Marriage is a hot topic these days, from gay activists fighting for equality to the conservative right insisting marriage is the very foundation of civilization and allowing gay marriage is a sign of the destruction of society. Then there is the slippery slope argument that if we allow same sex marriage it will lead to legalized polygamy and “oh my god” polyamory. Not to mention people will want to marry children and animals next. It is all very confusing as people polarize over the institution of marriage. How many people actually look at the institution of marriage, its symbolism and whether it fits our modern relationships? Why do most people simply accept this tradition as being the ideal relationship commitment or end goal of any serious romantic connection? Is sentimental attachment enough of a reason to hold on to an institution that is outdated and, at its roots, is based in slavery?
Marriage, as right wing conservatives tout it, is a religious institution, a covenant with God between one man and one woman. If we look at marriage through Judeo/Christian traditions, marriage is about property and ownership of women. A woman is given to a man in marriage by her father. The rights of marriage in the religious context have more to do with property rights and the paternity of offspring. Many modern marriage ceremonies still pronounce a couple “man and wife” instead of “husband and wife”. This implies that the man is autonomous and he has taken a wife. Many religious ceremonies still include the vows for a woman to “love, honor and obey” her husband. Women still are walked down the aisle most often by their father and “given” away in marriage. This is very symbolic of women as property being sold by their father or family. Women, often without question, take their husbands name and are announced “Mr. and Mrs. So and So”. In traditional marriage the symbolism is clear; the woman is given in marriage and loses autonomy to her husband.
Though many women now keep their name and are very independent, the symbolism of the traditional marriage ceremony are clearly about property rights. When two people obtain a marriage license and marry, they are subject to a long list of property, contract and marital laws. It can vary greatly from state to state and the laws can change during the marriage. When you apply for a marriage license you are not given a copy of the legalities you are entering into. Not only is it a commitment between you and your chosen partner but you are subject to the marriage laws of whatever state you live in or move to. If you marry in a community property state you are now giving half of all your belongings to your spouse and taking on half of any debt they have. When you are applying for the marriage license you are by proxy agreeing to all the marriage laws of that state but also agreeing to any changes the state makes to the law in the future. Of course people can create a prenuptial agreement but most people consider this unromantic. The truth is marriage is a contract and in the not so distant past it was recognized as such, two families joining for political and financial reasons.
Looking at the past, much traditional marriage came from necessity. To form a patrilineal or patriarchal culture, women’s sexuality must be controlled to guarantee paternity. Marriage was often about survival; economically, politically or otherwise. Many marriages were arranged for this reason. There was often money involved; at times parents would buy a marriage for their daughter and in other times men or their families bought wives. Wealthy men could have more than one wife and to do so was sign of status. Having concubines was also fine. What was not fine was having sexual relations with another man’s wife, to do so was to adulterate or pollute the family line and covet (steal) a man’s property. This is where the term adultery comes from. Laws on fidelity and adultery in early Bible times were all about insuring paternity. Women being stoned to death for being “unclean”, meaning she had sex with someone whether forced of voluntary, insured she did not have a child with the wrong paternity.
In a modern culture where concerns about political alliance and basic survival are not at stake, do the traditions still serve us? Why do we continue to brainwash people, especially women, about the “romantic happily ever after” that we teach equals marriage? Why do we still see marriage as the only valid commitment? Adults often still allow the pressure exerted by family to push them into marriage when they might not have chosen that. We measure relationship success by a marriage license from the state and longevity rather than the quality of the interactions or the growth and learning received from a relationship.
When a woman is walked down the aisle, given away in marriage and changes her name, essentially her identity, is it any wonder she changes or is no longer the independent outgoing person she once was? For many women the years of programming kick in and she starts to subdue her wants and needs as a sacrifice on the altar of marriage. Jane Fonda who is an outspoken, powerful woman has talked openly about her own struggle of, as she put it, becoming a pretzel in marriage in an attempt to be a “good wife”. Many women can identify with this.
Conscious agreements in the form of Civil Unions between consenting adults make sense for modern relationships. Instead of state sanctioned marriage people could form a Civil Union and be required to write out their agreements in a contract that works for all parties. It could even be written to require a renewal every year, two years, five years or whatever works for those individuals. Civil Unions could include more than two people and gender would be a non issue. As marriage laws are now, they are based on religious doctrine and romantic notions. The state has no business in a religious ritual or tradition.
Civil Unions have the possibility to become a legal solution to issues of property and rights. Relationship commitments do not need to be sanctioned or recognized by the state, however laws regarding partners rights, property and child custody do need legal agreements. It would be common sense to allow human beings the freedom to love and form Unions with who they choose regardless of gender. Children born to a union should be protected by contracts and an agreement made when all parties are on good terms, instead of arbitrary fights about issues no one thought of when they were high in the early stages of being in love.
Marriages sanctioned by the church and subject to religious doctrine would still be performed but kept in the church where marriage, as a religious institution, belongs. Even with religious marriage the state could require a Civil Union agreement to recognize the legal rights of that union. Civil Unions could have provisions for dissolving the union, just as many legal partnership agreements have. Dissolution of marriage would be done by the church under which the marriage was performed and sanctioned and not required to dissolve the legal Civil Union.
Many people have strong attachments to the institution of marriage and the romantic imagery associated with it. Marriage as it has been traditionally may not be healthy for modern relationships. Women are no longer property but this is a relatively recent liberation. Until the mid seventies a woman could legally be raped by her husband. The roots of marriage traditions run deep and psychological wounds are still there and fresh. Creating something new and better suited to modern relationships, culture and equal partnership seems logical when we let go of our attachment to romanticized traditions. Rational and conscious negotiation might improve the stability of unions and even create an atmosphere of acceptance of different kinds of unions. After all, people are different and have different needs whether it’s in a career, where to live or what kind of love relationship one chooses. Choices and options can offer people more fulfillment and possibly relationships based on adult needs and children’s needs instead of romantic whims.
Marriage has its roots in antiquity and was created for a different culture and different time; why do we assume it could work at all in our modern world of relationships? No matter what a person’s background is or what their lifestyle choice, commitment and love are very personal journeys. Marriages or Civil Unions are a way of defining a commitment but also a legal obligation. As such it is important for people to step back and look closely at what a ritual or ceremony symbolizes as well as the legal agreements that are part of any legalized or licensed contract. Consciously assessing the meaning of what a Union is and the legal commitments that go along with it, as well as what rituals and traditions a person wants to participate in, could be healthy and healing both to individuals and to society as a whole.