In which I put marriage back together again - kind of. I realised that I actually had even more to say about this than I thought, but I'll try narrow it down to the basics.
The secret of solving the problems we have with marriage - as a society and as individuals - is to learn that there is no perfect formula. Ha! No really, this may sound blindingly obvious, but it would appear not. Lots of people have unhappy marriages because they try to recreate a cultural architype, or perhaps the marriage their parents had (oddly, people seem to do this whether or not their parents were happy together). Meanwhile, social commentators, politicians and ordinary people lament the state of marriage in society, because of a fixed idea of what marriage is and how we should all feel about it.
The reality is that any two people who embark on a long-term live-in loving relationship are embarking on a grand experiment with social consequences far beyond their own personal happiness. And yet it is something that most of us want to have a go at.
This concept makes people feel very uncomfortable since by definition, experiments have uncertain outcomes. Well yes, unfortunately this is the case. You may love each other, but you don't know whether you can live together or for how long, or how happily. You are yet to work out the happiest division of labour, you are yet to overcome the crises you shall face - which you don't even know about yet - and you are yet to see how you both develop as individuals as the years go by.
There is nothing you can do to avoid the experimental nature of a marriage. You can try to learn from the good and bad examples of others, but you are still two unique individuals, responsible for your own actions and yet, alas, not in complete control of outcome.
So how better to equip individuals and society for such an experiment? I may need some subheadings...
The forever business
Given the uncertain outcome, til death do us part is a problem. It may be reasonable to state as a sincere intention, but it is an impossible thing to promise in all confidence.
People complain that since divorce became socially and practically easier, people have lost their sticking power. This is not borne out by the facts; very few divorces take place within the first five years of marriage and when they do, it is usually because something has gone very wrong - or indeed, the whole thing was a big mistake. But people make mistakes. And things do go wrong. Always did, always will and we are far better coming to terms with this once and for all.
I would also say that the absence of forever can be good for people; it means people might be more conscious and therefore more conscientious about their own ongoing decision-making. I feel my choice makes me work harder. However exasperated I might get at times, I don't resent my lover, I don't resent anything about our life together because I choose it. It is not merely that I chose it, once, when I said "I do", I choose it now, today, and every day.
It is a little like being a mature student. If you go off to university with your peers at eighteen, and especially if it is not too painful financially, then you can take the whole thing for granted, barely register this path as one you've chosen and find the education bit a total bore. If you have had to come out of work, given up a regular income and then tried to get your brain back into learning mode, you have to know the value of the thing. You are less likely to waste time, miss lectures or dawdle around deadlines because you are ever conscious of the choice you're making and why.
Similarly, marriage. If you feel chained to a thing, you're unlikely to embrace it. We are not chained together, none of us, so we ought not to behave as if we are. People enter freely into relationships and those relationships are only ever of any real value if people know they are free to go. We need to accept that happy ever after is an ongoing project.
The business of Church, State and superstition.
Committed gay couples have historically been forced to conduct their relationships in an experimental fashion. No cultural architypes, no specific role assigned to either party. Not a particularly fair experiment, since you've got all manner of pressures associated with a homophobic society, sometimes estrangement from family and with such relationships being unrecognised in law. However, the fact that any of those couples stuck together for decades under those conditions suggests that here are some relationship models from which the rest of us have something to learn.
And yet, when we finally decided that okay, so there ought not to be an legal difference according to whether the person you love has an an inny or an outy in the pants department, we couldn't call these unions marriage. That word, which in law has nothing to do with religious concepts, is surrounded by superstition and using it for same-sex couples - even this entirely secular, legal contract - would have invited an enormous backlash.
Unfortunately, in the UK, we haven't fully extricated marriage from religion. In some other European countries - including Germany, as Bloggingmone mentioned - you have to go through a civil ceremony and the religious rite (of whatever variety) is an optional extra. This seems so much better to me.
This is not an anti-religious argument, only marriage within religion is quite different, varies from religion to religion and the promises a person makes in church are quite different from those promises which are legally binding. It is totally cool that people make and keep those promises if they wish, but I feel we could have far more sensible conversations about marriage if we were all talking about the same basic thing - and the thing that all married people and those in Civil Partnerships have in common is the civil law. And yeah, I do think we should use the same word for everyone, even if that means giving up the word marriage to those who are most precious about it.
