Forward Thinking: What is the purpose of marriage?

It’s that time of the month again! Head on over to Camels with Hammers to see Dan’s roundup of the posts written in response to his prompt on the ethical relevance of pride two weeks ago, and with that said, it’s time to turn to our next Forward Thinking prompt.

The Christian Right is constantly talking about the importance of “traditional marriage” while the recent focus of the LGBTQ rights movement has been on marriage equality. Every few months there is yet another article in a mainstream news outlet about the changing nature, relevance, and future of marriage. The simple reality is that marriage is fluid and changes with the needs of society. Marriage today isn’t the same as marriage two centuries ago, or two millennia ago. So, with that in mind, I give you this month’s Forward Thinking question:

What do you believe should be the purpose of marriage in our society today? What do you personally see as the purpose of marriage for your own life? And finally, what responsibilities, duties, and/or obligations do you believe marriage should entail? 

I want to invite readers to discuss this question in the comment section and to invite bloggers to respond on their own blogs. At the end of two weeks I will post a round-up of links and excerpts to both blog posts elsewhere and especially insightful comments here. Bloggers should email their links to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com with “Forward Thinking” in the subject line if they want to be included in the round-up.


Note: The above question is revised. The original read as follows: What is the purpose of marriage? Further, what responsibilities, duties, and/or obligations does marriage entail? 


Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project is an invitation to both readers and fellow bloggers to participate in forming positive values and grappling with thorny questions. Click here to read the project introduction.

Forward Thinking: Designing a Social Safety Net
Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Public Education
Forward Thinking: What Is Personhood?
Forward Thinking: Personhood
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.

  • Alexis

    I think there’s a big difference between the purpose of marriage as it should be and marriage as it is. Ideally, the purpose of a marriage should be to celebrate and sanctify the love that people have for each other. But I think in America these days the purpose of marriage is to establish a legal and financial partnership among a family unit which is capable of providing for any children resulting from that family unit.

    • kisarita

      The structure of marriage is designed for reproduction and tracking paternity, and secondarily rearing those same children; that doesn’t mean it can not fulfill other purposes such as celebrating love. However, if its primary purpose becomes celebrating love than it becomes none of the government’s business. As well it is worthy of a unique economic structure only as long as that economic structure is economically beneficial to society.

      • Steve

        You are forgetting that since the early 20th century, marriage has been increasingly used by the government to allocate financial benefits. The main use for marriage today is having many hundreds of rights (and obligations) that make life far easier for two people who function as a single economical unit.

        Though the whole system should be reformed. People who say that the government needs to get out of marriage are willfully naive, but marriage has become nothing but a convenience when determining who deserves benefits. They don’t even think anymore whether it makes sense to restrict something to marriage. And there are many rights that should be available to other living arrangements as well.

      • smrnda

        I could make a case that granting a loving couple certain perks has benefits to society. It isn’t necessarily the same as a couple with kids, but I’d be much less happy and productive without my same-sex spouse, so it’s hard for me to believe love-based relationships have no benefit for society. It’s different, but not zero.

  • smrnda

    I respond with a series of questions – what is the purpose of art, literature, cinema, theater? What is the purpose of engineering? Anybody doing these things will have a different answer, and any of these things (and many more) can fulfill many purposes. Everybody enters into marriage with a different set of purposes they want to fulfill and as long as none of the purposes are to harm anyone, I think they would be acceptable.

  • Nathaniel

    For me, it makes sense to think of it as about designating whose now family. You aren’t related by blood to that person, but you’re now in the same family legally and socially.

    • Sarah-Sophia

      You don’t need to have similar DNA or a marriage license to be family.

      • Little Magpie

        totally agree, Sarah-Sophia, but it’s a way of legally / socially designating new additions to the family – i think that’s the point. Should this be necessary? that’s sort of a separate question.

      • Anat

        You don’t absolutely need marriage to be a family, but it is a clear way to announce your being a family to society and gain recognition as a family.

        Additionally a formal marriage that requires a formal divorce to undo defines that the couple has formal obligations to one another as long as the marriage holds. This becomes important when a relationship isn’t going well. It means that people can’t just decide they don’t feel like fulfilling their obligations today but some other day they’ll continue where they left off. The couple has to decide whether they are working on staying a family or working to dissolve the marriage.

  • Patrick

    Things don’t have “purpose” in the same sense that they have, say, atomic weights. When we talk about a things purpose we are talking about how we relate to it. So the purpose of a thing is as much about us as it is about the thing.

    And we are a varied bunch.

  • mary

    For individuals, I would say that marriage is for companionship, sex, and stability of home life for the couple and and any children they may raise. It has economic and logistical advantages, though I would not consider those things its primary purpose. For society, civil unions (I think religious and civil marriage should be two different things entirely, with civil unions open to any two people regardless of whether or not they are in a romantic relationship) provide a legal framework for joint property ownership, parenting, and a responsible party in the case of death or injury. I think that marriage as a long term commitment is a beneficial concept, but the institution should serve the parties, not the reverse.

    • Sarah-Sophia

      One does not need to be married to have stability and commitment with a partner, and it is possible to name a non-legal partner as a health care proxy. I think as long as there are legal and social benefits associated with being married, people will continue to either stay or go into miserable relationships because they see it as the only way they can live. But the fact that the marriage rate goes down when there’s an economic distress means that most people don’t do it.

      • Anat

        There are many more legal aspects that go with marriage. It is very hard to work out paperwork that will cover everything on one’s own. To save trouble, just get married and you know you have the entire package, including lots of stuff you would never have thought about.

