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A Breezy, 'Contrarian' View Of Marriage

As someone living happily ever after in the secular West at the beginning of a new millennium, it is hard for me to imagine anything more elemental: First comes love, then comes marriage. Bad news, matrimonial romantics.

In her delightful book, I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, journalist Susan Squire traces roughly the first 5,000 years of marital behavior, and the real matrimonial axiom is not nearly as catchy: First comes proof of paternity, consolidation of property rights and the occasional ravishment (sorry, Sabine ladies!); then comes marriage.

Squire's long history of connubial blisslessness starts in the caves and proposes that the marital relationship didn't really become complicated until our ancestors had an epiphany: All that humping in the fields? It wasn't just to pass the time between hunting and gathering.

Man's realization of his comparatively minor role in baby-making put him in an existential pickle. He had to find a way to preserve his power over those cunning female incubators. It wouldn't be easy. Across the next several centuries, he had to cope with some tough broads: Eve, Jezebel, Lucretia, Helen of Troy.

I Don't posits the Adam and Eve story as a cautionary tale (Dude, look what happened to humanity when you were fool enough to listen to your wife!) and charts, from there, changing sexual and marital mores through Athens, Rome, the Dark Ages and the golden age of 11th century "courtly love." (Guess what: We should be relieved that chivalry is dead.)

By the time the Reformation rolled around, marriage had slipped to a scorned and sad second-place option behind celibacy. Enter German theologian Martin Luther, an unlikely but effective champion for marriage as a pleasurable and mutually beneficial partnership. It is there, in the startlingly tender matrimonial bed of Mr. and Mrs. Luther, that love and marriage began their embrace.

It would have been easy for Squire to make an early history of marriage a mere rant; it was, to say the least, a trying time for the ladies. Women were chattel, the virgin/whore conceit was in its prime, and anyone whose mother read Betty Friedan knows things didn't improve for a long, long time.

But Squire has a deft touch; the book is a chatty read, with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. It's filled with fascinating tidbits and great scene setters, too. Picture Roman wives marching in the first women's rights demonstration, for the freedom to wear purple and gold. (Their husbands' horses had better wardrobes.)

In the end, you're likely to gain some sympathy for our ancestors, cruel and clumsy though they were. You'd be cranky, too, if you had missed out on lust and love. All the more reason to learn from this ample history of marital injustice, lest you be doomed to repeat it — by chucking the book at your hubby's head.

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