This post is written in response to the Forward Thinking prompt “what is the purpose of marriage?”
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am somewhat of a marriage agnostic. Really, lately I’ve been leaning toward being a marriage abolitionist. I am not certain that governments should be issuing marriages at all, because I am quite frankly unsure of the purpose of them doing so. But before I can figure out whether there is a purpose to governmental recognition of marriage, I will need to examine the general purpose of marriage, on two levels: the personal and the societal.
On a personal level, marriage is generally understood to be an outward expression and demonstration of love and commitment between two individuals. In making a lifelong commitment to my partner, I am making a statement about trust and mutual understanding, and together we made a mutual commitment to building a life together, working toward shared goals (raising a family) and also supporting each other in our individual passions (careers and hobbies). I see it as a long-term collaborative project to maximize both of our happiness. And this is all wonderful and lovely and important. To me. And to my partner. But I’m not egotistical enough to think that people in general should care about the arrangement that we have made with one another. And I think it’s patently ridiculous to expect the government to grant me extra legal protections and privileges on the grounds that we just love each so much.
So, the societal aspect, then. 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.
Here’s the thing: the way that the civil institution of marriage is organized seems in many ways for the purpose of enabling the more traditional form of marriage, in which one partner works outside the home and earns money, while the other partner works within the home, fulfilling various tasks and taking care of the house and children, thus enabling the money-earning partner to be a better worker and focus more time and energy on their work tasks (indirectly benefiting the employer). In this model, I can see the sense in things like extending certain employment benefits to cover spouses, and I can even see why the government might want to offer incentives so that people will remain married, as the partner who works at home is in an extremely vulnerable position where, despite the value of their own labour, they are entirely dependent on their spouse for their livelihood.
This is really all to say that when women were considered to be mostly or wholly dependent creatures, the government had good reason to encourage men to commit to supporting a wife, thus removing her from the risk of needing social assistance. It made sense to grant more privileges to a man who accepted someone as his wife, because he was benefiting the government in turn.
But this not really the case today. Sure, sharing a living space with someone can reduce one’s expenses and make it easier to afford a good quality of life. So, in some ways, couplehood has certain advantages, and once again, it may be in society’s best interest to encourage people to share living spaces and expenses, to reduce their risk of needing social assistance. But I see no reason why, in this context, romantic couples should be treated any differently than roommates of other varieties. Roommates would surely benefit from being eligible for each other’s health insurance benefits, and it would make their lives easier in the same way that spouses lives are improved by this privilege. Again, we seem to think that the love shared by the romantic couple makes them more deserving of this kind of extra financial support, but the difference between the couple that is so very in love and sharing finances, and two friends who are similarly sharing expenses and splitting household chores, has zero societal value, and there is no purpose to privileging one arrangement over the other (I really cannot stress this enough).
So, what else do couples do? Well, sometimes one partner becomes a primary caregiver to the other if they become disabled in some way. Again, I can see here why it might be beneficial to society to encourage such an arrangement. But again, I see no reason why this arrangement is made more valuable by romantic love than it is when one friend takes on responsibility for another’s care, or when a child takes over the are of their parent. There are sometimes certain tax benefits available to people in the latter situation, but these benefits don’t hold a candle to those offered to married people.
I really just don’t see the purpose (in terms of societal benefit) of perpetuating the civil institution of marriage, and it is for this reason that I’m beginning to favour abolition. If there are no general societal benefits resulting from the privileging of romantic couples over single people, over close friends, and over other family formations and social support structures, then marriage is nothing more than a purposeless and patently discriminatory institution (even when it is made available to straight and queer people alike).
I do want to reiterate, though, that I do not believe that marriage is a valueless social institution. I believe that romantic love is special and magical and life-changing and important and worthy of celebration. The commitment that my partner and I have made to each other is immensely valuable to me, and even has some value to the people in our lives who are concerned about our happiness. And I also understand the cultural and religious value of marriage ceremonies. I just don’t see why anyone not impacted by the couple’s decision should care, and I certainly don’t see how it benefits society at large to grant privileges to people who make the decision to marry.