    • Jayn

      I tend to see it this way, and ascribe the purpose of ‘legal’ marriage as a formal recognition that this is the most important person in your life. It’s a kind of legal shorthand for a number of various benefits that people in romantic relationships tend to want. We could decouple these benefits from marriage, but I see value in offering them as a sort of package deal.

    • Steve

      Religious and civil marriage ARE already two different things. America merely makes thing needlessly confusing by allowing churches to perform legal weddings. It’s not like that in other countries.

      • BringTheNoise

        It’s not like that in other countries.

        This very much depends on the country. The UK allows churches (and other religious and non-religious groups) to be perform legal marriages, for example.

  • Kodie

    This is a weird question with some very good answers so far. When I think of the question, I have to think quite a bit. What is the purpose of hoping you’ll find someone to marry? A lot of people answer the question as if already married, and supposing that is true, what would be the purpose to an unmarried person with no one in the proximity to marry at the moment? I used to assume I’d get married, and I have been engaged (a couple of times). It just didn’t have the steam to go past that point to actively planning what – planning to have a big party, after which, we would supposedly be together, doing what? I consider myself, in retrospect, very lucky not to be married to anyone I’ve dated, you know, not to have gotten well into the throes of planning a wedding where it might be too late to halt the runaway train, headed certainly for disaster.

    I said to my first fiancé, when we were sort of broken up the first time while still in college, that I was never getting married. Even after I got engaged, I didn’t really know what to do next, I’m not organized and nobody has any money for that sort of thing. After we graduated and got engaged, I was supposed to wait patiently at home for him while he went away to grad school for 2 years, instead of go ahead with the plan. It made a lot of sense at the time, since we were were only 22, but what I don’t like about it was that he had his schedule and he was not diverting – meet a girl at college, get engaged, go to grad school, graduate, then get married, then have kids. That lasted until the end of that year, because he met someone else. The second time I got engaged, I was living with the man, so to me, there was nothing really to do next, but we weren’t bonded to each other, so one day, it just ended (rather badly), and his family was too involved with his life, that I’m glad that happened and I never have to see any of them again.

    So now what purpose does marriage serve? If I had a sexy roommate, he might make me food so I don’t eat a lot of crap that I make myself. I don’t like to clean, so he either will be like me (bad) or complain that I am not neat like him (also bad), or worse, I become a martyr. And we’d have kids maybe, and they wouldn’t like to eat what I feed them (basically what my own mother fed me) or listen to me when I tell them to clean their room because I’m such a hypocrite, or I’d have to be responsible because other humans are depending on me to make the whole thing work. What purpose does marriage serve anyone? When you are in one, and you love someone and are thankful for them, is it because you really love them only, or because they share the load with you? I find living alone sometimes overwhelming amount of work, but some people would prefer it because you only have one person to pick up and it’s easy for them to do. Weighing that with the person you might be married to is the hard part. I have not found anyone compatible for me. Being single in this culture where being married is expected is weird. I find it a lot better than being married to the wrong person, and so far, everyone is wrong for me. Does that make me a bad person because nobody loves me and I’m difficult to get along with? Am I supposed to think I shot myself in the foot because I didn’t change myself to attract someone else?

    I find the idea of marriage for most people, they think it’s about love. What is the purpose though. Why do people look to find someone to marry in the first place? Is it because they want to be in love with one person, or do they want to share their love with someone or receive love from someone else? A lot of marriage is actually being a responsible adult with someone else – the housework and paying the bills and stuff. Well, that’s adulthood, with a roommate, then you want to find a roommate you want to share that stuff and have sex with because you love them.

    I don’t think it’s very common in our culture to grow up thinking you might be single or might get married, depending who you find along the way. You look and expect to find someone to marry eventually. I thought so and I ended up single (so far, you never know). I think I would like to get married if I meet someone that I would like to be married to, but not if I don’t. I’m through with nonsense. I don’t know why I told my first fiancé that I was never getting married, I didn’t mean anything special by it, but I remember him saying something like “oh, don’t say that! You will!” like it’s something that everyone has to do, and then I turned out to be right.

    I also think part of it is my own family. We’re not awfully close. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t be close to someone else, but I find it easier to get along with people when they don’t live in my space. The longer I am by myself, the harder it is to imagine, or imagine wanting, someone else walking in the door and making themselves at home in my home. I don’t know what the purpose of marriage is, why everyone goes and does it. It may have a lot of benefits, but I think of how tiring some of my committed relationships have been, and how much I don’t want to be needed daily to remember to do something I was supposed to do but I forgot. I remember being young that I would be only too happy to run to the store, to bring someone joy, but then I remember them never working that hard to try to make me happy. I’ve also dated some real pieces of work and they were all measuring me to be a real wife, not a pal, not an equal. When I read those Debi Pearl passages, I think, that’s not just evangelical Christian men. Except for my first fiancé, I just get guys who are (a) trying to date me for fun, but misleading me they are serious – then it ends, or (b) secretly shifting gears and sizing me up to see if I’m fit for a wife, and I’m, in the classic sense, not, and you can’t make me, and hey, why are you leaving, I thought we fit well together and had a lot in common but suddenly I left a dish in the sink and you don’t like my assertive attitude? – then it ends.

    Great. What is the purpose of marriage? So far, it’s (1) because you’re supposed to find someone to marry and then get married, (2) construct a cohesive family unit, or (3) perform a role in which I force myself to be domesticated in order to win what I’m supposed to want since childhood. No. I need someone who is weird like me but not too weird because I’m not really that weird. I just don’t like to cook and clean and fetch and keep my mouth shut.

