The world is changing. Marriage is no longer a prerequisite for cohabitation, childrearing or even home ownership. Many couples cite political, emotional or historical reasons for delaying or abandoning the marriage contract. According to a Huffington Post article, “the number of couples living together has more than doubled since the 1990s,” though TIME reports “the majority of cohabitants either break up or marry within five years.”

Marrying in Degrees

When couples decide not to marry, they often do away with the whole marriage complex – the wedding, the rings, the honeymoon, etc. – but not always. Some couples “marry” in varying degrees, often choosing to make symbolic commitments and exchanges.  In the 2014 documentary “112 Weddings,” wedding photographer and documentary filmmaker Doug Block interviewed couples whose weddings he had covered over the past two decades, though some chose wedding-like commitment services over traditional weddings.

One of the most memorable couples, Janice and Alexander, held a 3-day “partnership ceremony.” The ceremony included, among other things, a drum circle. Alexander explained that their choice “had a lot to do with ownership, right of lineage, and possession. They were economic equations, which didn’t resonate with us.” However, 13 years and two daughters later, Janice and Alexander decided to make a legally committed ‘traditional marriage’ as a precaution to protect their family.

Janis and Alexander at their original partnership ceremony.

The History of Traditional Marriage

Despite its seemingly static legitimacy, ‘traditional’ marriage is by no means as traditional as it appears. In an article for the Huffington Post, “Here’s Why the Idea of ‘Traditional Marriage’ Is Total Bullsh*t,” Sara Boboltz explains that “while marriage has existed as a central element of life in nearly every global culture in recorded history, its definition has already been changed. Repeatedly.” The ancient Greeks married to produce a lineage. Aboriginal Australians married based on land accessibility.

In medieval Europe, marriage was developed as a sort of business transaction – doling out plots of land and so on. Marriages were, by all accounts, unromantic affairs (affairs, conversely, were for romance). While rings, symbols of love in contemporary times, were adapted for women as early as 860, they represented commitments to Christianity as much as to the wedded union. Moreover, marriage ceremonies in Medieval Europe little resembled ones performed today. Boboltz writes, “marriage simply consisted of a man, a woman, mutual consent, consummation, and — very important — parental approval.”

Indeed, contemporary marriages are full of absurdly recent conventions. In an article detailing the rise of modern weddings, The Week reported that huge, blowout weddings are only as old as Princess Diana’s 1981 marriage to Prince Charles, which inspired brides to produce their own fairy tale ceremonies. While “a lavish ceremony is no guarantee of a lasting or happy marriage,” the implication of an expensive affair is that it only happens once. One might even argue that marriage today is about the wedding ceremony, in the same way that marriage was once about business or land.

Princess Diana's fairy tale wedding inspired a new generation of expensive ceremonies. 

So, marriage and its ceremonies have changed, and I’ve already mentioned that rings once meant something slightly different than they do now. But, really, how much has the ring exchange actually changed? Unlike commitment services, which are increasingly common and well tolerated, rings inspire a bit more division.  Just google “unmarried with ring” to bear witness to the righteous anger of married women.

Apologies to the participants of those message boards, but the exchange of bands predates marriage itself, beginning with presentations of braided grass around the ankles, waist and wrists. Rings found their way into marriage ceremonies 3,000 years ago, when the ancient Egyptians exchanged them as symbols of love and eternity. Wedding rings for women did become commonplace in Europe between the 9th and 13th centuries. However, the concept of wedding rings for husbands is terribly modern. Men only started to wear wedding rings during WWII, as tokens of love to bring to the battlefield. 

Yes, the world is changing. Commitment, with all its particular symbols, is no longer confined to marriage. Yet the world was always changing, always adapting to new modalities and preferences.  While marriage may appear to possess certain inherent rights, many marital traditions were adapted into marriage. Marriage itself carries no innate or essential characteristics, no ancient customs specific across all cultures and times other than the promise of commitment – be it for child bearing, love, or business. Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable for committed couples to adapt marital symbols like rings or ceremonies out of marriage, just as those symbols were once adapted into it.