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Marriage, what is it good for?

Should marriage still exist? Does it make us healthier? When was the most dramatic change in the institution of marriage?  

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas (15-28 October) looks at the state of marriage and asks these questions and more during three pivotal events.

Many countries have recently expanded their definition of marriage to allow marriage between same-sex couples: a welcome move towards equality, but does this go far enough? Philosopher, Clare Chambers, argues for a more extreme position during her talk Against marriage on 15th October: that the state should not recognise marriage at all. State recognition of marriage, she argues, is a violation of both equality and liberty – no matter how marriage is redefined. The event is centred on her recent book Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defence of the Marriage-Free State (Oxford University Press).

Dr Chambers asks what, and who, is marriage for? She said: “We are steadily moving towards a consensus that the basic value of equality requires recognising same-sex marriage, and possibly different-sex civil partnerships too.

“Recent legal rulings and popular movements are welcome steps towards equality but do not go far enough. No matter how it is reformed, state-recognised marriage is inevitably and wrongly unequal. It perpetuates inequality based on sex and sexuality, and in general between married and unmarried people and families. As such, the ultimate egalitarian aim should be the end of state-recognised marriage.

“I do not propose that marriage should be illegal or that it is wrong to be married. People should remain free to engage in private religious or secular ceremonies of marriage. Committed monogamous coupledom is a valuable way of life for many people. But it is not a uniquely or universally valuable way of life, and being married should not be a legally-significant status.

“In its place, there should be a novel system of regulation based on relationship practices rather than relationship status, designed to protect the vulnerable and secure equality while also respecting individual choices.”

Whether state recognised or not, can the union between two people really make us healthier? This question is discussed during the event Does marriage make us healthier? which brings together two historians, a psychologist, a scientist and a relationship counsellor to discuss the ways individuals have defined bodily and emotional health and its complex relationship with marriage in the past and present.

Speakers include:

  • Dr Mary Harlow from University of Leicester who will speak about the relationship between marriage and health in ancient Rome.
  • Dr Boyd Brogan, University of York, will discuss his recent research and examine all the cultural and religious reasons people in the 16th and 17th centuries might promote marriage, such as the clear health benefits; one being having regular sex wards against disease.
  • Social psychologist, Dr Lisa Marie Warner from the Medical School Berlin, will talk about social exchange processes and health over lifespan and in particular health behaviour change theories.
  • Clinical training fellow, Dr Andrew Sommerlad from University College London, will talk about studies he has been involved in that demonstrate people who are married have a decreased chance of getting dementia.
  • Dr Rachel Davies, a senior practice consultant at Relate, will look at what relationships do for health and wellbeing in general.

Between them, they will consider several questions including: How does marriage improve health physically and emotionally? What is it about being married that allows for health benefits? Should we get married just for the health benefits? How does divorce and separation affect health?

Based on the event Marriage in the middle ages: from parental arranged marriages to the couple’s consent – an extreme change? on 20th October, it would appear that dramatic transformations of marriage have not been confined to our own time.

The formation of marriage was revolutionised in the late 12th century when it took on the shape as we know it now: a young couple decide to marry in a ceremony that normally takes place in a church in the presence of a priest. This constituted what some thought was an extreme change from the more domestic arrangements at home when parents arranged marriages.

How and why this change took place is the topic of this talk by historian Professor Liesbeth Van Houts based on her forthcoming book 'Married Life in the Middle Ages 900-1300’ (published by Oxford University Press, February 2019). Professor Van Houts looks at both the role of the clergy in supporting consent by young people rather than by parents, and the pivotal role women played in this change.

Speaking ahead of the event, Professor Van Houts said: “In our own increasingly diverse society, we take consent by the couple for granted as the basis for marriage. Men and women are free to marry whom they like provided they are of the right age. However, in some groups of our society, patriarchal norms determine that marriages are arranged by parents. Women have relatively little say and, in some cases, arranged marriages are in fact forced marriages with dire consequences for the girls involved.

“In this sense, modern patriarchal-arranged marriages are very similar to the medieval marriage patterns before the reforms of the 11th and 12th centuries.”

Bookings open for these and other events and more on 24th September and can be made by telephone 01223 766766 or online.