    • Rosie

      I’m with you on just about all of that, Kodie, though I’ve been married now for more than a decade. The notion that adults will partner up by default drives me crazy. The notion that a woman must “cook and clean and fetch and keep her mouth shut” to “deserve” a husband drives me doubly crazy. NOBODY of any gender is worth that in my book.

      So why am I married? Why am I in a long-term relationship?

      The two questions have different answers for me. I’m in a long term relationship because I got to know this person, because he’s very dedicated to me *as I am* not for who he might want me to be, because on a practical level we’re good at living together, because our arguments make us both better people. Because the longer we’re together the longer we want to stay together. “And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience and the synergy of a kind of symbiotic empathy or…something.” as Tim Minchin said.

      Why am I married? Because I wanted my conservative parents to recognize the relationship. When we did it that was the main, and almost only, reason for it. However, it did make for a fun party (and the professional photos that came out of it were nice). And the legal benefits, which we had not fully considered at the time, have turned out to be something we appreciate to the point where it’s likely that we’d have signed the paper by now even if it wasn’t for pressure from the relatives. When you cohabit and/or share finances with someone long-term, the legal things need to be taken into account one way or another, and “marriage” is a nice shorthand if you don’t want to spend a lot of time sorting through the issues one by one.

      • Steve

        One of my aunts got married purely for legal reasons. She has been with her (male) partner for many years and everybody knew that they basically considered themselves married. It’s how they acted and how everyone treated them. They just saw no reason to make it official, though they eventually did because it makes some things easier.

  • oOoOoO

    Legally sharing some responsibilities with your partner and having some benefits in return.

    Duh. :-)

    • Mogg

      So then what is the purpose in places like Australia where most of the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage are also given to de facto (common law) relationships? People still get married here. It’s still assumed that a couple who are together for a longish time will eventually get married – I’ve been with my partner for almost two years and it’s a question we get asked by every family member, friend we haven’t seen for a while, and random person we meet. Most couples planning children will marry even if they are completely non-religious, and lived together and had close to the same rights under law for years before that. Same sex couples want the right to marry here, too, even though same-sex de facto relationships are legally recognised in the same way as hetero ones. So it’s definitely about more than just legal rights, responsibilities and benefits.

      Societal recognition of the relationship/family as being “legitimate” seems to be the driver, to me. It leaves out people who don’t fit the standard societal model – currently same sex couples and polyamorous relationships are the obvious ones. It may not be long before same sex marriage is recognised in most western countries, but I think it’ll be a long time before poly relationships are, if ever.

  • Ron K

    Sociologically speaking, marriage is a tool a society uses to control and police the sexual and reproductive behaviour of its members. In our society it does so by creating two classes of individuals, married and unmarried, and by ascribing different legal, economic and social incentives and disincentives for each group.

    Asking what is marriage’s purpose presupposes a purpose beyond societal coercion and control, and as people said before me, assumes a monolithic society where everyone shares the same values and does things for the same single purpose. In my view, this is not the right question to ask.

    • Libby Anne

      That you think marriage’s only purpose is social coercion and control makes me kind of sad. But also, I think it’s a mistake to assume that I meant that there’s only one purpose or that everyone agrees—I mean, the whole point of these Forward Thinking questions is to start a discussion, not to close one off or assume that the discussion is already settled. Even so, I revised the question so as to better reflect the direction I was hoping to take things.

      • Ron K

        Thank you, Libby Anne, for clarifying your questions. I have to admit, though, they still leave me confused. If I like chocolate ice cream and you like vanilla, there’s no point of having a discussion about what is the best ice cream flavour. We accept that we have different tastes and preferences, and that any discussion is pointless. Similarly, if we share our personal experiences and views of marriage, and accept that all views and positions are legitimate (as long as they’re not coercive), then what’s the meaning of ‘discussion’ in this context?

        Framing something as a ‘discussion’ means presenting and contrasting views in a specific goal — in this case, to reach a conclusion and build ‘positive values’ of some sort. Framing something as a ‘discussion’ presupposes at least, that the subject of the discussion is important and not just a matter of happenstance, personal taste or preference.

        In an ideal world, choosing to marry would be like having a tattoo, choosing a hair colour, joining a fraternity/sonority, or choosing a funeral service — something that might be very significant to someone personally, but is completely a matter of personal taste, is value neutral and therefore merits no discussion. From my perspective, the real discussion should be about changing society so that these personal choices, and other traits chosen or not, are indeed irrelevant to the way a person is treated.

    • Steve

      That used to be true once, especially when churches controlled marriage, but one big point of the sexual revolution in the 1960s was to change that. Since then pre-marital sex, out of wedlock births and cohabitation don’t carry a social stigma in the sensible parts of society anymore.

      • Sarah-Sophia

        There is still some stigma with out of wedlock births, especially if you are poor, people will assume you got pregnant on purpose to get more welfare.

      • Carys Birch

        There are still lots more un-sensible parts, then. At 30 I still keep my sex life very quiet because of the stigma of being an unmarried woman who dares to *have* a sex life.

      • Ron K

        Yes, the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ did grant more freedom to unmarried Americans, mainly well-educated, affluent, young and white individuals. This was counteracted a bit in the conservative 1980s, but still you are right that young unmarried people have a bit more room to experiment, a sort of ‘rumspringa’ in young adulthood. Instead of finding a mate, marrying and having kids as soon as possible you are expected to ‘date around’ and to postpone settling down until you are economically stable.

