A few weeks ago I got married, slightly to my surprise. My partner and I both dislike marriage as an institution, but our living situation changed in a way that made it financially and legally advantageous to have a marriage certificate, and we figured ‘well, marriage isn’t important enough for us to incur personal costs just to avoid it’. My partner talks about it a little in this article on the Huffington Post.
I thought it would be worthwhile to articulate here some of my thoughts about marriage, and why I would say I’m ‘against it’ (as far as is compatible with, um, getting married). We don’t deny that we’re married, but we don’t identify with it, and strongly prefer terms like ‘partner’ to ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. In some sense we feel like the marriage isn’t a ‘real’ one – it exists only on administrative forms. That doesn’t mean we don’t love each, or don’t feel deeply committed to each other. But our relationship isn’t any different from what it was six months ago.
I’m going to organise this post in four sections: why I oppose marriage as it currently exists, why the answer isn’t just to reform it, how I think about the identity of social institutions, and why that doesn’t mean I think everyone else’s marriage is wrong. This is all thoughts-in-progress – I’m not claiming to have reached a final or settled or unproblematic view. But this is where I’m at currently.
1. Why be against marriage?
The first and most straightforward thought is that the legal system shouldn’t privilege and regulate some relationship forms over others. This is a fairly easy liberal-political-theory idea: who has what kind of intimate relationships with who isn’t the state’s business, and I think that easy thought is largely right.
As a follow-on, the institution of marriage elevates monogamous, hetero, sexually-consummated, lifelong, relationships over romantic relationships that are polyamorous, homosexual, asexual, or more limited-term. I think those relationships can be as important, as rewarding, as healthy as any others – and even apart from what I think, the state ought to be neutral among them.
And then there are all the overtly sexist trappings: ‘giving away’, virginity expectations, asymmetrical name-changes, the non-criminality of spousal rape in many jurisdictions, titles that advertise marital status for one gender and not for another, and so on.
I recognise that in practice, marriage is often the best way for people to secure valuable things for themselves (financial security, freedom to migrate, etc.), but in an ideal world those things wouldn’t be dependent on showing that you’re involved in a particular sort of relationship.
2. Why not just reform marriage?
But all of the above points seem open to a simple reply: just change marriage! Many countries have gay marriage, and many people have marriages which dispense with some or all of the sexist trappings. The prospect of legal plural marriage is at least being talked about, and in a sense it’s already possible to have a ‘marriage’ without any of the legal trappings (‘we’re married, we just have to say otherwise on forms’). As for the fact that getting married historically has, and in some countries still does, deprive women of various core rights like owning property or going out alone… couldn’t we just work to remove those legal penalties, but keep marriage itself?
At this point it becomes harder to say what ‘marriage’ even means. Suppose we reformed society so as to void every single thing I said above. ‘Marriage’ might then be something like ‘a non-legal loving relationship entered into by some number of people for some length of time for some purpose’. But now imagine you magically established something like that as a custom in some present or historical society. Wouldn’t it stand out as contrasting with marriage, as an alternative sort of relationship?
(Note – I don’t mean to say that any particular reform of marriage would drain it of all meaning, as opponents of gay or plural marriage sometimes suggest. My point is that there are sets of individually-plausible reforms whose cumulative effect would be to make marriage unrecognisable to contemporary eyes – just like if you transplanted contemporary egalitarian marriage laws into lots of historical societies, it would be clear that they described an alternative kind of relationship to that society’s ‘marriages’.)
I’m not trying to say that therefore it makes no sense to reform marriage; I’m just drawing attention to the fluidity of definitions. The fact that two radically different institutions, which would form a sharp contrast if they co-existed, could also be the starting-point and end-point of a series of gradual reforms – I think that’s an important fact about how societies work. For many aspects of a society, there’s no unchanging essence, nothing that stays unchanged from the beginning to the end. There’s just the gradualness, the continuity, at every stage.
