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Unequal Marriages

If there is a mistake peculiarly fatal to a young man’s or a girl’s future, it is that supreme act of social destruction called a mésalliance. Indeed it is not measurable by any of the usual conditions of life, and death itself would be a kindness compared with the long misery of some kinds of mésalliances. They may arise from inequalities of birth, differences in religious faith, or great discrepancies in age; but whatever their occasion, they are always a far-reaching and irretrievable mistake; the mistake par excellence of any life.

An unequal marriage is not only the most fatal blunder of life, it is also the most common one; and although it is not very easy for a man to ruin himself with a single act, a foolish marriage will afford him at least one decided way. In regard to men’s mésalliances, they cannot be said to be specially the temptation of youth. Foolish old men who marry their cooks, and foolish young men who burden themselves with some Casino divinity, keep up a very steady average. But the young man’s mistake is much the worst of the two; for he has his whole life before him, and has probably made no provision against such a social suicide.

If an old man marries beneath his station and culture, he believes he is getting the wife he most desires; and if he is disappointed, he is at any rate near the end of life, and he either has no children to suffer from his folly, or they have already grown beyond its most painful reach. But a young man who binds himself to a woman who is every way beneath his own station, education, and professional ambition, is in a different case. In a very short time the disillusion of those senses begins under which he permitted mere physical beauty to bind him; and he knows that, as far as his future progress is concerned, he has put a millstone about his neck.


The effect of a social mésalliance on a girl is still worse. In the first place, it ought to be so; for she has to sin against the natural instinct of a good woman, which is always to marry above herself, an instinct which is, both physiologically and socially, noble. For a woman is less than a woman who does not consider the consequence of marriage, and provide in every way possible to her the best father for her offspring. And if she marries beneath herself socially, the almost certain presumption is that the social status of her husband is the measure of his intellectual abilities, and of his personal refinement also. And when a woman considers herself only in her marriage, and has no care for the circumstances to which she may doom her unborn children, she is an incarnation of animal selfishness.

Without stopping to analyze the sources of its disapproval, this is undoubtedly an instinctive motive for the persistent cold shouldering which society gives girls who degrade themselves by a mésalliance. It is obvious to every one that she has sinned against herself, her family, her class, and the highest instincts of her sex. Women have no pardon for such sinners; for they see not only the present wrong, they look forward also to the possible children of such a union. They understand that they will have to suffer all the limitations of poverty when they ought to have had all the advantages of wealth. They may possibly inherit their father’s vulgar tastes and tendencies, or they may have to endure the misery of fine tastes without any opportunity to gratify them. For this premeditated sin against motherhood and against posterity, good women find it hard to tolerate the offender; for they know that a woman’s honor is in her husband, and that her social station and her social life is determined by his.

When a girl is guilty of a mésalliance, it is sometimes said in extenuation that “she has married a man of noble disposition; and it is better to marry a poor, ignorant man, with a noble disposition, than a rich man who is selfish and vicious.” If the alternative was a positive one, yes, but there is no need to make a choice between these characters. Men of refined habits and manners and good education may also have noble dispositions; and poor, ill-bred men have not always noble ones; at any rate, a good woman will always find in her own class just as good men as she will find in a class below her own.

All this danger is evident to parents. They know how fleeting passion and fancy are; and they rightly conceive that it is their duty by all possible means to prevent their daughter making an unworthy marriage. How far parents may lawfully interfere is a question not yet decided, nor yet easy to decide. The American idea of marriage is, theoretically, that every soul finds its companion soul, and lives happily ever after; and in this romantic search for a companion soul, young girls are allowed to roam about society, just when their instincts are the strongest and their reason the weakest. The French theory—to which the English is akin somewhat—is that a mother’s knowledge is better than a girl’s fancy; and that the wisdom that has hitherto chosen her teachers, physicians, spiritual guides, and companions, that has guided her through sickness and health, is not likely to fail in selecting the man most suitable for her husband.