        This does not mean, however, that the social norms and pressures have suddenly relaxed or gone away, rather they have simply changed. Ask any single woman over 35 or so, any person who has decided to have kids in an unorthodox framework, any childfree couple, or simply a young person who chooses not to date, if they have experienced social pressure, stigmas, etc.

        The status of married people has changed even less throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Even today, social mores about what married people should and should not do are very strong, to the point that sexual fidelity and bigamy remain illegal in several US states, and magazines are filled with dictates from unscrupulous mental health professionals on what constitutes a ‘good’ marriage.

      • Steve

        Well, I wasn’t just talking about the US. America has always been and probably will always be a very primitive and backwards country when it comes to sex and “social issues”. But it’s not like that everywhere. Some countries (like Australia and Germany for example) have heads of state or government who are unmarried and live with their partners. No one really cares. In general, a politician’s private life is actually private there. That’s not say that social condemnation is *entirely* absent there, but it’s not as bad as in the US.

    • Ron K

      Steve, I’m not denying that societies change and that there are geographic differences regarding sexual and reproductive norms. While it is true that here in northern Europe we are more secular and have a strong culture of minding our own business, it doesn’t mean that we are somehow more ‘advanced’ or that the US is more ‘backwards’. It doesn’t even mean we have less social stigmas around ‘proper’ sexual conduct — it is just different. It doesn’t change the fact that people who are ‘married’ or in some cases have a civil- or common-law union, are considered to be a different class of people, are granted certain prerogatives and are expected to behave differently.

      The fact that having sex with someone else while married is considered socially and morally worse than having sex with someone else while dating, goes to show that marriage or its equivalents continue their function as a social tool to regulate sexual and reproductive behaviour.

  • Kristi

    I would also add, anthropologically speaking, in addition to marriage “being a tool for controlling reproductive and sexual behaviors”, it also created a formal alliance for the distribution of power and resources between two unrelated groups in a society. This is why it exists in nearly every culture on the planet in various forms. It is only recently, in the Western world, that marriage has become about love and fulfilling some kind of individual spiritual need, and as such, is only one of the many expressions that exist in this world. Christianity does not own the institution of religion, as conservatives keep asserting. I agree with Ron K that this indeed may not be the right question to ask.

    • Libby Anne

      I just updated the question so as to make it slightly less general. I’m aware that our modern conception of marriage is different from what came before, and that’s why I find this question interesting.

  • Jenn

    I think asking about purpose is too general. What is the purpose of life? Different people will have different definitions and none of them are wrong. I think asking why the government should encourage marriage might be the better question. It’s always encouraged marriage to encourage a stable society. To that end I think it makes no matter who is involved in the marriage contract as long as it’s between consenting adults. Abuse can happen in any type of relationship. Laws should be in place to discourage abuse and help should be available for victims of abuse whether they’re in a “marriage” or not.

    For me, I see no reason for government sanctioned marriage in the long run. I think our society is moving away from institutionally-mandated commitments to personal commitments. The economic and legal benefits of marriage are still going to drive people to marry, but there’s no reason those benefits shouldn’t be just as easily available to non-married, committed couples.

    • Libby Anne

      I’ve revised the question so that it’s not quite so general, but I still think it’s worth it to discuss the purpose of marriage rather than simply the government’s actions. I think that Americans disagree on the purpose of marriage, and I think that’s part of why there ends up being so much disagreement over things like gay marriage. And I happen to think that that’s worth talking about.

      Out of curiosity, how would you give economic and legal benefits to non-married, committed couples without having some form of contract? Because technically, all government sanctioned marriage is is a contract between two individuals bestowing them with economic and legal benefits. I get that there can be some economic benefits without signing a marriage contract—shared finances, for instance—but I don’t see what legal benefits a non-married, committed couple has. Am I missing something?

      • Kodie

        Why is it just for couples. You mean lovers?

        I was thinking this last time I was forming a response but I had to go and pitched it. Nobody marries their actual best friend. You know you’re best friends, but it’s not “like that”. If you have no one to marry and I have no one to marry and we’d both like legal benefits, please, why can’t we make it official? Why do we have to be in love to get what everyone else has? We don’t. That’s what I don’t get why people gripe about why other people get married. It usually carries a sexual obligation, for one. If two people agree they don’t like each other that way, but they can have sex with other people, they can still get the economic benefit. What usually happens that nobody likes is when someone marries someone else for economic benefit, while usually the other one benefits from how young and beautiful and sexy the person they’re marrying is (both status reasons), as if that’s not what marriage’s true purpose is. People marry for love but that’s also a practical reason. If you don’t hate someone, you get along. You probably love a lot of practical things about each other and that’s why you didn’t reject them while dating also.

        MOST PEOPLE seem to get married because they want to have children and they are taking the steps necessary. They’re done with school, they sowed their wild oats, and they got some kind of job where they feel they can handle partnering up with someone to take on the voluntary responsibility of caring for one or several people who have no idea what the heck is going on until these adults show them. That may be why people don’t understand why gay people want to get married. Gay people want to get married because they love each other and they are being excluded from the economic benefits that married people enjoy, including the right to adopt without extra scrutiny – married is married. That piece of paper that says nobody is going anywhere until dishes are thrown and then it’s over, that means you can have kids that used to belong to someone else. So excluded are single people who don’t love anyone and nobody loves them, by the way. Which is why it’s weird that no one suggests two people who aren’t in love could get married to each other.

