Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Marriage

Forward Thinking is a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), but in this post I will pull together some of the responses to this month’s prompt: “What do is the purpose of marriage?” There was lively debate in the comments section of the original prompt, and nearly a dozen blog posts were written in response.

I was impressed by the number of posts this month, and am glad to have gotten people thinking. While the main theme of the responses was that marriage is about turning previously unrelated people into relations, the bloggers who responded varied as to whether they viewed marriage as a good thing or a bad thing, and with regards to whether the government plays the proper role in marriage. After offering excerpts from these posts, I will finish by adding a few of my own thoughts.

Slow Learner of Becoming Android emphasized the significance of marriage:

Getting married is one of the most significant decisions that you can make in your life. We only get so much time in life, and declaring that you wish to bind yourself to someone for all the time that you have is huge. Family is significant, and bringing someone into your family, joining theirs, and binding the two together is another big deal.

Declaring to your family and friends that you intend to, expect to, and will work your arse off in order to be with this person for life is a massive commitment, in my mind second only to bringing a child into the world.

And then add in all the legal aspects to it, the time and expense devoted to getting married in the first place (well, you can have a quicky Registry Office wedding for £100 or so, but most people don’t want to do it that way…) and you begin to get a sense of how much of a big thing it is to get married.

Kasey Weird of Valprehension, in contrast, describes themself as a marriage abolitionist:

Marriage is very often framed as an institution with a purpose of protecting children; it is discussed as an arrangement that supports the continuation of society. If we accept that the two-parent structure is a generally stable environment for children, then there may be some societal motivation to encourage people to get married, and to make life easier for them once they have made that commitment. Except that, really, this is just an argument for extending marriage-like privileges to people who are raising children together. If marriage (as it is civilly understand) is indeed all about children, why don’t we actually make it about children, rather than some commitment between two people that has nothing to do with children whatsoever? A different institution would better serve the purpose of supporting and benefiting children than marriage currently does.

But maybe the ways in which child-free couples benefit from marriage has its own social value, and thus it can still be considered a purposeful institution? I mean, I’m not arguing that the trappings of marriage aren’t important. I get that things like spousal health benefits and other legal entitlements that come with marriage are good things that make people’s lives easier. Part of why I am (legally) married is so that I can benefit from some of the protections that are afforded by that license. So, hey, I guess marriage helps make people’s lives easier, so it’s just a good thing and there’s no reason to change it, right?

Um, no. Not right at all actually. Because, yeah, the government extends some nice little bonuses and benefits to married people, but those bonuses come at the expense of unmarried people. As it stands, unless there is actually some societal benefit that comes from incentivizing marriage (unless there is a purpose to encouraging people to commit to one another), all that we are accomplishing by continuing to recognize these unions and grant them privileges is perpetuating a system in which, for no reason whatsoever, we prioritize and privilege coupled people over single people. This is rank discrimination. People do not deserve special legal status simply because they are in love, no matter how special and beautiful that love may be to them.

Matt Recla of Even the Bravest endorses the institution of marriage while pointing out how artificial that institution is:

The type of love I think about most often is in relation to marriage. I have been married for over sixteen years, since I was eighteen years old (no, I won’t recommend it to my son), so it is one area where I have a little more longevity than most my age. It is the also an area of love where you get the little help from pop culture. All the movies end at precisely the point where two free-spirited individuals overcome all obstacles (especially that climax point where she finds out about that horrible thing she thinks he did and he has to come find her in the rain on his motorcycle on the beach as she’s getting on a plane to fly to the other side of the world and never coming back) and tie the knot. So the popular message is that love relationships culminate in marriage and…good luck after that, because it’s too boring to be movie material.

