According to the 2008 National Center for Health statistics, August is overtaking June as the most popular month for weddings. Even though approximately half of U.S. marriages end in divorce -- and, let's face it, adultery, scandal, and heartache make for more titillating copy -- here's a champagne toast to those couples who got married this month and to those in the 50 percent that have stayed married. Why do couples stay together? Who really knows? Anyway, I offer something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.
Well, this wouldn't be a medievalist's love and marriage blog without mentioning something old, so here's a thirteenth-century story.
Athelstan, a good king and ruler of England dies, and gives his young orphaned daughter and heir Goldeboru to Earl Godrich of Cornwall to raise and marry off to the highest man in the land. Around the same time, King Birkebeyn of Denmark dies and gives his two orphaned daughters and his son and heir Havelok into the care of his seneschal Godard, who immediately slays the two girls and asks Grim, a fisherman, to drown Havelok. When Grim and his wife discover that Havelok has a special light that shines from his mouth and a royal birthmark on his shoulder, they realize that Havelok is the kingdom's true heir. Grim and his family sail with Havelok to England, where Grim prospers and founds the town of Grimsby. When famine strikes and times become hard, Havelok goes to work for the Earl's cook at Lincoln castle. His height and strength catch the eye of Godrich, who decides to marry Goldeboru to Havelock, whom he believes is the highest man in inches but not rank in England. Once Goldeboru is married to a churl, she cannot inherit the English throne. Goldeboru despises Havelok, but when she discovers his magical light and birthmark, she warms up to him. They flee first to Grimsby and then to Denmark to reclaim his throne. After several battles, they succeed. Once back in England, Havelok battles with Godrich and regains the throne for Goldeboru. Havelok unites and rules over both Denmark and England. He and Goldeboru now have great love for each other and spawn fifteen children, who also become kings and queens.
So what do we learn from Havelok the Dane, one of the first romances in English? The love between Havelok and Goldeboru does not have elements of romantic or courtly love; Havelok is about marriage and married love. There is no attraction at first sight, pale lovers pining in unrequited anguish, love talk, love games, or adultery. Instead, Havelok and Goldeboru grudgingly consent to a forced marriage only because they fear for their lives. Goldeboru loves Havelok only when she discovers he is of her social class, that is, a king's son. The romance's main concern is with the orphaned and exiled Havelok and Goldeboru claiming their rights as heirs to inherit the kingdoms of Denmark and England, respectively. Although the love in Havelok deals with marriage and inheritance, there is genuine affection shown between the couple. Although we want to love each other first before getting married, these are the seeds of married love even today, in that couples form an economic unit and there is the hope that love and affection grow deeper over time.
Researchers from the Australian National University released a study earlier this year that found love was not enough to sustain a couple's relationship. The study, called "What's Love Got to Do with It," tracked 2,500 couples, who were either married or cohabiting, from 2001 to 2007 to determine the factors associated with those who remained together compared with those who divorced or separated. Here's what they discovered.
1. A husband who is nine or more years older than his wife is twice as likely to get divorced. This was also true for husbands who married before the age of 25.
2. One-fifth of the couples who had children before marriage -- from either a previous or the same relationship -- separated, compared to nine percent of couples without children born before marriage.
3. Women who wanted children much more than their partners were more likely to separate or divorce.
4. Sixteen percent of men and women whose parents ever separated or divorced had marital separation themselves, compared to 10 percent for those whose parents did not separate.
5. Partners on their second or third marriage were 90 percent more likely to separate than spouses who were both in their first marriage.
6. Sixteen percent of couples who indicated they were poor or where the husband was unemployed had separated, compared with nine percent of couples with stable finances.
7. The researchers also claim that couples where one partner smoked and other does not were more prone to separate or divorce.
I'm going to borrow this observation from Stephanie Coontz, social historian and author of Marriage, A History and The Way We Never Were, whom I heard speak at a local university a while ago. She said that one recent study that looked at couples who stayed married over a decade or more found something interesting in their conversations. It seems that those couples who respond to cues from their partners - even on the most mundane of subjects - are less likely to separate or divorce. So even if you're busy with whatever it is you're doing and you hear your partner laugh at the TV or say "humph," it's a bid for your attention and you should inquire. Couples who responded to each other's bids for attention at least 80 percent of the time were likely to stay married.
For something blue, let's use the term in its meaning of something sad.
One of the delights in this year's movies so far has been Up. Even though it is an animated movie and has the fun of being in 3-D, it touches a serious subject on which we have little discourse. That is, what does one do after the death of a beloved spouse? The poignant montage of the couple's love and marriage, with its joys and sorrows, and the wife's passing brought me to tears. If a couple does stay together, there is a high probability that one will go first. It's something we keep in the back of our heads, but we don't talk about it much. Up provides a happy solution in that the surviving partner goes on to have new adventures with a wild balloon ride, a unique bird, and talking dogs as well as a committed loving relationship as a substitute parent to the child he never had.
Perhaps what keeps a couple together eludes scientific studies -- or perhaps it is an alchemical formula as magical as Havelok's magic light or Up's talking dogs. Either way, to that 50 percent who are still together, here's a toast!