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9 Things You May Not Know About Marriage

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It wasn't until I set out to write a novel about marriage that I realized how little I knew about the institution. I've been married for five years now so it would stand to reason that I'd know a thing or two. But the truth is, many of us take marriage for granted without knowing much about its history, changing shape, and varied role in cultures different than our own.

So before I sat down and put pen to paper for my novel After I Do, which is, at this point, merely a figurative way of saying "opened my laptop," I did a bit of research on the contract that so many of us find ourselves aspiring to, living in, or recovering from.

9 Things You May Not Know About Marriage:

1. The first recorded marriages appear in history around 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. The purpose of these marriages were primarily to preserve power, gain land, and produce heirs. That being said, monogamy, polygamy, family units, and romantic relationships all pre-date recorded history.

2. Love was not relevant to marriage until the Enlightenment. It was a novel idea, in the 17th century, to be in love with your spouse. Previous to that, love between a husband and wife was considered highly inappropriate in some cultures and detrimental to a marriage in others. Love was often considered something to be sought out outside the marriage. Romantic marriage, which is to say marrying for the sole purpose of love, didn't become commonplace until after the Industrial Revolution, when men could make enough money on their own to afford to reject their parents' choice of a spouse.

3. In Western society, wearing a white dress on your wedding day was not popular until the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria wore a white gown when she married Prince Albert. The wedding photograph was widely published and started the trend of women wearing white gowns. The trend never made its way east, however. Wedding dresses in countries such as China and India are typically red, which is a traditional color of good luck.

4. Gretna Green, a village in Scotland, is famous for runaway weddings. The town became popular after The Marriage Act of 1753, which pertained to England and Wales. The law set forth a number of requirements for marriage such as church involvement and a marriage license. Because the laws in Scotland were much more lax, couples would run to the nearest accessible Scotland town, typically Gretna Green, in order to marry. The trend died down in the 1800s when Scotland started requiring a 21 day residency in order to marry, but when that was lifted in 1977, it once again became a destination for the betrothed. Today, the area hosts around 5,000 weddings a year.

5. Any American couple that has been married for fifty or more years can receive an anniversary card from the President and First Lady of the United States. You can request a card be sent by contacting your representatives or writing to the White House general address. They recommend sending the request several months in advance.

6. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to pass marriage equality. Today, seventeen nations recognize same sex marriage. Those nations are Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Uruguay and Wales. Sub-jurisdictions in other nations such as Mexico and the U.S. recognize same sex marriage as well.

7. The longest living marriage is that of Karam and Katari Chand who have been married for 88 years. Karam, the husband, is 108 and Katari, the wife, is 106. They married in India in 1925. The longest married couple on record is Daniel and Susan Bakeman. They were married in New York City on August 29th, 1772 and their marriage lasted a shade over 91 years.

8. As of 2012, the Philippines and the Vatican City are the only jurisdictions which do not allow divorce. Divorce was only recently legalized in Italy (1970), Brazil (1977), Spain (1981), Ireland (1996), Chile (2004), and Malta (2011).

9. According to a study done at the University of Chicago, more than a third of marriages between 2005 and 2012 began online. The study also found that online couples have happier, longer marriages.

Of course, marriage is an institution with a deep history and a far-reaching scope. It has changed shape over thousands of years and taken on different meanings, traditions, and values all over the world. For anyone interested in finding more about marital conventions in other time periods and cultures (many of which run the gamut from fascinating to heartbreaking), I recommend googling the following search terms as a starting point: ghost marriage, avunculate marriage, dowry death, marriage markets, sati, forced marriage, grey divorce, collective weddings, and the work of the psychologist John Gottman. I have often lost whole days jumping from one Wikipedia article after another in an attempt to understand the full scope of marriage as an institution.

And what I've learned from all of this is that humans have a virtually unlimited number of approaches to marriage. There are, essentially, as many opinions on marriage as there are people in the world.

Which is good news for someone like me, who could discuss the details of marriage until I'm blue in the face, because it means there are always more facts to find and more books to be written.