If someone were to go through my entire blog and collect everything I’ve said about marriage, I’d come out looking as if I’m anti-marriage. I suppose to some degree I am. There are many trappings of marriage that I think are culturally irrelevant or even harmful in today’s world. I’ve written in some depth about the history of marriage in the west, and it’s not pretty. I write often about how lifelong monogamy is “unnatural” for humans. I’m an advocate for “alternative arrangements” to “one man, one woman.” I am decidedly against the idea that everyone should reproduce.
But as with most positions held by thoughtful people, mine is a bit more nuanced than simply “anti-marriage.” I think marriage is a good idea for some people, and I think that with some changes, it could be a good idea for more people. Athol Kay, at Married Man Sex Life, is a big believer in lifelong monogamy, and while he and I might disagree on the number of people who would benefit from his approach, it’s undeniable that it does work for some people. My favorite atheist blogger, Greta Christina, has posted a very good article on marriage. She and her partner, Ingrid, are married despite Greta’s personal misgivings about marriage, which I imagine parallel mine rather closely. And it’s working for them, even though Greta is openly bisexual and does not advocate lifelong monogamy as the “One True Good.”
Greta makes the argument that there are three very good reasons to get married: The legal status of marriage, the personal vows, and the party. I agree with her. Not only that, but I think each of these three elements is intrinsic to the whole system, which is why I have no problem being (in general) opposed to a lot of individual marriages and yet being a strong advocate for the rights of anyone who wants to get married to do so.
Legal marriage carries with it far more than the right to visit a sick spouse in the hospital or to receive inheritance from them in the absence of a will. It conveys social status. I have two good friends, Frank and Timothy, who have been together for fifteen years. They own a house together. They wear rings. By all outward appearances, they’re married. But they still refer to each other as “my boyfriend.” And to some degree, they have to. If they choose to say they’re married, there will be some condescension. After all, they’re not really married. They’re just “pretending.” If someone asks where they got married, they’ll have to either lie or admit they’re not really married. Which leads back to step one and condescension. In the real world of cause and effect, their inability to get married makes them second class citizens at every party, even when all the guests are comfortable with the idea of gay couples.
Likewise, there are lots of good reasons for vows. On a psychological level, we can point to the well-documented effect of outward commitment. Once a person has spoken her opinion, she is far less likely to change it than if she’d kept it internalized. The outward profession of moral obligation to a spouse is a big deal. It’s also probably a form of priming, which has also been shown to have a profound effect on our moral decisions.
But more than that, vows have a public function. They create a kind of social bond and reinforce the place we hold in our community. They probably serve to increase our friends’ and families’ moral obligations toward us, too. I wonder if there would be much difference in a friend’s willingness to address marital infidelity in a friend than simply “stepping out” on a girlfriend. I suspect so.
Finally, vows serve as a defining moment for the couple — a moment in time they can look at and see a binary change in their life. Making the external commitment to a metaphorical page-turn in our lives can be a powerful catalyst for positive change, for “growing up” all the way. It symbolizes to us that we are accepting the mantle of responsibility for another person, and therefore our responsibility to ourselves to uphold our end of the bargain.
Greta jokingly referred to the party as a “no-brainer.” Who wouldn’t want to have a party, right? But like the vows, I think the party is really important on a deeper level. (And Greta made some great points about it, too.) We humans have a need for social bonding. I’ve been to a lot of weddings, and I can say without reservation that when there was a party afterwards, I left feeling much closer to the couple and all of their friends and families than when there was a stuffy reception. There’s bonding, and then there’s bonding. And nothing says bonding like whirling around the dance floor with the tipsy mother of the bride.
Marriage as a Threat
It seems almost cliché now, but I guess I need to make the standard liberal response to the bigots who want to restrict marriage to one man and one woman. What are you afraid of? What can Jay and Bob, your gay neighbors five doors down, possibly do to you if they have a legal document saying they’re married? Will your husband suddenly develop the irrepressible desire to fornicate with a married man’s husband? Will your parakeets get cancer?
Can you name one straight couple who got divorced because a gay couple got married?
Marriage is a commitment between two people who love each other and for whatever personal reasons, want to make their commitment a real, tangible part of the community. And if that’s what they want, then I can’t think of any reason not to let them do it.
Oh, and the same goes for polygamous people. What’s so horrifying about a man having two wives? It’s been common practice for most of the history of the world. Even the patriarchs of Israel were polygamists! The god of the Bible condones it! (Please, have the decency not to equate forced polygamy with consensual. That’s just dishonest.)
Marriage and Non-Belief
I think celebration of marriage has a special place for non-believers. A lot of critics of atheism have bemoaned the lack of social functions and social bonding in the “atheist life.” You know, no Christmas, no Easter, no Sunday School every week. Marriage is a powerful and ancient way for communities to come together and become closer knit. It is a way to celebrate life and love. We should have weddings, and house-warming parties, and baby showers, and ten year anniversary parties. When two people have managed to overcome all the obstacles to marriage, we should celebrate with them. It’s good for the couple, good for the family, and good for the community in general.