"If I'm not married by the time I'm 30, shoot me." -- a high school classmate
"If I ever want to get married, shoot me." -- a different high school classmate
People's ideas and sentiments about marriage are many and varied. Hell, even limiting the people in consideration to myself... my ideas and sentiments about marriage are many and varied. And complicated. Totally complicated. In fact, I might even go so far as to say... my thoughts on the subject of marriage are a total mess.
Of course, I can't talk about marriage as a theory without getting mixed up in marriage as a practice, and the big question: Do I want to get married? And, naturally, the theory informs the practice.
There's a lot to be said for marriage, on a case-by-case basis, when done right. My parents are a good example of this, and if I do decide that marriage is the right choice for me, it will be thanks in no small part to their example. On the other hand, a lot of folks in my peer group have gotten married and created models that I'd prefer not to follow quite so much, for a variety of reasons. Some of them have marriages that work for them, and that's great, but that don't appeal to me, and some of them clearly don't work, even for the folks involved. On the bright side, I do think it's useful to have counter examples to help clarify my thinking... :)
In our society, marriage covers a couple different ideas, broadly falling into two categories: ideologic and economic. In some ways, that's rather unfortunate, because it means that people's ideas about How The World Should Work (ideology) get in the way of some groups achieving economic equality (ie, same sex marriage). It also means that we get confused talking about the various aspects of marriage, and what we might want to get out of the experience. Especially in the US, where we separate "church and state", the dual nature of marriage is complicated by having a foot in each realm.
On the one hand, there's a lot to be said for a quick and easy system wherein an individual can designate someone else, not related by blood (or adoption) to be his or her "legal partner": ie, to be that person's default heir, to have power of attorney should that person become incapacitated, etc. These benefits have nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with legal and economic rights. I strongly feel that everyone should have access to these (and other) rights with a chosen partner, and not necessarily in the context of marriage. I like the current idea of "domestic partnership", not as a replacement for marriage, but as an additional option. I'd like to be able to designate a domestic partner (or maybe even more than one!) who's of the opposite sex as well as of the same sex.
Of course, marriage started out, in most cultures, as a form of economic exchange. The tradition of exchanging a bridegift is a demonstration of that. I had a teacher in high school who "bought" his wife from her family for two water buffalo. This shows the bare-bones economics of early and "primitive" (though I'll admit to disliking that word, especially in this context) marriages. It's very much a demonstration of "woman as currency" in many cultures, including our own. And, as you might imagine, that's one of my objections to marriage. And I know a lot of people would (and do) argue that what's past is past and that marriage doesn't mean the same thing anymore, so what's the big deal? But in my view, the past does inform the present, so it's a factor.
Beyond the economic (but related) are a lot of icky cultural factors. Like the bride promising to "love, honor, and obey" her groom. Or the etymology of the vocabulary ("wife" and "bride" both mean "woman", while "husband" and "groom" mean "master"). Or the idea that the husband is the head of the household... All of these are things that are problematic not just within the context of marriage, but also in the context of general, every-day society, but I find them complicated by marriage, because marriage is, to me, a form of possession. (I would also argue this to be the case in any r'ship, friendship or more, simply differing by degree and cultural expectation.)
(An amusing side-note: I have a boss who's a fairly strong feminist, and she tells me that she had a lot of objections to marriage on similar social and historical grounds... she did end up getting married, and is glad she did, but apparently she had a hard time with the vocabulary at first -- didn't use "wife" and "husband". When I met her husband, he introduced himself this way: "I'm Sid, Martha's... [pause] ... person." I loved that :)
Because of marriage's sordid past, I definitely tend to lean away from it. I do like the idea of having a life partner(s), someone(s) I love, and with whom I want to share the experiences I have today, tomorrow, and well into the future. And, yes, I will admit that the public nature of marriage -- its statement to the general public and the world at large that "this is a person whom I love, and plan to share my life" -- is a factor. Otherwise, much of this discussion would be moot, and I could simply settle down with my chosen and let the rest of the world make its own assumptions. Marriage is not just about the two people in the partnership, even if we might like it to be. It is definitely a social institution.
Finally, I have some objections to the religious basis of marriage, especially in our oh-so-xian United States. I'd like to leave god out of it, thank you. Though I do think spirituality has its place in such a committment, I have yet to find an organized religion that does it for me.
For all of these reasons... I think that mostly, I like the idea of a committment ceremony, and I'd like to be able to designate the legal and economic benefits of marriage on myself and my future partner or partners, but I would prefer to create something new for the person or people I love, and our partnership. Something flexible and lasting. Like the ideal of marriage that many envision, but few find.
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