      • Christine

        I might actually flip the question back around at you Libby: if we say that there should be legal benefits, why are they not automatic? Perhaps we should require pre-cohabitation agreements from couples who wish to not have any such benefits, because a lot of those relationships have the same sort of behaviours that make the legal and financial protections for married couples so justifiable.

        The other question to raise is if there is a good reason that marriage (from a legal standpoint at least) is a contract without a set term. It’s unique in that regard – it costs money and time and stress to end no matter what.

        Legally speaking I can’t really think of a lot of rights/privileges that exist if a marriage is not dissolved. Back in the day it let you do things like visit in the hospital, and you had a lot of shared property rights, but what with society recognising non-marital relationships and the rise of better privacy laws a lot of those really aren’t a factor anymore.

      • Christine

        Oh, wait I remembered one: for immigration purposes a lot of countries will only give a spousal visa if you’re actually married. (I would be interested in seeing the statistics on how many marriages that causes.)

    • lucifermourning

      the visa thing is major. it’s the sole reason my husband and i got married when we did, rather than waiting a year or two, moving in together first, etc.

  • ako

    I think that, as a society, one of the main benefits of marriage is that it’s a relatively quick and easy way to formally (and legally) recognize certain kinds of relationships, involving adults who choose to commit to each other. It makes it much easier for society to categorize them as family.

    On a personal level, I don’t know. I’m honestly not sure if I’ll ever get married, even if it does get legalized. I haven’t found anyone I want to marry, and I don’t feel like it’s a life goal. If the right woman came along, I’d consider it, but it’s not something I feel I need to do, and I’m not setting out to find someone to marry.

    As far as other people go, I think it’s nice to have a ceremonial occasion where the loved ones can come together and celebrate their promise and commitment to each other, and the expansion of our families. And also eat cake. ;-) There are people newly entered into the family, and that’s an occasion for celebration.

  • FlightedChemist

    Not too terribly long ago, I might have agreed with some of the posters here who don’t think that “marriage” has a real purpose at all. I’m in a wonderful long term relationship- we live together, share finances, share responsibility for our two birds. We split household duties effortlessly (usually). We argue about replacing the toilet paper, peeing on the seat (him!) and leaving dishes in the sink for far too long (me!). He’s my best friend. I can’t imagine that any legal contract would make our commitment any stronger or deeper than it already is. We’re in it for the long haul and we both know it.

    However, while he might be as much of a husband in my heart as he’ll ever be, to the outside world, he’s just “a boyfriend”- a title that carries with it inherently less seriousness and stability. To my family, he’s just that guy who tags along to Thanksgiving and who takes me away from them to spend Christmas with his family. If he were ever to get seriously ill or injured, I wouldn’t have any more visiting rights to him than any other random joe off the street- regardless of how many flus, colds, hangovers and sprains we’ve already weathered together.

    Marriage, then, means that all of the above changes. The world begins to recognize us as a family when before we might have been nothing more than roommates. It’s a legal contract, but it’s more than that. It’s an external rendering of an internal commitment that, for most couples, was probably in place a long time before any wedding bells sounded or any rings were exchanged. That, I think is the purpose of marriage.

  • Donsie

    My husband and I discussed this at length before we married last autumn and I struggled with it internally, too. We had no religious reasons to marry, however there were immigration issues to take into consideration, but that was not our reason for marrying. I just mention it because being married is something that people in our situation benefit from when visas some into it.

    I was wary of marriage because of the inequality of that institution (on lines of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.) as well as the overwhelming sexism that mars the whole institution. But even knowing all of that we still felt it was something that we wanted to do, that was important for us to do. I still have trouble articulating exactly why, but I guess the short version would be that it was a promise we wanted to make to each other but we felt that there was a difference between making it privately and declaring it among friends and family. That seems to make one more accountable to keeping the promise. We also wanted to declare our love, as well as our commitment, and to share it publicly, too — sort of shout it from the rooftops. We felt a strong connection from early on and knew we wanted to be married, and to be together forever (barring abject misery). I did all I could to try and make our wedding day as non-sexist and egalitarian as possible. I walked myself down the aisle (I’m not a sack of potatoes to be given away). Our vows were identical and there was no “obey” in there! I eschewed white because I don’t like it, but also because my sexual history was irrelevant to the situation. I kept my last name. Whatever I missed in keeping the day egalitarian, though, we make up for in our marriage itself. Even so I sometimes feel bad for buying into such a problematic institution. But I wanted to promise to love and stand by my husband forever.

    Splitting up because things get difficult isn’t something we wanted on the table and marriage does make it more difficult to walk away, especially where where you can’t initiate divorce until you’ve been married for 12 months. The commitment and permanence of marriage is something we wanted, and I know that’s really not for everyone. Divorce is not something I judge other people for on its own, but I do think a lost of people, especially our young peers, often take long-term relationships unreasonably lightly in many instances. This seems particularly true of marriages, where people expect to be fulfilled by marriage and partner alone, or that everything will be like it is in the commercial marriage fantasy they use to sell us weddings (my rant about weddings vs. marriage is for another day). Taking things lightly is fine if all partners are in agreement that this is how things will be, but I see a lot of lop-sided relationships where someone is working within a marriage model and their partner is being more casual. In many ways marriage as a cultural norm (and as an unspoken expectation after X amount of time) makes this worse. Couples are shy of talking about what they feel about marriage as a concept, let alone if they can see themselves marrying their partner, but there is an expectation that if you just sit around and wait long enough you’ll get engaged. This seems to be the assumption whether or not the couple has considered and discussed if they really want to be married after all.

