Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What is the point of marriage?

I suppose that coming back from a wedding it would be natural for me to ask this question. Let me first say that my reflections right now have nothing to do with the wedding I just returned from, which was lovely and the couple in question seem to be happily wed and hopefully will stay that way for a long, long time.

But weddings and marriage have been on my mine lately because I've been thinking about inter-racial relationships/marriages and about same-sex/queer marriages, especially the upcoming challenges that we are going to see coming out of California and making their way to the Supreme Court.

Once upon a time marriage was a contract--a way of aligning two families together out of economic and political necessity or to solidify power. Love really wasn't part of the equation, and status was paramount: everyone wants to marry up or at least marry advantageously. Just think of all those Jane Austen novels, especially poor Mrs. Bennett worrying about marrying off all her daughters. Yes Mrs. Bennett is a ridiculous character but her anxiety is not frivolous: marrying well ensured your literal livelihood as a woman in an era when there were few choices for earning a respectable income (we all know what women are forced to resort to in order to ensure their survival).

Fast forward to the 21st century and we want marriage to do SO MUCH--we expect our spouses to be our soul mates, passionate lovers, best friends, sound financial advisers, nurturing parents, reliable roommates (who will do the dishes without being asked), and life partners. It's a pretty tall order.

This week's edition of Newsweek contained a piece, "Americans Marry Too Much" in which one tidbit at the beginning declares that "We [Americans] divorce, repartner, and remarry faster than people in any other country" which, according to an expert they cite, Andrew Cherlin, is not good: "Many of the problems faced by America's children stem not from parents marrying too little but rather too often."

And in The New York Times today there is an article about Ted Olsen, a conservative constitutional lawyer who most famously worked for Ronald Reagan working to overturn affirmative action policies and who most recently fought on behalf of George W. Bush's questionable 2000 election returns. But right now Olsen is filing a brief in California to overturn Proposition 8 because he believes that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right, a civil right, that we will see during our lifetime and that he is working to ensure for all gay and lesbian couples.

The article mentions conservative arguments against same-sex marriage--that it is against religious doctrine, that it is not good for families, especially since same-sex couples cannot "naturally" procreate. Which just seem to be bogus arguments, especially the latter in this day and age of increased reproductive technology (InVitro-Fertilization) and adoption.

So what is the point of marriage? To ensure a stable society? To solidify the nuclear family? To join families together for political and financial expediency? As a symbol of one's undying love for one's soulmate? Because we are told from an early age that this is a rite of adulthood--to marry someone we find compatible and to raise a family.

Like everything else about humanity, it seems like marriage should be something that evolves. We certainly no longer marry solely or most purposely to create political alliances. And the face of families have changed for a while now. So is it really a stretch to think that same-sex marriages are so radical? If people really believe in the sanctity of marriage, if they really think that people are marrying less or divorcing more, than wouldn't same-sex marriage be the next logical step in ensuring that marriage, as an institution will be preserved.


FB said...

I like your little slip regarding how marriages have been on your "mine". Sometimes marriage can be a big "mine field" of sorts.

Jennifer said...


Or you could say that marriage is about possession, you know, "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

Greg said...

I've been thinking a lot about marriage recently, too, and I know a lot of your questions were largely rhetorical, but we all have our own answers. Which means, essentially, that marriage is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Let's categorize!

(1) Legal: some people want the legal rights and recognition that come with a state sanctioned proclamation allowing two people to be in a highly specific type of relationship.
(2) Spiritual: some people want to make a very serious promise with their partner to be together forever, no matter what.
(3) Conventional: some people want to get married because that is just what people (are supposed to) do after being together for so long.
(4) Romantic: some people want a special (and oftentimes pricey) celebration of love, where their particular love can be the center of attention for a day.

I'm sure I've missed some other major aspects, but these are the ones that are most salient to me. And to be honest, none of them really mean anything to me, personally: (1) Why should the government have any sort of say in the sanctioning of personal relationships? (2) Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, so why make that sacred promise to stay together forever unless you really mean it? (3) Has convention ever actually been a good reason to keep any sort of "tradition" alive? (4) Money, attention and celebration are just not romantic to me.

So, yeah, in my opinion, I don't really see what societal value there is in the preservation of marriage as an institution. Indeed, the mere existence of such an institution may do more harm than good when it comes to issues of social justice, especially when you look at it as a regulative, normative enforcer of social categorization, demarcating two distinct and very differently valued classes of people -- those in a worthy relationship, and those not.

Jennifer said...

I hear you and sympathize, to an extent, about your views on marriage. I think the legal aspects of it are what seems most salient, to me, in terms of thinking about same-sex marriage rights as civil or human rights--that we cannot extend legal protections to select groups of people only while excluding others deliberately based on what amounts to nothing more than bigotry/prejudice.

But your points beg the question about whether marriage, as an institution, should be saved in its current incarnation.

I wish we had some more grey areas in this matter--and truth be told, I think that there are tons of grey areas as far as the ways people have cohabitated and created family structures that don't "look" like the typical nuclear man-woman-children structure.

There's actually a book that Tenured Radical blogger Claire Potter recommended about the importance of marriage as a social and historic institution and therefore why all people (gay and straight) should be encouraged to marry. The points she made in reviewing/outlining the book seemed pretty sound, to me, but of course I've forgotten the name of it!

At any rate, I think what I would want for myself is the option--and I think it's what all people should have--the option for marriage. What we do with that option, whether to reject it, to accept it and remake it, or to welcome it with all the bells and whistles of tradition, would be an individual (or couple's) choice.

What I feel most strongly about, for gay as well as straight folk, is the idea that marriage has to be this THING--this be all and end all THING.

Although it does raise interesting questions about the nature of making a very public commitment...much to ponder.