Marriage is no guarantee of love, of the preference I referred to in my last post. Loveless marriages exist everywhere, as do loving pair-bond relationships outside of marriage. There are consequences to mandating marriage as the norm, which I have seen in the second-class treatment of adult single or divorced folks in Christianity. My argument, then, is not to let marriage do the dirty work of love for you. Love is a fragile thing, and belief that marriage is its only proper container is a denial of its nature. It is open, exposed, and vulnerable. Consequently, we can view the relationship between love and marriage as a beneficial one…as long as it is beneficial. We cannot overlook the fact that it has no sanction outside of what we give it. Why get married? There are certainly some societal benefits. But the safety and security that are thought to come with it have no standing of their own. They are projections of our own battles against uncertainty.

Olivia of Boredom Breeds Contempt illustrates how flexible marriage has become:

Here’s the thing about marriage: it does not serve a single purpose. Just like family does not serve a single purpose or government does not serve a single purpose, marriage has changed and grown and shrunk and done all sorts of loop de loops throughout history and across cultures. To me, this illustrates that we get a hand in defining what we believe the purpose of marriage is. Tradition is important, yes, and we may want to pull some meanings from history, but we get to actively define what our relationships mean to us and how they change with certain rituals. For me personally, that means that marriage means nothing except benefits and a title. I would never marry unless I was already 99% certain that I would stay with the person the rest of my life regardless of our marital status. Marriage is never going to be a goal or an aim in a relationship for me. If I’m going to marry, I expect to have already committed to the person: marriage would make that commitment more public, but I don’t think that telling other people something has to change the quality, strength, or character of your relationship.

But just because that’s my attitude about marriage does not mean that the purpose of marriage is to get benefits and put a label on a relationship. There are SO MANY purposes of marriage.

Gretchen Koch of Cheap Signals sees both pros and cons to marriage:

The purpose of marriage is to confer government and societal benefits on people who have established what they intend to be long-standing attachments to another person who isn’t a relative by blood or adoption, because these are considered to be the basis of new family units and turn individuals into households. Do I believe that should be their purpose? Sure, I suppose.

It’s awfully handy to have what you already consider a binding attachment to someone officially recognized, because otherwise the people with the most legal control over your life besides yourself, who will get to inherit your stuff and make decisions for you in the event of you falling into a coma, are your family. And family can be wonderful, but sometimes it isn’t. You didn’t choose your ancestral family, but you can choose your spouse– sort of. So marriage, as practiced in places where it isn’t arranged, can be a means for the individual to have some more autonomy that way.

But I think realistically, marriage results in less autonomy overall. When we think about freedom most of us don’t think first about who will get our stuff when we die or who gets to decide whether to unplug our brain-dead selves from life support if such necessity should arise, but rather our daily existence. And marriage gives another person, and the government, more control over our daily existence. Most people seem happy to make that trade-off, however, and sociological research says that married people are happier in general.

Lea of Unequally Yoked repeats an understanding of marriage that emphasizes its benefits and limitations without seeing either as a problem:

I tend to think that there’s a difference between love as something you feel and love as something you do, and marriage is the unique act of making an unrelated person part of our family. The author of the Times piece thought that, if someone said “Marriage limits your options” the two most plausible responses were to say “Not really” or to run. My response is more “Yes, and isn’t that wonderful?”

B at Celebration of Gaia leads us on a bit of a journey:

A thought experiment may muddy the waters instructively. Consider this simple question: Were Romeo and Juliet married? Search your memory. Some people will say yes, some no, depending on their recollection.

Memory can deceive us, so let’s consult the text of Shakespeare’s play. Act II ends as Friar Laurence leads the ill-fated couple offstage:

Come, come with me, and we will make short work;
For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till holy church incorporate two in one.

It is not shown but it is strongly implied that the Friar performs a wedding ritual offstage. Does this information change your answer? Were they married? On the basis of this textual evidence, most people will say yes: They were married.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to the law of the time, this marriage may not have been entirely legal. Given Juliet’s youth, parental consent was required. Further, a marriage had to be announced three times in church prior to the wedding ceremony. Neither condition was fulfilled, because the wedding ritual was done in secret.

Now let’s get experimental. Just to make it interesting, let’s imagine that their wedding was clearly and unquestionably illegal according to both Church and State. Friar Laurence was a rogue priest, acting outside his authority, perhaps an imposter, and he will be punished.