    I was lucky in that my close LGBT friends in my home country were very kind and supportive when I discussed my apprehension in participating in a discriminatory institution from which many of them are currently barred at home. At least here in the country where I live currently while same-sex couples cannot be officially married they can become civil partners with legal rights and protection equal to that of married people. But I sometimes still feel uneasy about our choice to marry when others who wish to cannot.

    I have a friend who is not from Germany but who has lived there with her partner for several years. They recently got married but in Germany, she explained, the legal part is basically a civil partnership that binds two people legally and gives them certain benefits. They can then choose to have a religious wedding, a humanist blessing, a big party, or nothing, as they see fit. I think that is moving more in the right direction to equality, but ultimately is makes sense to divorce (ha!) marriage as a public promise and act of devotion, commitment, and love from marriage as a legal partnership and tax loophole. My promise to my husband doesn’t warrant special treatment from the government, and it wouldn’t need “special” perks if rights and protections were more fairly and evenly distributed. I’m looking at you, immigration and tax law! I’d love to see marriage lose some of its cultural expectations and power because I think that would free the institution of its more toxic baggage.

    Sorry, this has been longer than some marriages!

  • ERB

    [b]What is the purpose of marriage? [/b]
    To establish a legal contract between spouses.
    [b]Further, what responsibilities, duties, and/or obligations does marriage entail?[/b]
    I’m not a lawyer, but I can think of a few things: it defines inheritance (financial, property, debt), rights of visitation, rights in the event of one spouse’s incapacitation, and some tax implications. Oh, and I don’t have to testify against him or her.

    • Editor B

      ERB: That’s one definition. But is it the only definition? I don’ think so. Doesn’t the institution of marriage precede contract law?

  • Marta L.

    Libby Anne, is there any rule that says we can only write one post? I have been thinking for a long while about writing two posts on marriage – first, why Christians had a religious obligation to support civil marriages for LGBT couples who want it, and second, why marriage equality really does redefine marriage from how the religious right uses that term (and why that’s a good thing). I don’t mind writing both posts, but I doubt I could do it justice in a single post. Should I choose one for Forward Thinking, or would you be able to use both posts?

    • Libby Anne

      You can totally write more than one. Just email me links once you’ve posted them, so that I make sure to have them both.

  • Joy

    What do you believe should be the purpose of marriage in our society today?

    – The purpose of marriage is to create a family with an unrelated person with whom you have a presumably sexual/romantic relationship, and to legally, publicly, and socially acknowledge this relationship.

    And finally, what responsibilities, duties, and/or obligations do you believe marriage should entail?

    Mutual companionship, support, assistance in the rearing of children, etc. The usual.

  • Anne

    What is marriage? That really depends on the people involved. When I hear people say that marriage boils down to one or two things, I feel like they have devalued the institution and the people within it to fit their narrow mold. It is the sheer elasticity of marriage that makes it such an enduring and desirable institution.

    That said, the one constant that seems to exist across cultures is the notion of permanence. There are still exceptions (Mutah comes to mind) but they those are rare. The default assumption is that a marriage endures. The laws around marriage assume this commitment and are designed to support this commitment in turn.

    It also helps to see how the word is used in other contexts. When we say someone is “married” to their job, we are making a statement about a person’s level of devotion. We joke that people act like they’re married if they have a strong, long-term, personal bond, regardless of any romantic feelings. A couple that is legally married but has no commitment is viewed as having a bad marriage regardless of the number of children. And what defines a good marriage? Mutual care. The commitment between people to create a family and take care of each other over the long term so they can build a life together.

    Historically marriage has had many other factors, such as status, building social bonds, avoiding shame, securing property, exclusive sex/procreation, etc., but those have ebbed and flowed with the ages and with the actual people involved. What endures is the commitment.

  • Alexis

    Many people who use the argument that traditional marriage is for one man and one woman also argue that this is ordained by god. If so, why have there been so many orphans and half orphans, raised by single parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors or strangers. Not so common with 20th and 21st century medicine, but what about the centuries and millenia before? Did god not care so much back then?

  • Sam

    Marriage means something different to everyone; this is what it means to me:

    I am in a relationship. It is private. It is our business, and no one else’s. Marriage takes that private relationship and makes it public. It makes it everybody’s business. It makes it ok for me to take off work to take care of my significant other….it makes it ok for me to not spend Christmas with my parents without judgement. That is what I believe the ceremony part signifies – the union of families, creation of a new family, etc. The ceremony is kind of like a birthday party; when I turn 22, I could have a birthday party or I could not. Either way, I would still be 22. The party makes my birthday everyone else’s cause to celebrate! Likewise, people can have the marriage level commitment without the marriage ceremony, but the ceremony celebrates it and brings everyone else into it.

    The legal aspect, imo, is for protection; other people have covered this pretty well, so I’ll leave it at that!

  • Christine

    I think that before I can answer this question we need to define what marriage is. I know this ends up sounding very circular, but if I’m talking about the legal institution of marriage, you’re talking about the social one, and someone else is talking about a personal one, we’re going to come to very different conclusions. Or was the point of this to discuss which, if any, of those versions of marriage should be continued (rather than what the implications of each should be)?

  • Slow Learner

    Some thoughts of mine on the subject, which got a little long for a comment here.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I live in Canada, so our economic benefits for marriage are a bit different than they are in the US (I think… your tax system is hopelessly convoluted). Here, you pay a scaled tax rate that’s the same for every individual, regardless of marital status.

