The news about marriage, specifically the traditional form, has not been encouraging lately. Official statistics indicate the number of Barbadians entering such unions is in sharp decline while the number of persons opting out of marriage through divorce is on the rise.
What are these trends telling us? Maybe that marriage is losing its appeal because Barbados has made a fundamental shift from being a society defined by the practice of religious faith, predominantly Christianity, to one characterized by secularization.
There are several other possible reasons, including a redefinition of marriage itself, especially in countries like Canada and the United States which influence global trends. Under this revised understanding, marriage is no longer limited to being a union of man and woman but can also involve two men or two women, sexually attracted to each other, if they choose to formalize their relationship.
As understood traditionally, marriage is a practice which seems to be as old as humanity itself. Christians contend that marriage was instituted by God and trace its origins to the Creation story in the Book of Genesis where God presents Eve to Adam to be his partner.
“…and the man exclaimed: “Here is somebody like me. She is part of my body, my own flesh and bones. She came from me, a man, so I will name her ‘woman’. That is why a man will leave his own mother and father. He marries a woman and the two of them become like one person”. Genesis 2: 23-24.
Is the declining popularity of marriage between men and women a development about which society should be concerned? The response, no doubt, will vary based on the perspective of the person to whom the question is posed. If men and women are not getting married like before, it suggests they may be opting for common law unions which, in the Barbadian context, were traditionally frowned upon.
Such unions are considered by the Church as “living in sin” even though there have always been more common law unions in Barbados than marriages and they have been responsible for producing the majority of Barbadians. However, common law unions today are recognized in law, especially in relation to the rights of women and children.
Ironically, evidence suggests that marriage in Biblical times was more along the lines of common law unions. A man, desirous of marrying a woman, usually went to her father and, once his permission was granted, the woman, usually a girl in her teens, became his wife. It was as simple as that. If the man later wanted to get out of the marriage, all he had to do was to take the woman in a public place before witnesses and pronounce three times “I divorce you”.
Today, rather than being the loose arrangement described here, marriage constitutes a binding legal agreement between two people. This point tends to be overlooked because marriages are more seen in religious terms because most are performed in a church. What basically happens at a church wedding is that God’s blessings are invoked on the marriage made possible through the issue of a licence by the state.
It is only when the couple signs the nuptial agreement that the marriage is official. The priest is there, not in the role of man or woman of God as is the case during other aspects of the service, but as an officer of the state. Indeed, there is a view that a wedding simply formalizes a marriage as the decision of the couple had brought the union into effect before.
Some people will be concerned that declining marriage may lead to social instability. Why should it? Whether formal marriage or common law union, what seems more important is that the union is characterized by mutual love and commitment. Such would provide the stable family environment ideal for children to grow up in. And procreation is considered the key purpose of marriage.
Noticeable tension in the relationships between men and women in Barbados – reflected in the unflattering terms which they sometimes use to describe each other — may be yet another reason why marriage is on the decline. For marriage to work, there must be mutual respect and a willingness on both sides to compromise to ensure a lasting union. Achieving compromise, however, is a difficult proposition today. The present age emphasizes the triumph of the individual at all costs.
Altogether, changing societal conditions appear unfavourable for the traditional institution of marriage. Interest may be down, yes, but marriage certainly is not yet out. At least not for the foreseeable future.