Does this change your answer? Were they married? Legally, they were not. But many people will assert that they were indeed married in spite of the law. This suggests that marriage has some other meaning besides a legalistic construct, that we can make some other sense of marriage, some deeper and truer sense.

George at Misplaced Grace starts by recounting an imaginary conversation between a father and son before explaining why he and his wife got married even though they originally planned not to:

To be honest with you, neither my wife nor I really wanted get married. We lived together for 6 years before we were married. We already had two children (and a third on the way). We owned a house together. In every way that someone quantifies marriage as a lifestyle, we had been married for years before we ever made it “official”.

So why get married?

We—my wife and I—asked ourselves this question. Are we somehow bowing to social pressure? Are we quantifying our relationship by a social convention? Is there any real value to choosing to be married as opposed to living as a married couple? For us marriage was still something that was meaningful—and I’ll tell you why:

Marriage is more than just a social convention. It is more than a legal recognition of your bond to one another. It is not a mere contract, a religious act, or a promise to some imagined covenant with God. It is what it has always been; marriage is the sharing of your love with your family, community, and friends. Some choose to share that with their community in religious imagery and language, some choose to make that expression in a way that is unique and personal. What all marriages have in common is that they are a recognizable symbol of something that transcends the institution itself.

To be unmarried is not to take away from the reality of being in love, or committed, or together- to be unmarried is merely to deprive us of our cultural language—It is to ask us to succinctly describe a sunset…..to a blind man……in sign language.

So when I tell you I am married it doesn’t change the way I feel about the person I chose to marry. It doesn’t make my love any more or less real. It doesn’t make my love and commitment any better—objectively—than a couple who chose not to be married. What it does it make my relationship relateable. It makes my relationship something that has a meaning easily shared with others. When I tell you I’m married I am giving you a dissertation in a single word.

Rachel Marcy at Ripening Reason emphasizes that marriage makes unrelated people into family:

At its core, marriage has always been about resource sharing. Marriage created extended, interdependent kin networks that increased the odds of survival for all their members. Later, marriage evolved into a method of organizing labor and controlling property. Unfortunately, this pattern also made society less egalitarian, as more wealth was concentrated in fewer hands, and women’s reproduction was regulated to produce legitimate male heirs.

So maybe I’m being a true traditionalist when I say that marriage is, and should be, a legally recognized resource sharing arrangement. Of course, I’m also in favor of egalitarianism and marrying for love. But it’s possible–and increasingly socially acceptable–to live in a committed relationship outside of legal wedlock. If the institution of marriage retains any relevance, it’s in the legal privileges that accrue to people who officially declare themselves to be a family unit. Marriage turns unrelated people into family, and families pool resources for their collective good.

Ozy Frantz distinguishes between marriage and sex:

And I want someone who’s my best friend. I want to read books or sit on the computer late at night in companionable silence. I want to play around with ideas with them. I want that sort of creepy hivemind you get where you can say “the thing” and they’re like “but what about” and you’re like “yeah, right, but still.” (Seriously, my parents do that and I can’t even understand what they’re talking about half the time.) I want someone who understands that I’m always going to be in a triad with my partner and writing and, ideally, is going to make it a quad. I want someone who complements my weaknesses and enhances my strengths, and to be a better person because I’m with them.

Things I don’t care about: sex. Really don’t care. I mean, I’m poly, I can get sex elsewhere, and sex really isn’t that important to me in a relationship regardless. I like holding hands and snuggling and kissing and having my head petted, but if we do all that and never interlock genitals I don’t care. It’s very odd to me to see people talk as if all marriages must be sexual relationships: why is a relationship of friendship and commitment and mutual support somehow less valid because you aren’t participating in one admittedly very enjoyable recreational activity?

