Forward Thinking: What is the purpose of marriage?

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.


  1. Jeeze, Have I been spending hours in the halls of my State House for nothing? Rhode Island is on the brink of recognizing same-sex marriage and it’s a right we have to win. However, you do make some good points about single people. With all this pious talk about ‘families’ it’s like they are left out of the debate.

    1. Oh, listen, given that marriage *is* a thing that the government is in the business of, (and I don’t see any change of that changing) I absolutely think that it’s necessary and important to devote energy to making sure it is extended equally to all couples! There are certain protections that marriage offers (visitation rights, anyone?) that I support being something that governments grant – I actually just think that there’s a lot of aspects of marriage ‘rights’ that don’t make a lot of sense.

      So I’m not necessarily against abolition so much as massive reform, and given that that’s a really radical position, I fully understand and support the prioritization of at least extending existing marriage ‘rights’ to all couples – though, living in a country where that’s already the case (yay, Canada!) allows me to focus on reform in my own context.

  2. You say the legal benefits of marriage come at the expensive of unmarried people. I suppose we could argue that tax benefits do, but that’s hardly the most important part of civil marriage, and you definitely recognize that.

    To a lot of queer couples fighting for access to civil marriage (and to myself as a straight civilly married person), the most important legal consequences of marriage include:
    – being legally recognized as family rather than legal strangers
    – having power of attorney for one another without having to spend time and money with a lawyer
    – being able to visit each other in the hospital if something happens to either partner
    – getting family medical leave if either spouse is ill
    – clarifying inheritance if either spouse dies without a will

    Could you explain exactly how any of these come specifically at the expense of unmarried people, as opposed to simply not extending the same securities to unmarried long-term roommates? Sure, it would be better if there were _more_ simple ways for people to become legal kin besides marriage and parent-child adoption (eg, sibling-adoption, domestic partnerships that are not assumed to be romantic), but the solution to that problem is to push for more ways for people to become legal kin, not reduce the available options.

    It seems like your main argument for abolishing civil marriage is that privileging long-term romantic partnerships over long-term nonromantic partnerships is wrong. But that strikes me as equivalent to someone in the 1900 arguing for repeal of the 15th amendment, since it gave black men the right to vote but not women of any race, rather than advocating for the 19th amendment,

    Also, the social _cost_ of abolishing civil marriage would be staggering. All married couples who wanted to be other than legal strangers would need to spend considerable time and money getting POA and other rights via a lawyer, which is prohibitively costly for many low-income families, and would also not entirely guarentee those rights would be respected — we’ve seen again and again that same-sex couples with PoA and other legal protections have had those things ignored at the whim of homophobic judges, hospital workers, employers, and even their own greedy and/or homophobic family members. Even if we pretend only straight couples had their relationships dissolved, again, the biggest harm will be done to those who are already underprivileged in some way (income, disability status) or face other prejudices (interracial couples, couples where one member is a walkaway from an abusive religious denomination or abusive family…).

    1. You’re very right, on all points I tihnk. I’ve really only just been exploring marriage abolitionism, so this was a very preliminary sort of exploration for me, and I’m super glad to be getting other people’s input on it.

      So yeah, I definitely acknowledge that some of the privileges granted by marriage are absolutely vital, though I am troubled by their (intended) restriction to the romantic-sexual context (I also acknowledge that people in non-romantic relationships can sometimes get married anyway, if they’re not blood kin or whatever).

      I think my main objection is that marriage, in our current cultural understanding, doesn’t seem like the best way to extend many of the privileges it does. Like, I can see the function of having certain kinds of contracts and undertakings for pairs or groups of people to promise to support each other, thus reducing their potential need for social assistance programs, and leaving those funds available to others. And I absolutely understand that things like hospital visitation rights (and possibly protection from being required to testify in court against one’s spouse) might reasonably by things to restrict to more traditionally familial relationships.

