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Marriage in the Modern Age

by Donna Przecha
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How to Record Non-Traditional Relationships in Your Family History
Marriage, while still the standard defining event of coupledom, is no longer the only one. Donna Przecha show you how to (and whether to) record different types of non-traditional arrangements in your genealogy.

In genealogy, three events form the basis for all individuals' lives — birth, marriage and death. Of course marriage has always been optional, but our ancestors who produced children almost always tied the knot.

Today, marriage seems to be less of a "must" with 50% of children born in the U.S. having parents who are not married. Does this mean the end of genealogy as we know it? How will our software programs handle couples living together, but not married? What about mothers who do not live with their children's father? Will we have to devise a new system for keeping track of people?

Genealogy purists have always followed the bloodline, so in that sense marriage really isn't relevant. A child has two parents whether those individuals are married or not. However, marriage, with or without children, has always been a clearly-defined event that we could add to our family trees. Informal live-together arrangements, on the other hand, are something new. Some of these relationships may be stronger than some marriages, but should they be recorded in your genealogy? And what do you do about domestic partnerships involving same-sex partners? These questions are a little more complex. Before we answer them, let's look at the history of marriage.

Origins of Marriage

Marriage, in one form or another, has been with us for thousands of years. For Western civilization, morality played a large part in justifying marriage. You simply did not produce children without marriage. Society frowned on unmarried mothers and their children and often banned them from society, although seldom the fathers. Very wealthy unmarried mothers, however, and rich illegitimate children as well, suffered little disapproval.

While people were urged into marriage for mainly moral reasons, economics also played a part. Until the 20th century, making a living was quite a bit different. Providing food or earning money to buy food was usually a physically demanding job. Plowing fields, felling trees, raising sails on ships, and fighting in an army all required physical strength, and a lot of time. Women also had to work childbearing into their lives — maternity leave was not an option.

For these reasons, a partnership between men and women worked beautifully. Men worked from dawn to dark to provide the raw materials. Women worked the same amount of time preparing and preserving food, making and maintaining clothes and other necessities, plus bearing and raising children. If a mother or a father died, the surviving partner usually remarried fairly soon, as it was an economic necessity.

Insisting on marriage before childbirth also greatly simplified the life of "village elders." After all, if a woman had a child and could not support herself, the support of the new family fell to either the local church or civil government. A woman who was married became the responsibility of her husband and did not draw on the local charity funds.

Economics in the form of inheritance also made marriage important. For the most part, only men could own property and possessions and pass them on to heirs. A man wanted to be sure these went to his heirs, not someone else's. About the only way he could be reasonably sure that he was the father of the child was if the mother was legally bound to him from at least nine months before the heir was born. (This, of course, wasn't foolproof, as some babies were "premature"!)

Around the beginning and middle of the 20th century, several changes occurred: 1) Women found they were as smart as men if they had access to an education, 2) Work became less physical, especially with the invention of modern machinery and tools 3) Appliances became available to do household chores and 4) More ready-made products were available at lower prices. All of these improvements meant that men and women no longer need each other to survive. Another significant factor was the invention of the birth control pill. Without the worry of unwanted pregnancies, women were no longer insistent on marriage before sex. Thus, while a lot of people still choose marriage for many reasons, in modern times it is no longer an economic necessity.

Unmarried Parents

With this new reality, how should you record a child in your genealogy if the parents are not married? Hopefully, your program does not announce that X was the illegitimate child of Y. However, it is generally safe to say that you can put in your genealogy whatever is a matter of public record. If the birth certificate names the father then you can include his name in your database. If the parents sent out a birth announcement, then both names can be recorded.

However, if the father's name is not on the birth certificate and the mother makes no mention of the father, you should be careful about what you record. You may know from family gossip the identity of the father, but this may be best left unsaid. Many family "secrets" are well-known, but it is not your place to make them official knowledge. Remember, the first rule of doctors is "Do no harm." Genealogists might do well to adopt this motto also!

There is one long tradition involving unmarried partners: If a man and woman have lived together for some length of time, which varies with the legal jurisdiction, it is considered a common-law marriage. Some genealogy programs recognize this, otherwise you may need to come up with your own notation.

Modern Complexities and Children

Unmarried parents are one thing, but where it really gets complicated is when today's technology comes into play in the production of children. For example, what if the sperm or eggs that created a child are donated to a family member? Fortunately, most of this is covered by medical ethics: donors are usually anonymous so putting a name in your genealogy is not an option. However, in cases when these persons are known (perhaps a family member or close personal friend), you need to handle this with kid gloves and find out the parents' feelings first.

Surrogate mothers, where a fertilized egg is implanted into another woman's womb to carry during pregnancy and then given up, are also not covered in current genealogy programs. Technically, they are not part of the family. They are more like foster parents who have taken care of the child for a period of time.

And here's another interesting twist: men can have sperm frozen for later use. This would mean a child could be born years after the father died. It would be his child according to the blood line, but your genealogy program would probably protest!

Domestic Partners

Sometimes people live together for many years and wish to be known as a couple. It has been proposed that there should be some label in a genealogy program for such cases. Possible labels which can be substituted for "husband" and "wife" in Family Tree Maker are "significant other," "companion" or "POSSLQ" (a term coined by the Census Bureau meaning "Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters").

Personally, I am very wary of including such relationships in my tree unless I receive a request in writing. While two people might be very much in love when asking to be included as a couple, they may have a falling out and split up. Without a legal record of the union, they can deny they were anything but casual friends and demand you remove such libelous statements in your family history. (I know one woman who wanted her first marriage removed from the family history!)

Some jurisdictions also allow couples (male-female or same-sex) to declare themselves domestic partners, allowing them to be covered by a working partner's health insurance and giving them the same rights as a spouse for making emergency medical decisions. Presumably there is a record of such a declaration, but I don't know if this is considered a vital, public record such as a birth certificate. Same-sex unions are becoming more common, having just been legalized in Vermont. If there is a record of some sort and you want to enter this in your history, you will need to come up with a label to cover this and work it into your program. As with other delicate family situations, perhaps you should determine the couple's and family's feelings before adding to your genealogy.

What to Do?

If you don't want to deal with these modern complications, you can decide to only record marriages and leave out all other arrangements. However, you do need to record any children born of these unions, including the parents' names, if known. This strategy works if you do not intend to publish or otherwise circulate your genealogy, because you do not have to worry about offending anyone. However, if you plan to create a family book or print a wall-sized tree for the family reunion, it might be wise to take family feelings into account. Some programs allow you to code sensitive information so that it can be deleted from the chart for the family reunion. If your program doesn't have such a feature, you could create your own codes, such as enclosing the information in symbols you don't use for anything else. Even names could be coded in some way (middle name "Sensitive" or "Censor" or "YZ") so that you can appropriately edit your tree for family gatherings.

Times Are Changing

I recently saw in the newspaper a picture of a gay couple and a lesbian couple. They wanted children, so one of the men donated sperm to one of the women. Now they all consider themselves the child's parents. What complexities modern life brings for genealogists. I don't think the genealogy program to handle that situation has been invented yet!


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