The idea that the state should promote, sanction, and regulate monogamous relationships gained currency in the 16th century as a reaction to Europe’s first sexual revolution. Public, group, and what we now call homosexual sex were commonplace, prostitution was rampant and generally unpunished, pornographic books and pamphlets were widely popular, and laws against adultery and divorce went unenforced. Martin Luther and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation seized upon marriage as a means though which to curb unchristian freedoms and bring about social order.
On this side of the Atlantic, shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, the newly-formed states, acting in their own professed self-interest, enacted laws that made it more difficult to end marriages. Typical was the view of Georgia state legislators, who in 1802 responded to their inability to stop the “dissolution of contracts founded on the most binding and sacred obligations” by drafting a law regulating divorce. According to the lawmakers, the “dissolution [of a marriage] ought not to be dependent on private will, but should require legislative interference; inasmuch as the republic is deeply interested in the private business of its citizens.”
Other state governments followed that lead. By the end of the 19th century it was nearly impossible in all the states to dissolve a marriage unless one upheld what one historian has called “ideal spousal behavior” and one’s spouse was adulterous, sexually dysfunctional, or chronically absent. No longer could an unhappy wife or husband simply walk away from a marriage.
Dissolving a marriage became slightly less onerous in the 20th century, thanks largely to the aforementioned counter-cultural left, but the institution’s state-sanctioned moral apparatus continued to keep most of us from pursuing our individual desires. As of the most recent count [pdf], 48 percent of married couples are willing to pay lawyers bundles of cash to disentangle from relationships they no longer see as serving their interests. Even today, we pay dearly for that option, not just in legal fees but also from the stigma of having “failed” at what all good Americans are expected to do.
So let us say to our gay brothers and sisters fighting for the “freedom to marry,” who once led the fight for freedom from marriage: be careful what you wish for--you’ll probably get it.