3. So then what is marriage?
If marriage has no unchanging essence, what is there to support or oppose? For a lot of institutions, I think the right approach is ‘just take it as it is, and don’t worry too much about what it used to be.’ That’s why it makes sense to reclaim slurs, for instance, or to argue for constitutional protection of some right even if the drafters of the constitution clearly didn’t intend to establish it. That’s why the right way to judge the 1980s USSR, or the contemporary British parliament, isn’t to examine what really happened in 1917 or 1688, but to see how they work now.
That’s why I felt ok with getting a marriage certificate. If marriage doesn’t have an inherent fixed meaning, I can give it meaning, and the meaning I give it is: a tool for streamlining my dealings with the world’s bureaucracies.
But then sometimes, a social institution expects you to make this heartfelt personal declaration – not just to fill out the forms, but to feel deeply about doing so. And then I feel like it becomes important to look past its present incarnation. If you’re asked to pledge heartfelt allegiance to the flag or crown or laws of a country, for instance, and if the only essence to that country is a chain of historical continuity, then what you’re being asked to pledge allegiance to is that history.
So for me, what’s really at stake when I take a stand towards this thing called ‘marriage’ is: do I want to symbolically tie my deepest emotional connection to the history of marriage? Looking back at what it’s meant for the last couple of millenia, do I see something I want to join, or something I want to distance myself from?
I want to distance myself from it. Overall and on the whole, marriage seems to me a pillar of patriarchy, a coercive and hierarchical structure whose basic power asymmetry is enough to taint the tenderness and joy and love that often occurred within it. In most historical settings, marriage officially meant the submission of one person to another, and against that background whatever care and closeness bloomed within it can’t help but look like either ‘a naturally occurring thing forced unnaturally into the marital cage’, ‘an oppressed person making the best of a bad situation’, or ‘a dominant person choosing to extend kindness to someone dependent on them.’
Of course that sounds pretty melodramatic when said about contemporary marriages in Canada, the UK, Australia, or Germany. The actual practice of most marriages today in these countries looks a lot more like what I want my romantic life to be: two (or more) equal partners without power over one another choosing to live together and publicly signal their commitment. That’s why I saved the ‘marriage is a prison for women’ bit for all the way down here, where I’ve already explained why I feel like I need to look at the history. The history matters because the only thing that defines a marriage is a declaration of continuity with that history.
4. What about other people’s marriages?
Does this mean I think everybody who is emotionally invested in marriage, and thinks it’s all about love and equality, is wrong? No.
I don’t think there’s a determinate right answer to ‘what is the true meaning of the history of marriage?’, any more than there’s a determinate right answer to ‘what is the true lesson this piece of media is teaching?’ There can be better interpretations and worse interpretations, but choosing a single right reading comes down to emphasis.
I think a lot of people feel that ‘the true meaning’ of the history of marriage is simply a celebration of love, which various patriarchal cultures have corrupted or distorted to varying degrees, with contemporary legally-egalitarian forms representing the purest and truest expression of what was there all along. I can’t show that this interpretation is definitely wrong: I can only say that it’s not the interpretation that speaks to me.
Indeed, part of why that interpretation doesn’t persuade me is the very fact that both interpretations (marriage as a pillar of patriarchal oppression, now softened, vs. marriage as just two people making a life together, historically corrupted) make sense. That running-together of hierarchy and love is, in a way, what discomforts me most. The history of marriage is a history of mingling hierarchy and love, of blending them to reinforce the idea human love naturally takes on a hierarchical form. I find that blending deeply uncomfortable, and that motivates me to distance myself from marriage.
Let me summarise, since this was a bit of long-winded ramble. Legal privileges for a certain kind of romantic relationship are illiberal, and they create a social battleground over what sorts of relationships deserve those privileges. I fully support queer and poly people fighting in that battleground, but it would be better for it not to exist. And given that marriage is this evolving thing, whose definition people fight over and change, the only thing that really defines it is the historical continuity between its different versions. The reason I want to distance myself from ‘marriage’ is that I can’t see that history as something I want to associate myself with.