Ginny at Atheist, Polyamorous Skeptics suggests a redefinition of marriage:

The redefinition I’d love to see our society accept is this: marriage is the creation of family. (Long version: Marriage is the intentional creation of family among adults who aren’t already close relatives.) It has nothing to do, per se, with romantic and sexual bonds between people. A romantic bond is one of the strongest motivators in human life for creating a family relationship with someone new; a sexual bond may raise the possibility of children, who tend to create a lifelong connection between their parents simply by existing (although there are exceptions, and it’s obviously not always a connection based in love for each other.) For these reasons, it makes sense that marriage, the intentional creation of family, is most often practiced between lovers. But there’s no reason it has to be.

Finally, Marta at Faith Seeking Understanding wrote a number of posts on the subject of marriage and collected them together in a round-up post.

I found this week’s posts interesting and thought provoking. I rather liked Matt Recla’s reminder that love is not restricted to marriage and that marriage does not guarantee love, and I was challenged by Kasey Weird’s discussion of how government benefits to married individuals privileges the married over the unmarried. Then also, George’s point that in this day and age marriage, to the public mind, symbolizes the commitment of two individuals appeals to the pragmatic side of me.

Many of the bloggers who responded were quick to note that marriage has traditionally been linked to child rearing. They rightly pointed out that that connection today is not absolute or automatic—plenty of unwed people have children and plenty of married people don’t. I appreciated Kasey’s point that given that unmarried people bear and raise children, and that the government’s giving advantages to married parents means that unmarried parents are disadvantaged. I was reminded of reading recently about a growing number of individuals who, without any sort of romantic or sexual relationship, are choosing to conceive and parent children together. When you remove children from the picture, legal marriage nevertheless provides couples with tax breaks, power of attorney, and inheritance. And this reflects the way marriage currently functions in our society: as a long-lasting committed relationship between two individuals.

As Olivia pointed out, the purpose of each individual marriage is what that couple makes it—in many ways, marriage is today very flexible and individual. But then there is legal marriage. What is it’s purpose? In essence  it’s a sort of government incentive to make long-lasting commitments that are more permanent and harder to break. And of course, the government’s incentivizing of marriage is linked to child rearing, and is in some sense an attempt to ensure that the adults attached to any given child stay with that child and care for it until adulthood. Legal marriage, with the benefits it provides, is the government’s way of saying that it likes a given relationship and family arrangement. So yes, legal marriage disadvantages those who are not married, but this is a feature of the government’s involvement in the institution, not a bug.

After reading these posts, I tried thinking outside of the box and asked myself what things would be like if the government stopped being involved in legal marriage. I found the thought experiment interesting. For one thing, the government could move its involvement in child rearing—tax breaks, legal paternity, the right to make medical decisions, etc.—away from its current married/unmarried dichotomy, and streamline it, so to speak. Perhaps, too, there could be some way to stipulate your power of attorney and legal next of kin, outside of the biological default. No longer restricting your next of kin or power of attorney to biological or legal relatives could prove interesting, allowing people to more easily build upon already solid friendships and community connections.

Without government involvement in marriage, most people would still form committed relationships, and couples would still have commitment ceremonies. Some would stick with one relationship and some leaving old ones and forming new ones over time. Leaving a partner might be easier without the legal hoops, but societal pressures and family realities would remain. People in bad relationships might feel less like they’re stuck with their partner, and children might grow up in an even greater variety of family situations. Even without legal marriage, the formation of close relationships and families, which I see as the heart of marriage, would go on.

I’m not saying that the government should stop incentivizing and prioritizing marriage. I would want to look more about the statistical evidence that suggests that married people are happier and more financially stable (is it correlation, or causation, or both?) before staking out a position there. I’m married, and obviously, I like being married. I like the perks, I like that no one questions my husband or my legal connection to our children, and I like that marriage signals a commitment that my husband and I have made to each other. I’m not opposed to divorce and remarriage, but I do think that marriage signals that a couple has signed up to give the relationship their best shot, and to try to work through hard times rather than just moving on. And personally, for myself, I like that.

Having read all this, what thoughts do you have to add?

Any Time I Hear Someone Say "Traditional Marriage"
Dating Is Dead: Long Live Whatever-We-Call-It-Now!
Conservatives Grapple with Marriage Equality
When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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