      Ultimately, it’s the current structure and process for granting these privileges that’s fucked, and not necessarily the privileges themselves, I think.

  3. Parent-child relationships are protected in many of the same ways (health insurance, transfer of property, tax breaks), and children are absolutely supported at the expense of the child-free (taxes are paid into school systems and park systems that child-free persons will never use.) Yet I don’t see anyone saying the legal protections between parents and children should be abolished-because they shouldn’t be.

    Every other point I have to make, Wednesday has already stated, so I won’t reiterate.

    1. The distinct difference between parent-child relationships and marriages is that (while the child is a minor, which is when the legal protections are in place), the child is a dependent being. You’ll note that I discussed the idea that when women were considered wholly dependent beings, marriage made sense as a way of encouraging men to agree to care for them, to remove that burden from the state. The same principle applies for offering privileges to people who undertake to care for children.

      I also accept that children are a specific case, and it’s not discriminatory to have a specific set of rules for them (although I would support the extension of similar privileges to people undertaking to care for other kinds of dependent people) – What i object to is that under the current system, those kinds of privileges are extended to spouses (and *not* to other people) even though spouses are no more likely to be inherently dependent on one another than people in other kinds of mutually supportive relationships.

      1. But a number of those privileges, including property transfer and power of attorney, are extended to parent-child relationships when the child is an adult. Adult children nearly always make care decisions for ill or elderly parents. And some of these rights are integrated into grandparent-grandchild relationships as well.

        What other people would you want these rights extended to? You mention roommates, but in my experience, most roommate arrangements have been short term. Siblings and parent-child relationships already have many of these advantages.

        1. I would want these rights extended to any group of people who make a long-term commitment to mutually support each other and to pool their resources, regardless of whether there is a romantic or sexual component to their relationship. A marriage is functionally a two-person communal living arrangement, and I see no reason why it is more advantageous for society to grant privileges to the two-person, romantic-sexual version of that arrangement and not to others. And the fact that these arrangements are rare should in no way change the way we judge them.

          The fact is, though, that marriage in Canada (although, not the US apparently, so some of my objections may actually not apply to US marriages, other than the obviously unacceptable exclusion of same-sex couples) is legally codified as an exclusive commitment between two people (and further implicitly assumed to be a sexual one, as that is the reason for making it illegal to marry blood relatives – though I’ll accept that because blood relatives are already legally recognized as kin, there is little need to extend marriage to cover them), and even if there is no burden of proof (of exclusivity or sexuality) placed on those entering into a marriage contract, as it currently stands, a failure to fulfill the exclusivity model is considered a breach of the marriage contract.

  4. Here from Feministe. Here’s the most interesting argument I’ve read (sorry for wall of text):
    Being family confers hundreds of rights. The state should support family, because a) nearly all citizens want it and it’s democracy, b) the alternative is kinda horrifying (eg no parental rights to children, 90-year-old widows kicked out of the marital home…). Blood kin automatically get to be family, but people should have the right to choose to forge new families – based on love, shared values, money, whatever they choose.
    The state should not get to ask what your family means to you. Maybe you don’t want kids, don’t fuck, and don’t want to live together. Maybe you do. To get family rights without marriage might mean providing the government with the answers to those questions and a million others. Do you want to have to tell the government, “We do want the hospital visitation rights but one of us is infertile so we don’t need the children stuff?” Or, “We are not monogamous so adultery will not constitute unreasonable behavior in a divorce”? Or, “My partner is on the road for work 5 nights a week, so we don’t qualify for the shared-residence ‘roommate’ health insurance”? Would a widow want to go to court to prove the difference between Spouse and Lodger when it comes to inheriting the home of a person who died intestate? How much info do you want to give your employer to get your spouse visa so you can join your spouse on a foreign posting?
    How much will each right cost, per couple? Will there be templates? Available in all languages? What government department will keep the records? Can other departments subpoena them? Where do employers come into it? What if a homemaker cannot pay for a lawyer to negotiate X right, is that contract valid? It is potentially unbelievably intrusive, expensive, and probably discriminatory.
    Marriage is a cheap, one-size-fits-all document available to all classes and education levels, whereby nonrelated folks say, “We choose to be a family”. The state MUST give them the attendant rights, but CANNOT (should not) ask more than that.
    TLDR: marriage is the most-equal, least discriminatory, smallest-government way of ensuring that society honors individual choice about who we make our family, as well as who we don’t (eg roommates). It is the least bad option. Interested to hear your thoughts!

