do you part”. This form of love is key to your happiness. We are taught from the moment we are born that we are all destined to fall in love, and those who “can’t” or “won’t” are deeply questioned in our society, immediately thought of as sad and lonely.

This love has been devotedly sold to us as consumers also. From the very early days romance became an important commodity, with white weddings costing thousands of dollars, and celebrations such as Valentine’s Day pushing people to buy lavish gifts for their loved ones. If you did not spend money on your other half, you clearly did not love them enough. This had dual benefits. Businesses were able to develop new multi-billion dollar industries based around romance, and in doing so they could reinforce the ideals of the modern nuclear family that is still required for the reproduction of capitalist society.

We can see this best in modern campaigns around same-sex marriage and the SCOTUS decision on the weekend. Same-sex marriage provides an interesting intersection between love and capitalism.

Love has played a major role in same-sex marriage campaigns. Campaigns have been based on the idea of “equal love”, which states that same-sex couples deserve equal recognition (i.e. equal access to the state institution) because we love each other as much as heterosexual couples. In doing so marriage equality campaigns have actively reinforced many of the norms of modern love (as we saw in Justice Kennedy’s ruling) — either through reinforcing the ideas of monogamy or on the other side actively rejecting the idea of polyamory as a valid form of love.

But all of this has occurred with an economic basis to it. Marriage equality advocates have touted the list of federal benefits marriage brings to couples, while campaigns have emphasised the economic benefits marriage equality can bring a nation. There has even been a growth in a childbirth industry for same-sex couples — primarily focused around expensive surrogacy programs. Same-sex couples (despite some conservative rhetoric) have increasingly been expected to participate in child rearing, in turn doing their part to provide the next generation of capitalist workers.

This is the story of last week’s SCOTUS ruling, and same-sex marriage campaigns in a broader sense. Last week was a win for one particular form of love — love now defined by the state and based primarily in the needs of our economic system. That’s why you see conservatives arguing same-sex couples need to defend the “traditions” of marriage when they enter it. To gain access to the benefits of marriage you have a responsibility to stick to the norms of love is based upon. #lovewins, yes, but only a very particular type of love.

That’s what love has to do with it!

Now, I hope you all enjoy the Frank Sinatra, or maybe the Tina Turner I have inadvertently put in your head because of this post.

My next post will be my final one in this series and I will look at movements challenging the nuclear family, and where they stand today.