How marriage evolves along with society

17 Nov 2023

Divorce, same-sex marriage, and rights for children born outside of wedlock. Marriage law has moved in tandem with a changing society over the past two centuries. Pol van de Wiel will be obtaining his PhD on this subject.

What began as ‘an investigation into the philosophical and legal aspects of the contemporary debate on marriage’ ultimately turned into a substantial book on civil marriage over the past two centuries in the Netherlands and France. PhD candidate Pol van de Wiel talks about ‘incompetent’ women, lying for a divorce, and an important column by politician Henk Krol.

Why write about civil marriage in the Netherlands and France from 1800 onwards?

‘Around 1800, there was a significant transformation of marriage. It began in France, where the revolution had just taken place, and the state claimed marital rights. Napoleon codified this in a legal framework known as the Code Civil. Until then, marriage was within the domain of the Church, but thanks to this civil marriage, the state asserted itself, and marriage became secularized.’

What did this mean for the Netherlands?

Pol van de Wiel. Photo: RU

‘The civil marriage spread across the rest of Europe. In 1838, the Netherlands established its own legal code, including marriage laws. Later, it can be seen that changes in marriage laws in one country led to changes in other countries.’

Did the Church attempt to regain control over marriage?

‘Yes, during the Restoration starting in 1814 (the restoration of the monarchy in France, Ed.), there were attempts to reverse civil marriage, but by then, the genie was already out of the bottle. However, divorce was abolished during this period.’

What is the position of women in marriage law?

‘The man was the head of the marital union, while the woman was deemed legally incompetent. This only changed from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Until 1970, inequality persisted in Dutch law. Additionally, children born out of wedlock had far fewer rights than children born within a marriage.

‘Although marriage law is gradually adjusted, marriage continues to be the norm for relationships’

In the 1960s, changes began to emerge.

’All of society changed, which had a lot of implications for marriage law. Until then, mutual consent was not a valid reason for divorce. So, married couples often lied before the court, claiming adultery to obtain a divorce. Although marriage law was gradually adjusted, marriage remained the norm for relationships. Slowly, you see changes coming, a silent revolution. There was a sexual revolution, contraception, individualization, feminism, and a call for more equality. Marriage lost its monopoly on love relationships as well as on having children.’

You write that marriage becomes gradually less popular.

“From the 1970s, you see changes occurring in three areas. Firstly, the relative number of marriages – per thousand inhabitants – declined. Secondly, the percentage of divorces, until the 1970s, was below 10 percent; then it rose to 30- 40 percent. And finally, only 5 to 10 percent of children were born out of wedlock until the 1970s; now, that percentage in the Netherlands is more than 50 percent, and in France, it is higher than 60 percent.”

The legalization of same-sex marriage is certainly not a silent revolution.

‘That is indeed better captured in headlines. In 1989, Henk Krol became the first to write in an editorial in DE GAY Krant that marriage is ‘by far the best arrangement for a relationship.’ Krol argued that homosexuals are discriminated against because they are not allowed to marry. This call became increasingly stronger in the 1990s, and it became evident that marriage was no longer solely about descent.’

Nevertheless, it takes some time before same-sex marriage is arranged.

‘The introduction of same-sex marriage in France lead to heated debates between the left and right from the 1990s until its implementation in 2013. In the Netherlands as well, it was initially not on the agenda for public opinion. First, there was the interim step of a registered partnership– not only for same-sex couples but also for opposite-sex couples. Then, in 2001, same-sex marriage followed, making the Netherlands the first to so implement it.’

‘I don’t see the marriage being opened to more than two people anytime soon’

Are there any major changes to marriage law coming up now?

‘I think that same-sex marriage has been the most recent ‘major’ reform for now. Things can change quickly, and there is a group advocating for attention to polyamorous relationships, but I don’t see the same dynamics as with the push for same-sex marriage. I don’t think that opening marriage to more than two people will be happening anytime soon. But don’t hold me to it.”

Translated by Siri Joustra

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