The business of gender and "traditional" roles.
It's not that women are taught to rely on other people for their happiness, but to a large extent, we are taught that our actions only bring us happiness through other people. As wives and mothers, as caring daughters. When you think about those subjects held up as women's interests, they are all about the other; beauty and fashion so that you look beautiful for other people, cooking and domestic stuff so you can look after other people, celebrity gossip so you can talk about the lives of other people. Even women's health is a matter of responsibility; whereas it is to some degree acceptable for a man to throw caution to the wind, a woman must look after herself for the sake of all the other people she has to look after.
It is not that caring and nurturing roles cannot bring great fulfillment, nor is this about a specific role such as housewife or stay at home mother or any such thing – those roles are only problematic as an obligation; as a freely made choice, they are just as valid as any other. It's the idea of these things as fixed which is a problem. Whilst men are invited to see a spouse as someone who will support them in their endeavours, women are invited to see a spouse as an endeavour. And unless that spouse can plaster a permanent smile on his face, remain in tip top health and live forever, never have a cross word and be always telling her how fabulous she is, he will never ever be enough.
For this reason, we need to dump the idea that marriage - or even romantic love - is a necessarily condition for the happiness of women. We need to keep teaching girls about paths to self-fulfillment (and no, mere material wealth won't do either). This would make it better for everyone, including heterosexual men; I daresay some men wish to marry doormats (or indeed, other items of soft furnishings, fixtures and fittings - I had an uncle marry an architrave a few years back), but in general, human beings fall in love with other human being - each of us being reasonably complex and interesting in our own right.
The business of children
So much of the social outcry about marriage or lack thereof is about the potential effects of our relationships on children. Bad news here, I'm afraid: bringing up a child is also an experiment.
This is probably even more difficult to accept, but even as someone childless by choice, I can see we have a really bad attitude towards children in this culture. It is a ludicrous idea to imagine that a brand new developing human being can be the sole responsibility of just one or two other human beings; the nuclear family is a flash in the pan in terms of social and cultural history. But the awful reality is that in this culture, we generally consider any given child to be the responsibility of just one person; the biological mother. And since we don't like children or the way they behave, we don't think they're doing a very good job.
Mothers in the UK news, during the past week;
Babies at risk as mothers drink on
Why working mothers have fatter children
The truth about gymslip mothers
Yummy mummy 'babies at risk'
And news about fathers?
Mothers protecting their children should not have to defy the courts (i.e. about abusive fathers and their access rights to children).
In fact, the only time that fathers are spoken about in the news or in conversation is almost always when they are not living with their children; absent fathers or those fathers fighting for access. Fathers who are in a happy relationship with the mother, or the other father in the case of gay parents, let alone fathers as sole cargivers, are very rarely written about at all. What are their responsibilities? What do they get right or wrong? How does their age, diet or work patterns effect the health and wellbeing of their children?
In reality of course, apart from issues concerning pregnancy and breast-milk, men have just the same potential to influence the health and welfare of a child they are living with. We tend to relegate this subject to vague aspersions about the need for a male role model. But that's hardly going to be a helpful thing if we continue to assume the male role to be one so very distanced in responsibility for or interest in children and family. And like I said in my first post on marriage, our culture belittles the passions of heterosexual men, relegating them to lust - and thus we feel rather uncomfortable about men who love children who they're not related to. As a woman it is fine for me to be involved in the lives - and express my love for - children who are not my own. We need to make it fine for men too, not just for balance, but to maximise the number of role models available to each child. There are other ways of keeping children as safe as possible without denying them developmental opportunities.
In the meantime we must all take some responsibility for children in our society and around us and we all have a role in supporting the parents we know, within marriage or outside of it, whether a child has one or two primary caregivers. Right now there seems a tendency to wash our hands of children who are not our own and then blame the mothers when they're not all little angels.
Now, I'm sure I haven't covered everything, but this is way too long as it is. Congratulations to anyone who got down this far!