Theodore Zeldin: A revolution in love and marriage

From a lecture by the historian to mark the 30th anniversary of One Plus One, a charity that researches relationships
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The Independent Online

In the past, love was completely different. It was adequate to express love by obeying your husband – that was to love him. It was possible, at a different period of history, to idealise your wife and not to love her for any qualities she had, but simply because you believed in love and love was exalting and so on.

In the past, love was completely different. It was adequate to express love by obeying your husband – that was to love him. It was possible, at a different period of history, to idealise your wife and not to love her for any qualities she had, but simply because you believed in love and love was exalting and so on.

And at different periods in more recent history, women have been questioning the rewards which they get from this love, the kind of love they are offered. For them, love was to begin with a revolution, because they said to their parents, "I am in love and I will only marry the person I love, not whom you tell me to." And that is one of the biggest revolutions in history, refusing to obey your father. They then said: "What is love? Is the kind of love I'm involved in satisfying?" And as women became more educated, they found men less and less worthy of love.

This is the stage we have reached, and it's a very interesting stage because I see women as being revolutionary now, in questioning all these assumptions about how you fall in love (fall is a strange word, as if you have no control of it) and then you're stuck with it, and you drop out of it, as though you're a victim of it. We are saying to our lovers "Do you stimulate me? Do you change in a way which prevents me from being bored with you?"

Of course, there are many people who like boredom. One third – would you believe it – one third of the British population says they like to be told what to do. It's very convenient to be told what to do, you don't have to think, and thinking still hasn't been accepted as a sensual act.

The institution of marriage, if you look at it over many centuries, has come and gone. We have very good records for Sweden, which happened to keep good statistics, and for a very long time Swedes just didn't get married. Then the state began saying" "You've got to get married." Now they are seeking to go back to their own ancient traditions, you might say.

In England, likewise, there were marriage laws to compel people to marry. It is clear that marriage is an institution which must be considered in crisis, but I don't think this serious, because marriage has always been in crisis, and if you think about its history, it used to be a dictatorship and the father had children in order to have as many free workers as possible. It was an economic unit. And now it is the opposite, and the more children you have the poorer you are. Parents are now trying to become the friends of their children.

People are going to be living quite soon for 100 years. Our idea of how a family works no longer applies. It's no good saying you're going to have children for 15 years and then you're going to retire and have hobbies, because you've got 40 more years to go after 60 and you're in good health until 90 or something.

We've got to re-think it and we've got to have not one life, but seven lives; that is what we have to prepare for. The great thing about marriage is that it creates trust, the most precious of things. Unfortunately, in many cases that trust is betrayed, but ideally marriage is about trust between the generations.

In the future, if one is thinking about how many people are needed for a marriage, there is no doubt that it is desirable that children should be stimulated by as wide a range of people as possible, and in the past we used to have godparents and there still are some, but they're quite rare, and we used to have large families.

Children now are often brought up with just two parents, and it is desirable that children should have more adults whom they can trust. So I don't know whether six people will do so, that is a way to do it. I think that there might be groupings of people, and that children would find in several families, as some of them already do, places where they can obtain refuge from their own parents and advice of a different kind, and stimulation.

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