This latter theory supposes women to love naturally any personable man who is their own, and who is kind to them; that is, if she has a virgin heart, and comes in this state from her lessons to her marriage duties. The American theory supposes girls to love by sympathy, and through soul attraction and personal attraction; consequently, our girls are let loose early—too early—to choose among a variety of Wills and Franks and Charlies; and the natural result is a great number of what are called “love matches” to which it must be acknowledged mésalliances are too often the corollary. Between these two theories, it is impossible to make a positive selection; for the bad of each is so bad, and the good of each so good that both alike are capable of the most unqualified praise and blame. It may, however, be safely asserted that the confidence every American girl has in her own power to choose her own husband helps to lessen the danger and to keep things right. For an honorable girl may be trusted with her own honor; and a dishonorable one, amid a number to choose from, may peradventure fare better than she deserves; for Fortune does sometimes bring in the bark that is not steered.

Most girls make mésalliances in sheer thoughtlessness, or through self-will, or in that youthful passion for romance which thinks it fine to lose their world for love. Foolish novels are as often to blame for their social crime as foolish men,—novels which are an apotheosis of love at any cost! Love against every domestic and social obligation! Love in spite of all prudent thought of meat and money matters! Love in a cottage, and nightingales and honeysuckles to pay the rent! And if parents object to their daughter marrying ruin, then they are represented as monsters of cruelty; while the girl who flies stealthily to her misery, and breaks every moral tie to do so, is idealized into an angel of truth and suffering.

In real life what are parents to do with a daughter whose romantic folly has made her marry their groom or their footman? We have outlived the inexorable passions of our ancestors, and their undying loves and hatreds, sacrifices and revenges. Our social code tolerates no passion swallowing up all the rest; and we must be content with a decent expression of feeling. What their daughter has done they cannot undo; nor can they relieve her from the social consequences of her act. She has chosen to put their servant above and before them, and to humiliate her whole family, that she may please her low-born lover and herself, and she has therefore no right to any more consideration than she has given. Her parents may not cease to love her, and they may spare her all reproaches, knowing that her punishment is certain; but they cannot, for the sake of their other children, treat her socially above the station she has chosen. She has become the wife of a servant, and they cannot accept her husband as their equal nor can they insult their friends by introducing him to them. How wretched is the position she has put herself in; for if the man she married be naturally a low man, he will probably drag her to his level by the “grossness of his nature.” If she be a woman of strong character she may lift her husband upward, but she accepts such a labor at the peril of her own higher life. And if she finds it impossible either to lift him to her level or to sink herself to his level, what then remains? Life-long regrets, bitter shame and self-reproach, or else a forcible setting of herself free. But the latter remedy carries desperation instead of hope with it. Never can she quite regain her maiden place, and an aura of a doubtful kind influences every effort of her future life.

After all, though men have not the reputation of being romantic, it is certain that in the matter of unequal marriage, they are more frequently imprudent than women. There is some possibility of lifting a low-born woman to the level of a cultivated man, and men dare this possibility far more frequently than is generally supposed. Perhaps after a long season they find the fine ladies with whom they have flirted and danced a weariness; and in this mood they are suddenly taken with some simple, unfashionable girl, who does not know either how to dress, or flirt, or dance. So they make the grave error of thinking that because fine ladies are insupportable, women who are not fine ladies will be sweet and companionable. But if the one be a blank, will that prove the other a prize? The dulness or folly of a polite woman is bad enough; but the dulness and folly of an uneducated woman is worse. Very soon they find this out, and then comes indifference, neglect, cruelty, and all the misery that attends two ruined lives.

The result of unequal marriage in both sexes is certain wretchedness, and this verdict is not to be altered by its exceptions, however brilliant they may seem to be. For when a man of means and education marries an uneducated girl of low birth, or a woman of apparent culture and high social position marries her servant, and the marriages are reasonably happy, then it may be positively said, “There has been no mésalliance.” The husband and wife were unequal only in their externals. The real characters of both must have been vulgar and naturally low and under-bred.


It is folly to talk of two beings unequally married “growing together,” or of “time welding their differences,” and making things comfortable. Habit indeed reconciles us to much suffering, and to many trials; but an unequal marriage is a trial no one has any business to have. It is without excuse, and therefore without comfort. When the Almighty decrees us a martyrdom he blends his peace and consolations therewith; but when we torture ourselves our sufferings rage like a conflagration. Perhaps the chain may be worn, as a tight shoe is worn into shape until it no longer lames; but oh, the misery in the process! And even in such case the resigned sufferer has no credit in his patience; quite the contrary, for he knows as well as others know, though submission to what God ordains is the very height of energy and nobility, submission to the mistakes we ourselves make is the very climax of cowardice and weakness.




Amelia E. Barr