Marriage Is Weird: The Sequel
While formalized marriage-type bonds between individuals have existed since the dawn of humankind, the methods by which people pledge their love and loyalty vary as much as cultures do.
Through the ages, there have been quite a few unconventional systems of marriage, and as we reach modernity, some imaginative individuals have started reshaping the concept of matrimony. Given the current marriage and divorce statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—as well as estimates that almost 50 percent of marriages end in divorce or separation—perhaps it's high time.
"It kind of begs the question: Why not reimagine marriage in a way that works for two individuals?" said Natalie Finegood Goldberg, L.M.F.T., a Los Angeles-based sex therapist and psychotherapist. "Being married doesn't mean you do everything together, it doesn't mean you have the same hobbies, it doesn't mean you travel together necessarily. So, yeah, I think there's a lot of different iterations."
Whose idea was this anyway?
According to anthropologists, as far back as 34,000 years ago, early humans recognized the dangers of inbreeding. Even back then, they appear to have developed sophisticated societal rules and formal rituals to codify mating with outgroups—a lesson the Habsburgs, a European royal family, appeared to forget 33,000 years later. Centuries of inbreeding resulted in everyone in the family sporting huge lips and a protruding chin. It's an easy punchline until you realize this genetic issue affected their appearance and their ability to eat food.
This emphasis on ritualized bonding between families to avoid genetic problems in future generations—as well as to ensure mutually assured security—grew more prominent with the rise of agriculture. Marriage bonds were then largely built around strategic and economic interests, rather than love.
For a very long time in Europe, all of this was overseen by the Catholic Church, following arcane, complex and often contradictory rules. Speaking of the church and marriage, there's someone you've got to meet.
We've all heard of King Henry VIII, known for discarding wives with various degrees of viciousness when they didn't bear him a son. But his obsession with having his first marriage annulled so he could be free to marry Anne Boleyn—whom he later had beheaded, so buyer beware—got him excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
In response, Henry elevated the Church of England with himself at its supreme head, separated from Rome, dissolved all of the church's monasteries and convents in England, and along the way, changed the course of history in dramatic fashion.
About 500 years later, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Church of England, which continues to be the largest Christian church in the United Kingdom. Not bad for someone who wanted the power to divorce his wives back in the 1500s.
Polygamy and polyandry
While King Henry married six times over his lifetime, he more or less married his wives one at a time.
That's not always the case.
Deserved or not, Mormons are probably the most famous practitioners of polygamy, the practice of taking multiple spouses. In their case, this practice is more accurately termed polygyny: the practice of men taking multiple wives.
Although the Book of Mormon doesn't explicitly condone polygyny, various Mormon sects have gotten in trouble with the U.S. government over the years due to the tradition, some not so long ago.
There's also evidence that the opposite arrangement—polyandry, or women taking multiple husbands—is not as rare as you might think. Certain societies on the Tibetan plateau are known for traditionally practicing a type of polyandry where one woman marries a man along with his brothers to have more hands available to work the difficult farming land there.
Some research suggests polyandry could be a useful evolutionary adaptation. For instance, a study of the Barí people of Venezuela revealed they believe more than one man can father a child and that sperm contributions over the course of a pregnancy aid in the development of the fetus. Even if that's not how it works according to medical science, Bari children born into households with more than one "father" were more likely to survive to age 15, according to the study's authors.
While modern Americans may know more than one man can't literally father a child, variations on polyamorous lifestyles are becoming more and more mainstream.
"There are so many more couples at least discussing the possibility [of polyamory]," said Kelifern Pomeranz, Psy.D., C.S.T., a licensed clinical psychologist in San Francisco. "I don't know about other parts of the country, but definitely here in the Bay area."
Making the leap to polyamory after starting a relationship monogamously can be a challenge. As in any relationship, communication is the cornerstone of success.
"A lot of people I see are kind of grappling with what do you do if you've signed up for monogamy and you've decided that's not what you want," Pomeranz explained. "I certainly see a lot of couples who are in poly or unconventional nonmonogamous relationships, so I think people are talking about it more. Some of these can be really successful, and some can be what tears the relationship apart. Communication is number one."
Once you open the door to changing the conventions of marriage, people's passion and creativity know no bounds.
To wit, here are some recent stories of...love?
Love the one you're with, or 'sologamy'
In September 2021, Brazilian supermodel Cristiane Galera announced to her 200,000 Instagram followers that she was joining the "wave of sologamy" and marrying...herself.
"Yes, guys, it's true!" Galera wrote. "I'm ♥️ celebrating my Self-Love. I am getting thousands of messages from men and women all over the world wanting to marry me... It's a shame because I'm not going to divorce me anytime soon.☺️"
Editor's note: She divorced herself a few months later, citing a desire to "party" more with people outside the bonds of her marriage.
Have you tried unplugging her and plugging her back in?
In 2009, a Japanese man with the online handle SAL9000 made a splash in nascent meme culture when he decided to marry Nene Angesaki, a character from an online dating simulation game. The pair broadcast their wedding on a Japanese gaming platform and jetted off to Guam for their honeymoon.
Which is to say, he took his Nintendo DS.
What happens between a man and a consenting gaming console isn't really any of our business, is it? As long as no one gets hurt, what's the harm?
"I don't believe this is necessarily a cause for alarm or an indicator of a deeper pathology," Pomeranz said. "As a therapist, it is not my role to judge or dissuade someone from their love interests, but to help clients feel fulfilled, accepted and confident. This may include helping a client figure out what constitutes a healthy and rewarding relationship and/or cope with feelings of guilt, shame or disgust about their own romantic and sexual interests."
Why so quiet, honey?
While SAL9000 had to make do with snuggling his new bride through the plastic of his gaming console, a guy who goes by Davecat has presumably been able to consummate his marriage the old-fashioned way: The love of his life is a sex doll.
Sidore is a $5,000 sex doll Davecat ordered after what he described as a series of bad relationships with humans. It wasn't long before he fell in love and ordered a pair of matching wedding bands etched with "Synthetik Love Lasts Forever."
No ring, just herring
Long-distance relationships are never easy. For Sharon Tendler, a millionaire importer in the U.K., traveling to see her true love several times a year wasn't enough.
In a 2005 ceremony on the dock in the sun-dappled Israeli port of Eilat, Tendler married a male bottlenose dolphin named Cindy, exchanging vows. And herring.
The dolphin's name isn't the most confusing part of this story. At the time, Tendler claimed there was nothing sexual about their relationship, stressing that it was simply a "pure love" she had for the mammal. In fact, she said she hoped Cindy had lots of little dolphin babies with the lady dolphins there.
So, technically, this is polyamory?
Sadly, Cindy died in 2006, survived by his wife, according to news reports.
The last word
It's tempting to poke fun at people who have "unconventional" love interests, but when you think about it, how are these relationships any different from "conventional" marriages between a man and a woman? Are they less successful? It's not like traditional marriages have a great track record.
If everyone loves each other, should we really be listening to a bunch of small-minded, perma-frowning people who look down on any relationships they deem unconventional?
Some relationships may not be your cup of tea, but love is love—as long as it's consensual—and we absolutely need more love in this world, not less.
"I think all types of love should be acknowledged, respected and celebrated," Pomeranz said. "As long as no one is getting hurt, who are we to judge who or what someone wants to love?"