Over on Love, Joy, Feminism Libby Anne has asked the following questions, which have made me think about my view of marriage and how it has changed over the years.
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?
When I identified as an evangelical/pentecostal Christian, my view of marriage was romanticized and based on the myths I had learned in the Christian tradition. I believed there was a spiritual component to it, mystically binding two people together in ways they previously had not and could not be bound. As I matured, though, I slowly began to view marriage far more realistically, until I have boiled it down to a simple fact:
Marriage in the United States is and always has been about legal protection.
Not very romantic, is it? But it’s true. The purpose of marriage in the United States has been to settle the legal question of who owns what property, who inherits what property, who can speak for whom when the person in question is unable to speak for her/himself, and who are the automatic beneficiaries when the person in question dies without naming beneficiaries in legal documents. It determines who is responsible for minor children, especially in the event of death or disability (the child’s or the parent’s). Beyond that, marriage in the United States gives legally married people financial benefits unavailable to everyone else. And because marriage is about legal protection, it takes the court to both approve and dissolve a marriage. Emotion and public declarations are nice, but they are not necessary. (Ask women and girls the world over who have been legally married over their protests to men they did not and would never choose.) The marriage is legally binding the moment the court-issued marriage license is signed by the presiding official and the ones who are marrying, not before and not after.
What is romantic and emotional, on the other hand, is the choice one person makes to commit themselves to another (or others). The wedding, a ceremony in which you publicly state your commitment, is romantic. Declaring your undying loyalty to another human being, no matter what, is romantic. The decision to have/adopt and raise children together is romantic. But you can have and do all of these things without a marriage. Poly families and same-sex couples do all of these things and more all of the time, many of them far more lovingly and successfully than married, heterosexual couples. (50% divorce rate, anyone?)
If we are asking what the responsibilities, duties, and obligations are for the legal contract called marriage, those things are documented as part of the contract itself, and it will vary from state to state (joint property rights, etc.). But I think the real question is what responsibilities, duties, and obligations should one have when they make that emotional connection/commitment to another human being, regardless of their legal status. Things like not keeping financial secrets that would hurt your partner(s) or children fall under that banner. Being honest with your partner(s) and respecting them as your equal(s) do, too. Loyalty, supporting one another through thick and thin, sickness and health…basically everything found in traditional Christian wedding vows.
I, (name), take you (name), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.
~ Traditional Wedding Vows
Again, people have done this throughout the ages without being bound by the legal contract called marriage. My partner and I live that way and regularly reaffirm our commitment to one another now, and we are not married. In fact, if it takes a legal contract for someone to live out that kind of commitment with someone they claim to love, I contend they are not well suited for the legal contract in the first place. As a minister told me years ago, the wedding is simply the public declaration of what should have already happened in their hearts.
What that should look like in practice is going to differ from couple to family, depending on what each couple/family believes they need. What it looks like for me is I put my partner first. That means her needs come before the needs of anyone else outside of us. It means I support her in a loving fashion to the best of my ability when she is in a good mood and when she is in a bad mood. I talk to and touch her with respect and compassion when I am pleased with her behavior and when I am displeased. I apologize when I don’t meet her reasonable, jointly-agreed-upon expectations. I adjust my expectations and behavior to keep our life together mutually rewarding. We plan our future together, taking both of our needs and desires into consideration. We treat each other as equals. If we ever decide to raise children, we will raise them together, as a unified partnership. And in our case, that also means we protect our desire to speak for one another when the other cannot to the fullest extent of the law, which is why last year we had our lawyers draw up wills, living wills, health care proxy forms, and power of attorney forms to do just that. (Even if we sign a legal marriage contract at some point, it would not be recognized on the federal level or in most states, so we have done the legal legwork to protect our legal interests.) It includes taking care of each other financially, up to and including changing our life insurance policies to make sure the one left behind is financially cared for in the event of the other’s death.
How would you answer Libby Anne’s questions?