    But if, say, I am not working and I’m going to school, I have no income tax on which to apply my tuition credits. If I’m “married” (I’ll get to that in a moment), I can transfer my credits over to my spouse and he can claim them on his income tax, increasing HIS tax refund at the end of the year. Or let’s say that I’m the head of household, but I’ve already maxed out the number of income tax credits I can claim, but I still have this green energy savings tax credit – I can apply it to my spouse’s filing instead, again increasing HIS tax refund. So you can shuffle credits back and forth between “married” individuals in whatever way maximizes your total household return.

    I think that this makes a lot of sense. You’re not getting a different tax rate or additional tax breaks, which would be punitive to single parents (who, usually, are the ones who most need the returns!) and non-married couples. It’s just a way of allowing two legally separate individuals to share resources – even when those resources are potential returns of paid tax.

    As for the definition of “marriage” for tax purposes, you can make use of this benefit if you actually get a marriage license, or you can just start filing as a “common law” couple any time after having lived together for at least a year. Once you file a return as a common law couple, you can then use that any time there’s a perk for being married, such as when you need to make end-of-life decisions, or need special visitation access for hospital trips, or you want to sponsor your partner as a permanent resident in the country, or you want to share insurance coverage, or you are estate planning, etc. Common law is very much both legally and socially recognized here.

    So from the government’s perspective, for their need to get involved in categorizing and formalizing relationships, I think that this system is very good. There’s still an issue of the “border guard” aspect in that only some relationships qualify – we recognize same sex marriage and common law relationships here, but not polyamorous ones, for example. But I think that the system works as long as we expand as we grow as a culture.

    As for what marriage means personally, I think that there’s three parts to that: a) Commitment, b) Signal to the larger communities of both parties (family, friends, etc), and c) Legal recognition of A.

    A) A marriage is, to me, a contract between two people saying that they will share resources and effort to achieve both shared and individual goals, with some assumption that this contract is valid in perpetuity. From this perspective, my husband and I considered ourselves to be “married” very early on – as soon as we discussed our intentions and determined that we wanted to be married. From that point, the commitment was made and we had a verbal contract, with full intention to follow up with a written contract in the form of a marriage license.

    B) When a family member starts dating, there’s a certain amount of emotional awkwardness. How much do I accept this new person? I don’t know what their intentions are with each other (and, often, it’s too early for them to know as well). If I fully embrace the new person but they break up, I stand to be quite emotionally hurt. When you get married, you are essentially telling your loved ones that it’s okay for them to open their hearts to your partner, and to embrace them as part of the family. In my situation, this was a big deal for my family because it’s so clan-like – being brought in has some profound significance, both for me and for the larger family doing the bringing. For others, particularly those with smaller families or where familial ties are looser or less pleasant, it might mean acceptance by close friends.

    C) The other two forms of marriage do not require any kind of legal recognition. But to have your contract recognized by the broader society, there needs to be a paper trail. If you’re getting married, that’s your marriage license. If you’re going the common law route, it means filing your taxes in a way that declares that status. Once that contract is formalized, it’s protected by the government in the same way that other legal documents are (such as Wills or cellphone contracts). So now, I have a legal and protected right to be at my husband’s side at times when it is appropriate for spouses to be there if he’s hospitalized – I don’t have to wait for general visiting hours. I also have a legal and protected right to his assets if he dies, even though I am not his blood relative. In other words, a formally recognized marriage or common law relationships grants me an honorary close kinship to my husband.

    But, as I said, there’s another reason why governments might want to get involved and that’s the regulation of who can and cannot get married. One of the early uses of required marriage licenses, for example, was to make sure that people weren’t marrying people of different races. More recently, the legal document has been/is being used to discriminate against same-sex couples. And, of course, there’s the issue of polyamorous families.

    • Christine

      Common-law relationships are actually quite different from an official marriage. (See for a fairly good quick overview). I say this for reasons beyond just wanting to nit-pick. The big differences between different kinds of relationships show up if the relationship breaks down. Not understanding the amount to which the American government puts incentives on getting married, this conversation has seemed very odd to me – thank you for explaining. (Seriously… how is it legal for married couples to have an entirely different tax rate?)

      • MrPopularSentiment

        Thank you, Christine! I didn’t realize that it varied province-by-province, though I had some inkling that it would make a difference in the event of a break up. Thank you for clarifying!

        And yeah, having a different tax rate is just… bwuh?

  • Wanda Lotus

    Those questions made me think long and hard about how my view of marriage has changed over the years and what it means to me now. I wrote about it on my blog (

  • A Reader

    I’ve thought about this occasionally. Obviously I’m nowhere near actually doing it myself, but most of my cousins (all about 15 years older than myself) have been married, and there’s a girl who was in the youth group at my mom’s church who’s getting married this month. For a lot of people, I think it’s the tradition of it. It just seems like what people do when they’re in love and want to stay together forever.

    For me…I like the idea of loving someone so much, and them loving you so much, that you swear in front of everyone, “I will love this person for the rest of my life!” But I know that isn’t very realistic either…

    It’s a celebration of love, with some tax breaks on the side.

  • Tracey

    Marriage is a way to announce couplehood to the world. It is official recognition that a pair of consenting adult humans want to remain together for life. In most ceremonies there are pledges on both sides to remain together. I think this helps make us aware of exactly what we’d be willing to do in order to stay together. With a casual relationship, one could leave at any time if a problem crops up- however minor. A marriage means both adults have decided they care enough to try working through the problems, however large.