    1. You wall of text is greatly appreciated! And you’ve articulated the reasons to support marriage that I’ve been struggling to make coherent in my own head, so double thank!

      I guess my problem is less with the privileges granted by marriage, and more with the ways in which they are doled out, and the parameters of the legal definition of marriage in different contexts (which includes things like assuming that monogamy is expected – even if two people get married with an understanding that they are not making a monogamous commitment, either party can still use “adultery” as grounds for divorce at any point in the future, for instance. And in order to sponsor my partner for permanent residency here, I had to swear that we were in an “exclusive conjugal” relationship, so in the immigration context, at least, there’s some burden of proof that your marriage is a romantic-sexual relationship. (In practice, you’re not really asked to prove the sexual aspect, obviously. But you are expected to show evidence of a romantic-like attachment, and in cased where the CIC (Canadian version of the USCIS) suspects fraud, a home visit includes checking whether there’s evidence of a shared bed/sleeping area.))

      Of course, it’s true that in practice, people are rarely asked to prove that they have the kind of relationship that legal marriages were originally intended to represent. And so you’re right that in practice, it’s a fairly easy-to-obtain document (at least for mixed-sex pairs of people anywhere). And it’s the best way currently available for people to get the kinds of vital protections it offers (and of course you’re right that there needs to be a way to legally establish non-blood-relative next-of-kin for a great number of reasons), but it would be better if it were actually designed (and thus legally defined) with that purpose in mind, and any assumptions of romantic-sexual connotations were removed from the civil processes involved in marriage and divorce. Because, again, I see no reason to privilege that kind of relationships above others, even though all the thoughtful commenters here today have convinced me that the rights and privileges that currently come packaged as marriage certainly have a place in the broader context of society. (Thankfully for me, too. My partner and I have been discussing downgrading to common-law; it would be a really complicated and weird legal process, (though since we’re poly we could probably pull an adultery claim to get a divorce,) but if I actually were to decide that I object to the institution of marriage on its face, I wouldn’t feel comfortable remaining legally married. I’m glad that the case against marriage isn’t as straight-forward as I made it out to be above after all :P)

      1. Thanks for the reply! On gay marriage, to blow a social conservative’s mind, posit that lower govt intrusion is A Good Thing (they nearly always agree). Then posit that the government needs to show an overriding justification for any question it asks about your marriage, other than “Are you both over 18 and legally able to sign a contract?” No overriding justification exists for “Are you the same sex/gender?” Hence, any true small government conservative should be for gay marriage.
        I totally agree with you on the privileging of romantic/sexual relationships. I know they are qualitatively different to pure friendship, but I do not see why friends can’t sign up to be family if they want. I am in a mixed-nationality marriage myself and we had to prove our relationship was “real” which seemed to be a euphemism for based in love, with a presumption favoring exclusivity. Begs the questions: 1. Why does the state get to define exclusive? and 2. If we have to prove we love each other, perhaps Donald Trump and his parade of trophy wives should have to pass the same test…

  5. I know this is over 3 years old but wow, reading this and then all the comments… so much food for thought, and I’m really grateful to have read it! Thanks for including it in your “Best of Valprehension” page haha. I have been having confused/complex thoughts on marriage for a little while now but never really focused on those thoughts… and this helps me get started thinking more about it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s