Greek Marriage: Cage, Social Status Symbol, or Hellenic Ideal?
It is a fact little in need of argument that the foundation of success of the Greek family lies on the institution of marriage. It is no wonder Greek culture is so endogamous; you cannot be Greek without it. “You mean you didn’t get the memo,” Basile the Greek-American comedian whispers in one of his acts when a lady in the audience appears with her non-Greek husband, “you need to marry a Greek or else xylo.” Well, not xylo—but something worse, it’s called ostracism and gossip. Yes, if you are not the socially obedient boy and girl and marry into your ethnos, you will be placed in a caste, sometimes consciously, oftentimes subconsciously, outside of the allowed norm. Endogamy is a great way to keep outsiders out and insiders in with the social sanction of the Greek Orthodox church. It’s an easy way to keep neat little lines around “us” and “them.” Without the obsession to get married to Hellenes, both men and women, to keep the ethnos “pure,” Kyrieleison! The Greek race will die out. No Hellenic miscegenation allowed, ever, o Theos na filia! If you want to be included in all the grand parties, if you want hundreds of likes and hearts on your social feeds, you have to announce to the whole Hellenic loving world that you and your agape are conveniently Greek and happily married ever after.
Except that there’s something really deceptive about that picture. In fact, there’s more than one thing. First off, it’s called implicit bias, or inherent bias. Greek culture cannot conceive of a sexually mature adult in anything other than a marriage state. A single unmarried Greek man or woman is somehow seen as half a person at best, an anathema or a reject at worst. Whether we want to accept it or not, as Greeks we have been socialized to think Greek is best. Marrying another ethnic Greek, however hairy, however incestuously close, is preferable to marrying outside the ethnic group. That would be too messy. That would be like betraying the blood. And Theos na filiae, don’t marry outside the race! Don’t even think of going black. Then they won’t ever take you back. You will be a misfit of both races, both places.
The one compromise I have seen is that the Greek member of the marriage “Greekifies” the other member to such an extent that they become more Greek than their ethnicity of origin. Many Ecuadorian/Colombian/Puerto Rican wives become bona fide Greeks by learning the language, converting to the religion, cooking dolmadakia and the other staples of Greek cuisine that their entrance into the country-club of Greekness is authenticated. Just this weekend I witnessed a Greek man married to a Japanese professional woman speaking in full Greek to his little girl of six who looked more Japanese. It’s more often the case that when the Greek member of the marriage is the husband and the non-Greek the wife, Greek assimilation is easier when the woman comes from a patriarchal culture that socializes her to accept her husband’s decision for the family, language and ethnic identification being one of many.
Second off, this very limited view of relationships, while comforting because it is comfortable, is discriminatory. It discriminates against the variety of human attraction. Is there a preordained order from Zeus that decrees all the arrows in Eros’ quiver have to be directed to other Greeks? In a global world, it is ridiculous to think that human affection must be corralled by political boundaries. Someone who deviates from the “norm” of the Hellenic nuclear family is viewed critically. Forget about being gay and Greek! If you are both, then you can foggetabout breaking the schema of marriage. Pousti kai pandremenos is the ultimate paradox. That is true anathema. You could be lynched in certain places in the Old Country for it.
Thirdly, the façade of Greek marriage is illusory, it is fake, it is an ideal that sometimes does more harm than good. Given the patriarchal legacy still latent in Greek marriage, it is an institution that handicaps women and men. How many Greek marriages, by extension other marriages, are truly happy and harmonious? Very little research and data are collected to guage satisfaction in the conjugal state. The family and marriage as institutions get less attention for study than dolphins, say or diesel engines. My guess is that the older you get, the more mythic the ideal of the happily ever after Greek marriage becomes. So many women in middle age feel trapped by the stronghold of marriage, even when they catch their husbands screwing tourists in the backrooms of lounges on the Greek islands. So many men stay with crabby aging wives to keep up appearances. Marriage bestows status on individuals in Greek society so many times individuals sacrifice personal integrity to keep status. I think it amounts to a delusion of happiness, akin to being in love with love. Greeks love the Greek family so much they convince themselves that they are happy in crappy marriages because they cannt conceive of themselves as happy outside of marriage.
Now I am not blasting marriage as a whole. If it works, if it is healthy and harmonious, it is the most beautiful thing. Of course, it would be better than waxing alone and lonely. What I am reacting to is the unexamined, overgeneralized acceptance of matrimony that Greek culture propagates. This societal slavish obsession with the myth of marriage. Wake up people! Examine your lives. Are your really happy in your Greek marriage?
Relationships are hard. They take work. What I’ve found that while Greek culture exalts matrimony to cult status on the ideal level, once the stefana are uncrossed, it takes a non-chalant position. There are deplorably few marriage counselors that help couples keep it together, even less pastorally trained counselors. The Catholic Church makes it a point to invest money and resources into keeping its people together as it strikes the rule, no divorce unless under very limited circumstances. It sponsors “marriage encounter” weekends and provides marital counseling. The Greek Orthodox Church keeps a hands-off stance. It is more worried about building facades in crumbling structures and renovating bathrooms with marble fixtures than fixing the mundane very human problems in marriages and families.
The upshot of this Greek endogamy is that two tribes of Greek emerge: the Greeky-Greek-keep-it-Greek-all-around and the Greek-free-enough-to-be-me. These two tribes, although they exist side by side, do not mingle. They keep separate cocktail parties, frequent different haunts; think with divergent mindsets.
Olympe (what a Hellenically inspired first name) de Gouges, a prominent French playwright, abolitionist and feminist who was married against her will at 16, called the institution of marriage, “the tomb of trust and love.” I don’t want to see it that way. I want to see it as a mutually beneficial structure that supports and extends the talents of each member to their fullest. But if it becomes only an outward costume of social acceptance, then it should not be revered and worshipped. It is something handed down without critical thinking. Tradition has to fit the growing needs of its members; otherwise it will strangle and suffocate those who wear it.