How Traditional Marriage Became De-Condensed


Sarah Perry argues that virtually every technological advance is an example of “de-condensation.”

In the past, she writes, “time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed.”

But today:

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation:

it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and

allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to.

Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech.

Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl).

Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Alastair Roberts picks up on this theme and explains how marriage in particular has been de-condensed:

Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. Although the form it took could vary considerably from society to society, it generally served to unite or strengthen the bond between a range of different persons and practices.

It bound the generations together.

It bound different families together.

It related the sexes together.

It strengthened communities and cultures as marriages became the bearers of religious and social meaning.

It connected sex with procreation.

It connected private life with communal life.

The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it:








public representation,


religious practice, etc., etc.

However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies.

Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community.

Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.

Marriage once powerfully represented

the condense and integrated meaning of human sexuality,

a deep mystery of the union of man and woman,

the wonder of the other sex and the deeper reality of our own,

the most fundamental common project of all human society,

the union of our most animal of drives with the highest of our ideals,

the connection between our bodies and our deepest selves,

the significance of the loving and committed sexual bond as the site where the gift of new life is welcomed into the world,

the difference between human making and human begetting,

the miracle of the development of new life,

the wondrous natural blossoming of private sexual unions into public families,

a bond that stretches over generations,

the deep union of blood,

the interplay and union of the sexes in all areas of human life and society,

the maturation of man and woman together and in union through all of the seasons of their lives, until they cross the threshold of death.

This meaning hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it is fast fading. Through many and various developments, the meaning of marriage in relation to human sexuality has been slowly eroded. Human sexuality is being de-condensed.

Contraception and prophylactics separate sexual relations from procreative potential and reduce the need for discriminating choice of partners, reducing sex to primarily genital stimulation.

Porn offers to satisfy our unruly lusts, compartmentalizing our sexuality.

Reproductive technology separates procreation from sexual congress. It abstracts bodily material from persons and biological parenthood from social parenthood.

Surrogacy abstracts child-bearing from motherhood. The coming together of bodies is no longer presumed to necessitate a uniting of selves.

Sexual reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy reinforce the abstraction of one’s gender from one’s natural bodily sex.

Social science de-condenses the function of ‘parenting’ from the condense reality of being a mother or father.

He goes on to argue that de-condensation directly threatens human beings themselves:

It isn’t just our tools, institutions, and societies that are being de-condensed, but our very selves. The humanity that will result will be much reduced in stature. What it means to be a mature human being, to be made in the image of God, is closely bound up with our creative and procreative activity and both of these dimensions of our humanity face imminent threats. Even if we survive such developments in relative material comfort, it will most likely be in a sort of puerile dependency on a stifling government.

You can read the whole thing here, where he applies the concept to work and other areas.

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