    I’ve also tried to think of a good reason the marriage should remain limited to two people. With the current legal ramifications it would be a logistical nightmare, so we’d have to make changes if marriage expanded that way. If a third person wanted into an established couple, this person would have to decide to attach to one or both the people already in the couple. Visitation rights and death benefits make sense, but property sharing is probably too tricky to work. Maybe this type of attachment could get Jr-marriage status or something? This probably deserves a full discussion itself…if anyone’s around now that this post isn’t brand new.

    • M

      I agree. I’ve been trying to figure out how poly-marriage would work, legally, and it would be a logistical nightmare of a transition.

      I sort of like the idea of Jr.-marriage status as an option, but I think there ought to be a way to get full groups set up too where all members are co-equal. Damned if I know how, though.

    • Mogg

      I’d be interested in seeing how this could be approached. I have several friends in poly relationships and would love to see a discussion on how a legal framework which gives all parties equal rights could work. I think one of the reasons people recoil from the concept of poly marriages is because they automatically think of male-dominated polygyny – a man with multiple wives, with the wives having no say on whether another wife is welcome.

    • Kyra

      I love this question, despite (or perhaps because of?) how complicated it would be. I’m in favor of group/multiple marriages, and aware that it’s still the go-to scare tactic for opponents of same-sex marriage, and my usual response is that we don’t have the legal infrastructure to deal with the exponential complications of marriage, divorce, benefits, rights, inheritance, et cetera when applied to multiples—it’s an utter mess a lot of times even when there are only two people.

      Possibly we have developed computers complex enough to keep track of it all, but laws and bureaucracy are vastly ill-suited. There are several kinds of polygamous marriage—one person married to two or three or fifteen others who are all married to that one person but not to each other; group marriages where all participants are married to each other; line marriage where A is married to B who is married to C who is married to D, spur marriages like line marriages but where B is married to K as well, and combinations thereof where members of the same group are married to some but not all of each other.

      Now throw community property, income tax law, child custody, and inheritance into the mix. And consider cases where D wants to divorce B while remaining married to A and C, who themselves wish to remain married to B. Or where L and M dislike O’s new partner P, but O wants to share living space with all of them. Or Q and S have a biological child but R ends up being the primary parent—who gets custody in a divorce? What is someone’s legal relationship to one’s wife’s husband to whom one is not oneself married? What about to his other wife? Or her wife? (I remember a Star Trek episode in which a person whose people habitually each had three spouses said he was directly or indirectly married to around seven hundred people.) The potential messes would take some significant legal infrastructure to prevent or provide for.

      I think poly marriages being legalized would take a further shift in the what-marriage-is understanding, this time away from inherent legal rights being conveyed. One of the things—good things, in my opinion—about polyamory is that since every setup is different, there are no easy boxes to fall into or get scrunched into, and every family has to figure out for themselves what works for them as they go along. The modular legal package of marriage is less useful, and so it would be of more value to have a build-your-own system where the marital relationship is predominantly a social marker, with the legal issues dealt with on a case-by-case basis via contracts for what all is needed by the people involved.

      This, meanwhile, requires a shift towards greater acceptance of these legal arrangements—a significant part of the impetus for same-sex marriage recognition was caused by widespread societal refusal to accept legal and social arrangements made in lieu of marriage, partially due to homophobia and partially due to the insistent standard that marriage be the only acceptable venue for sexual love.

      People used “you’re not married!” to justify ignoring everything from feelings to wills and powers-of-attorney as a means to attack “unauthorized” lovers, and they shot themselves in the foot by creating a situation where nothing short of marriage could provide those rights. A greater acceptance of nonmarital sexual relationships, toward which this society continues trending in most of its subcultures, will cut down on the “these rights are only for married (straight) couples!” discrimination and give polyamorous people more security to get by with whatever legal arrangements they have made, thus enabling a sort of common-law marriage and informal use of marital descriptors (“my wives”/”my husbands”/”our husband”/”our wives”).

      That said, there’s the little detail that this culture we’re in has set up various benefits centered around marriage, and it will seem a bit surreal to, after going to the trouble of securing marriage equality to grant equal access to those benefits, start rebuilding the whole mess so that such benefits can be obtained outside of marriage. Sort of like building a fancy tower and then realizing you designed it wrong for the purpose you actually value, and having to at least partially disassemble it and redo it.

      Personally, I wouldn’t care too much who recognized the marriage(s), I’d just care about not having kids taken away because somebody disapproves of them having contact with people their parents have sex with, or being denied visitation rights or power-of-attorney rights because someone decides we’re “not really family.” Same things as for same-sex couples, to be honest, though I’m thinking it less likely to require real marriage rights to ensure equal treatment in this case.

  • leahlibresco

    I threw in thoughts riffing off a “Modern Love” piece in The New York Times:

  • Y

    I have written extensively on family, parenting, community, and marriage on my blog Simply search “marriage” and you’ll find several posts on this subject.

  • Indunil

    I don’t understand why marriage is required anymore. I guess it’s a way of saying “you can’t escape from me” when you fall in love. But if there is true love, is marriage required? Doesn’t true love mean completely trusting your partner. Marriage is a safety barrier. Back in the day it was so men can remain doing absolutely no house work while women did house work but get money and have a means of living (materialistically). In this day and age, marriage is very unnecessary. Especially being an educated woman and having a good paying job, marriage is just a barrier, a burden in many ways.