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Marriage And Divorce Post by :dudeworks Category :Essays Author :Havelock Ellis Date :April 2011 Read :3403

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Marriage And Divorce

We contemplate our marriage system with satisfaction. We remember the many unquestionable evidences in favour of it, and we marvel that it so often proves a failure. For while we remember the evidence in favour of it, we forget the evidence against it, and we overlook the important fact that our favourable evidence is largely based on the vision of an abstract or idealised monogamy which fails to correspond to the detailed and ever varying system which in practice we cherish. We point to the fact that monogamic marriage has probably flourished throughout the history of the world, that it exists among savages, even among animals, but we fail to observe how far that monogamy differs from ours, even assuming that our monogamy is a real monogamy and not a disguised polygamy, especially in the fact that it is a free union and only subject to the inherent penalties that follow its infraction, not to external penalties. Ours is not free; our faith in its natural virtues is not quite so firm as we assert; we are always meddling with it and worrying over its health and anxiously trying to bolster it up. We are not by any means willing to let it rest on the sanction of its own natural or divine laws. Our feeling is, as James Hinton used ironically to express it: "Poor God with no one to help Him!"

The fact is that when we compare our civilised marriage system with marriage as it exists in Nature, we fail to realise a fundamental distinction. Our marriage system is made up of two absolutely different elements which cannot blend. On the one hand, it is the manifestation of our deepest and most volcanic impulses. On the other hand, it is an elaborate web of regulations--legal, ecclesiastical, economic--which is to-day quite out of relation to our impulses. On the one hand, it is a force which springs from within; on the other hand, it is a force which presses on us from without.(1) One says broadly that these two elements of marriage, as we understand it, are out of relation to each other. But there is an important saving qualification to be made. The inner impulse is not without law, and the external pressure is not without an ultimate basis of nature. That is to say, that under free and natural conditions the inner impulse tends to develop itself, not licentiously but with its own order and restraints, while, on the other hand, our inherited regulations are largely the tradition of ancient attempts to fix and register that natural order and restraint. The disharmony comes in with the fact that our regulations are traditional and ancient, not our own attempts to fix and register the natural order but inextricably mixed up with elements that are entirely alien to our civilised habits of life. Whatever our attitude towards mediaeval Canon Law may be--whether reverence or indifference or disgust--it yet holds us and is ingrained into our marriage system to-day. Canon Law was a good and vital thing under the conditions which produced it. The survival of Canon Law to-day, with the antiquated and ascetic conception of the subordination of women associated with it, is the chief reason why we in the twentieth century have not yet progressed so far towards a reasonable system of marriage as the Romans had reached on the basis of their law, nearly two thousand years ago.(2) Marriage is conditioned both by inner impulse and outward pressure. But a healthy impulse bears within it an order and restraint of its own, while a truly moral outward pressure is based, not on the demands of mediaeval days, but on the demands of our own day.

How far this is from being the case yet we find well illustrated by our divorce methods. All our modern culture favour a sense of the sacredness of the sexual relations; we cherish a delicate reserve concerning all the intimacies of personal relationship. But when the magic word "Divorce" is uttered we fling all our civilisation to the winds, and in the desecrated name of Law we proceed to an inquisition which scarcely differs at all from those public tests of mediaeval law-courts which now we dare not venture even to put into words.

It is true that we are not bound to be consistent when it is an advantage to be inconsistent. And if there were a method in our madness it would be justified. But there is no method. From first to last the history of divorce (read it, for instance, in Howard's _Matrimonial Institutions_) is an ever shifting record of cruel blunders and ridiculous absurdities. Divorce began in modern times in flagrant injustice to one of the two partners, the wife, and it has ended--if we may hope that the end is approaching--in imbecilities that to future ages will be incredible. For no legal jargon has ever been invented that will express the sympathies and the antipathies of human relationship; they even escape the subtlest expression. Law-makers have tortured their brains to devise formulas which will cover the legitimate grounds for divorce. How vain their efforts are is sufficiently shown by the fact that by no chance can they ever agree on their formulas, and that they are changing them constantly with feverish haste, dimly realising that they are but the antiquated representatives of mediaevalism, and that soon their occupation will be gone for ever.

The reasons for the making or the breaking of human relationships can never be formulated. The only result of such legal formulas is that they bring law into contempt because they have to be ingeniously and methodically cheated in order to adapt them in any degree to civilised human needs. Thus such laws not only degrade the name of Law, but they degrade the whole community which tolerates them. There is only one ultimate reason for either marriage or divorce, and that is that the two persons concerned consent to the marriage or consent to the divorce. Why they consent is no concern of any third party, and, maybe, they cannot even put it into words.

At the same time, let us not forget, marriage and divorce are a very real concern of the State, and law cannot ignore either. It is the business of the State to see to it that no interests are injured. The contract of marriage and the contract of divorce are private matters, but it is necessary to guard that no injury is thereby done to either of the contracting persons, or to third parties, or to the community as a whole. The State may have a right to say what persons are unfit for marriage, or at all events for procreation; the State must take care that the weaker party is not injured; the State is especially bound to watch over the interests of children, and this involves, in the best issue, that each child shall have two effective parents, whether or not those parents are living together. A large scope--we are beginning to recognise--must be left alike to freedom of marriage and freedom of divorce, but the State must mark out the limits within which that freedom is exercised.

The loosening hold of the State on marriage is by no means connected with any growing sense of the value of divorce. At the best, it is probable that divorce is merely a necessary evil. One of the chief reasons why we should seek to promote education in relation to sexual relationships and to inculcate the responsibilities of such relationships, so making the approach to marriage more circumspect, is in order to obviate the need for divorce. For divorce is always a confession of failure. Very often, indeed, it involves not only a confession of failure in one particular marriage but of failure for marriage generally. One notes how often the people who fail in a first marriage fail even more hopelessly in the second. They have chosen the wrong partners; but one suspects that for them all partners will prove the wrong partners. One sometimes hears nowadays that a succession of marriage relationships is desirable in order to develop character. But that depends on many things. It very much depends on what character there is to develop. A man may have relationships with a hundred women and develop much less character out of his experience, and even acquire a much less intimate knowledge of women, than the man who has spent his life in an endless series of adventures with one woman. It depends a good deal on the man and not a little on the woman.

Thus the work of marriage in the world must depend entirely on the nature of that world. A fine marriage system can only be produced by a fine civilisation of which it is the exquisite flower. Laws cannot better marriage; even education, by itself, is powerless, necessary as it is in conjunction with other influences. The love-relationships of men and women must develop freely, and with due allowance for the variations which the complexities of civilisation demand. But these relationships touch the whole of life at so infinite a number of points that they cannot even develop at all save in a society that is itself developing graciously and harmoniously. Do not expect to pluck figs from thistles. As a society is, so will its marriages be.

 

NOTES:

(1) It is this artificial and external pressure which often produces a revolt against marriage. The author of a remarkable paper entitled, "Our Incestuous Marriage," in the _Forum_ (Dec., 1915), advocates a reform of social marriage customs "in conformance with the freedom-loving modern nature," and the introduction of "a fresh atmosphere for married life in which personality can be made to appear so sacred and free that marriage will be undertaken and borne as lightly and gracefully as a secret sin."

(2) See Sir James Donaldson, _Woman: Her Position and Influence in Ancient Greece and Rome, 1907_; also S.B. Kitchin's excellent _History of Divorce_, 1912; this author believes that the tendency in modern civilisation is to return to the simple principles of Roman law involving divorce by consent. See also Havelock Ellis, _Sex in Relation to Society_, Ch. X.


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Havelock Ellis's essay: Marriage And Divorce

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