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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Forward Thinking: What is the purpose of marriage?

Libby Anne and Dan Finke at Patheos have started a project called Forward Thinking, which is a series of questions they put to bloggers to encourage them to think productively. The replies to these questions are then rounded up and a new prompt posted. This is my second crack at it. The first can be found here. This round's question is actually three questions, so I'll answer them in order.

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

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.

Another thing marriage does is prioritize certain kinds of relationships-- namely, romantic ones (again, in places where marriage is not arranged). There isn't any particular benefit to the rest of society if two (or more) people fall in love, and the benefits they receive by being marriage don't require them to love each other. Romantic love is a pretty strong glue, and I'm not saying that people who don't love each other should get married, but there are other kinds of love besides the romantic variety. Other glues are good too. I don't see any particular reason they couldn't be just as good for sticking people together and calling it marriage.

What do you personally see as the purpose of marriage for your own life? 

As discussed in my recent post on getting rid of the "premarital" in "premarital sex," I'm not married. And it's not because of some scary precedent set in my own family-- my parents just had their 45th anniversary and are going strong, and both of my brothers are in happy marriages. My eldest brother got married in 2009, and prior to the wedding my mother and I had an interesting exchange. It went something like this: "Your brother is going to be the best man, and her sister the maid of honor...you won't be part of the wedding party." "Oh, that's okay-- I still get to be there!" "Yeah, I knew you wouldn't mind." I'm really not very into weddings.

And, an even bigger indicator, I'm not into having kids. At all. Both of my brothers went into marriage expecting to have kids, which is good-- that's something you should definitely figure out ahead of time, in case your spouse-to-be does not! But I attended that wedding in 2009 with my boyfriend at the time, whom I'd been with for ten years. Not a smidge of a desire for kids in either of us, and unmarried. And, not too much later, we broke up. I don't think that had anything to do with our not being married-- if we had been married, we would have had a divorce on our hands rather than a break-up.

So I guess at least at this point, the purpose of marriage in my life is nil. While I'm quite capable of loving and being in love, and while a big party with my family and friends with nice gifts and a vacation following sounds awesome, that's like thinking you want a dog because you like puppies. Don't get a dog unless you want the dog.

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

I don't like being all normative about other people's relationships-- there is no one-size-fits-all model for the perfect marriage, just as there isn't for any other committed relationship. So I'd say that the same applies for both, which is that a successful relationship is most likely for two (or more) people who want the same things (mostly), and are able to work out between them how to go about getting them. This generally means setting standards for themselves and expectations for each other, and then following through on those. If your relationship doesn't forbid X and someone else's does, then in their relationship it's a responsibility to avoid X while in yours it is not-- and vice versa. Relationship advice columns are not completely useless because there are some things that most people in relationships can be counted upon to want-- that doesn't mean, however, that there's any particular reason they should want them, aside from the fact that they do. Your relationship, your rules.

If that's the case, then the best ways to fail are a) failing to meet expectations that have been set in your relationship, and b) failing to set any expectations at all, just assuming that your partner already knows everything you expect, presumably by osmosis or something. The best "duty" to have in a relationship is to communicate. To say what you want and think and how you feel, and then listen to what your partner wants and thinks and feels. If you don't do that, what's the point of being attached to them in the first place?

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