Hitched: Do We Have A Marriage Problem?

By: Andrea Grimes / November 8, 2012

I’m not convinced that the problem with marriage is that it is broken; I am convinced that a problem with marriage is that it isn’t big enough for everyone.

In the past week, both The New York Times and Slate have addressed modern marriage and its related problems, asking whether privatization of marriage, and state recognition of other kinds of civil care-giving agreements, isn’t the way to go from now on.

I floated something like this idea briefly back in my post-honeymoon-induced haze, wondering why we couldn’t just designate some people as family members (effectively “marrying” them) regardless of whether we felt romantic love for them. For the government to bestow certain benefits on certain people just because they hit the relationship jackpot (or think they did so) seems bizarre, arbitrary and ineffective if the state has an interest in engendering happy people-units who support each other, and I think it does.

I’m fine with “marriage” meaning a forever-aimed partnership based on romantic love and “civil union” or “civil partnership” meaning some other kind of more malleable legal-social arrangement; that seems reasonable to me so long as it’s a semantic and not a practical difference in terms of the potential for governmentally bestowed benefits. I’m not fine with marriage being the only way that humans get to legally choose their own, non-blood-related family members.

The first question to ask, I think, is: What is the point of marriage today? If we can figure out what marriage is supposed to be for, then we can better know what to do with it and how to regulate it (or not). And to do that, I think religion must be taken out of the equation entirely when it comes to the building of the best possible governmentally recognized social partnerships.

To my mind, marriage is a religious institution only inasmuch as religion generally and historically has tended to be a significant guiding factor in human beings’ social interactions. It is a source of spiritual fulfillment, yes, but also a powerful form of social and political coercion.

And today, religion is on its way out as a means of norm-enforcement and societal structure-building. I think it’s nice to call people who make laws “Senator” or “Congresswoman” rather than “Reverend” or “Father.” When Catholic bishops throw public tantrums over contraception because the looming specter of a truly gender-equal society threatens their snake oil sales? I’m thankful for an ever-increasing separation of church and state. I very much like the idea of religion as something that is personally fulfilling, not publicly prescriptive.

Without getting too freshman-social-theory on everyone, I see families as being proto-governments. The more we can encourage folks to enthusiastically support each other, creating long-term, mutually beneficial, legally defined care-giving relationships not because they’re afraid of public shame or eternal damnation but because they want to love and nurture each other, the less pressure we need to put on the government (and taxpayers) to support individuals.

(Though to be clear, I am as socialist as they come and believe, unlike certain failed presidential candidates in recent memory, that human beings have an absolute right to, you know, food and shelter and that good government effectively provides a wide and well-funded safety net for citizens who need it.)

The point of marriage, to me, is to help people get by. For it to have a spiritual aspect seems like a fine, but deeply personal, choice that needs nothing to do with secular government.

Life is easier with a partner. I didn’t realize how true this was until I had one who seriously could not easily legally leave me and who didn’t particularly want to, anyway. Whether it’s knowing your partner can pick up dinner on the way home when you’re working late or having them to rely on—emotionally, financially—after the loss of a job or during a long illness, things are so much easier with a support system. Child-rearing? Has absolutely got to be easier with a teammate.

Which is why, to me, it’s a real dick move to tell people that there’s only one kind of partner you can legally choose as a family member, and for the rest of it you’re going to have to rely on the genetic luck of the draw. It is hard to find someone to marry; there’s a whole horrible self-help industry built around it! And what none of those self-help love gurus will tell you is that basically it’s down to luck and a good bullshit detector.

For some people, their blood relatives are and can be the support system they need in life; this is a lovely thing. But others are not so lucky, finding themselves related to abusers, bigots and other kinds of assholes. Why not allow people to legally define one or a few self-chosen, rather than chance-assigned, family members for the purposes of financial burden-sharing, inheritance, child-rearing, care-giving in old age, etc.? Why do we privilege (notoriously fickle!) romantic love as being the defining basis on which people should establish their forever partnerships? Particularly when, as we see these days, without religious mandates and powerful cultural coercion, people don’t tend to stay married when they don’t want to?

People will, of course, need to end or amend these relationships, the same as we do with our business partners. That’s not a bad thing! I like the idea of renewable contracts in marriage or civil unions. I see the possibility of legally “renewing” my relationship with Patrick every five years (let’s say) not as being a depressing sign-on-the-dotted-line bit of drudgery but as a celebration of continued support that happens at regular intervals.

How many relationships have you seen that saw the slow decline in interest on behalf of one partner over time? Instead of viewing marriage as an indefinite contract—during which time many people may feel increasingly adrift as the time between wedding and the present day grows—we could see it as an exciting, ongoing project. A business, if you will, of which the profits aren’t (solely) financial, but emotional and social and cultural.

I’m so pleased that more and more states are legalizing gay marriage. It’s an absolute travesty that the government only bestows family-choosing privileges on certain (straight) people. But as we continue to move forward as a country—and I think marriage equality is a huge step forward—I simply don’t think it’s to society’s long-term benefit to favor romantic love and genetic accident over willfully chosen family-making.