The Evolution of Marriage

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

Written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s and made famous by the Byrds’ version of the song in 1965, Turn, Turn Turn (To Everything There is a Season) compiles a list of many of life’s most potent events. The list of course includes embracing. It includes love. But, where on that list is marriage?

The song was taken straight from the Book of Ecclesiastes, circa 3rd century B.C. Those days, marriage wasn’t exactly commonplace. At least, not in the way we think of marriage today. In ancient Rome and Greece, marriages were simply private agreements made between couples and families. If a community recognized a couple as being married, they were married. Even in medieval Europe, couples were considered married if both of them agreed they were husband and wife – no state registry, no church wedding, no white dress.

During the Middle Ages the powers that be got a little pickier. The Catholic Church wanted formal recognition of marriage and a priest-led church ceremony. Then with the 1753 Marriage Act, England required the same. Any so-called “clandestine” marriages were out the window.

In our country’s infancy, these clandestine, or “common law” marriages, (e.g. we live together, we act like we’re married, we say we’re married, therefore we’re married) were still allowed. Over time, however, only formal marriages were recognized by most states. Historically it was the same here in Oregon, the state recognizing only traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Whether same-sex or opposite-sex, romantic relationships without marriage vows were outside the boundaries of the law. If a relationship ended, courts wouldn’t handle issues of property division, and coming to the court with “unclean hands,” such partnerships were left to “whatever befell them.”

Fast-forward to the 1970s. Woodstock. Free love. The Byrds.  Between 1960 and 1978, the number of unmarried couples living together had increased 700%. In the late 1970s, Oregon courts began recognizing these so-called “meretricious relationships.” In 1981 the “meretricious relationship” status was extended to same-sex couples.  What did the label mean?  That Oregon judges could now apply business partnership law to unmarried couples, looking at each partner’s intent to determine how to divide property.

Today, unmarried couples in Oregon certainly have more rights than a half-century ago. But going to the altar is still a critical step to ensure the whole package of marital benefits under the law. Stay tuned to next month’s article, which explores today’s legal rights for married v. unmarried couples.

Robert (Bob) Good has practiced law in Jackson County for over twenty years, specializing in family law, estate planning and business law. Contact him at his Ashland office at (541) 482-3763.