How Marriage Became More Meaningful
There's a certain type of social conservative who enthuses about marriage, but worries that it isn't what it used to be, weakened by decades of social change and legal reform. To me, this is counter to everything I feel and observe about marriage. As an institution, I believe that marriage is getting stronger and stronger.
Things that have made marriage stronger and more meaningful include:
1. The ease of divorce means that folks are less likely to stay together in unhappy, loveless or abusive marriages because they can't get out of it. Divorce is not easy. In court fees alone, with no legal advice, the least complicated divorce costs a little under £400 and will take about six months - marriage costs a little over £100 and can be carried out within 16 days. Divorce law is complicated, so if you're not on excellent terms, if there's money, property or children involved, the whole thing gets extremely difficult and costly. But it's doable and it's (largely) socially acceptable.
Marriage had to be far less meaningful when it was more commonplace for people who were unhappy together to be married. Where divorce was inaccessible, it wasn't uncommon for people to move on and start new relationships, have new lives and families whilst still being legally married to someone else because of the shame, cost and complication of divorce - the legalisation of divorce in the UK was brought about by a moral panic about people living in sin because they had separated from spouses, started again with new partners, but had no option to remarry.
Marriage could be made stronger by... no fault divorces. In England and Wales, a couple may divorce on the grounds of separation after two years apart, but to get divorced any quicker, it has to be somebody's fault. I have known amicably splitting couples lie about adultery in order to speed things up. The only bar to no fault divorces is the idea that two adults, in the absence of adultery or ill treatment, might not know their own minds about the end of a relationship.
2. The social acceptability of cohabitation. The option of cohabitation means that most people know what they're getting into before they make a permanent commitment, folks can freely experiment with living arrangements and fewer people rush into marriage just because they're madly in love and need a social licence to spend all their time together for however long the passion is burning - even if it fizzles out within a few months. Meanwhile, couples who feel that marriage is not for them for whatever reason are no longer obliged to choose between biting the bullet of social convention or else meeting with stigma and discrimination.
My mother often described the anti-climax of the first months of my parents' marriage. During those first few months - a particularly cold winter - they had to discover what it was to live independently from parents and what it was to live with one another, all of which would have been cool except that they'd had to promise forever before they got to experiment, negotiate and learn about themselves and how to get along. So they felt under tremendous pressure.
I reckon the acceptability of cohabitation has made things better even for people who don't cohabit before marriage, usually for religious reasons, because they seem to have learnt so much from the rest of us. In my parents' day, few people lived together before marriage, but there was no discussion about it either, you got married and worked it all out as you went along. These days, folks who want to jump into the deep end on their wedding day are encouraged to have thorough discussions about how they're going to organise themselves in everything from finances to sex. And that's a good thing.
Marriage could be made stronger by... allowing some legal contract, other than marriage for people to become one another's next of kin. This would benefit lots of people who are not married, whether they are living with a romantic partner, a friend, a sibling or if they are estranged from their official family (or don't have one) and want to nominate someone else to make decisions for them in an emergency, automatically inherit from them and so forth.
3. The (gradual) demise of the nuclear family as the ideal living arrangement. So much focus of the resistance to marriage reform comes from the idea that the nuclear family is a great ideal. It's not. It was a short-lived middle class notion; working class people, who have nothing much to pass on and can't necessarily afford to move out of parental home or pay outsiders for childcare and other help, have always had a far more flexible attitude towards family. It's partly to do with blood, but also geography, history, circumstance, as well as love. Your uncles and aunts are not necessarily your parents' siblings. Step families prosper with less emphasis on biological relationships. Of course, poor people have poorer outcomes in education, health, employment and pretty much everything else. But they have tended to have a pragmatic attitude towards family; family are simply the people around you.
The nuclear family places the sole responsibility for children on two parents. It shuffles the rest of the family completely out of the way. If people don't marry or don't have children, they are not part of the club, a club which is isolating for those both within and without it. It depends on everyone having enough money to live such an isolated life, which of course, fewer and fewer folk do.
I'm not about to celebrate the economic downturn or in particular, an economic shift which falls disproportionately on younger adults, who simply won't have the same opportunities as their parents. But it has forced us to be more flexible. Multi-generational households are suddenly much more common. People live in houseshares which become familial (not all are like that, but some are). Middle class people now speak of their "chosen family", which is what a lot of working class people would simply describe as "family".
All this makes marriage stronger, because it makes marriage supported and supportive to others. Couples do not need to sail out alone in the world and hope to sustain each other. When someone joins a family (formally or not), they become important to several people, not merely a partner for one individual.
I'm not sure I've explained this at all well, but never mind.
Marriage could be made stronger by... a cultural shift away from the idea that happy people come in units of two and single people are fundamentally alone in life. We drastically undervalue other relationships, friendship most of all. Romantic love is a truly wonderful thing, but it isn't radically distinct from other kinds of love, and love is what really matters. Happy people are people who have love in their lives, and that can come in many different forms.
4. Increasing Sexual Equality.
People have argued a lot about the origins of marriage in human society and what marriage is naturally about. Clearly, nature is not a part of this; marriage is something people invented. Fundamentally they invented it to organise and celebrate pair bonding and I'm sure in many cases, especially among ruling classes, property or children (principally, which woman bore which man's children) were a priority. But most people in the history of the world didn't have a lot of individual property and childcare tended to get shared out in the most convenient way within a community. Marriage exists because people have always partnered off - not everyone, and it's not our only sexual strategy but it is something humans do. And since this is a fairly big deal in people's lives - like being born, becoming an adult or losing a loved one - people have tended to celebrate it and use the language of permanent change.
There are some folks who think that marriage is about men and women, because man is one kind of animal and woman is quite another and somehow, despite massive differences in comprehension, ability and desire, they somehow work well together (if they buy the right self-help books and listen to the right kind of religious leaders or relationship gurus - otherwise, the whole thing is hopeless).
But the truth is that private relationships between men and women can be condemned by a society where such expectations exist, where men and women don't have the same freedoms and opportunities. This isn't to say that there's an ideal feminist marriage in which both partners play exactly the same roles in every context which, if only we all subscribed to, we'd be sorted. But the more freedom - legal, financial and social - that both parties have, the more likely they are to negotiate and discover an arrangement that suits them. The less likely they are to believe that they can't really talk to each other about their needs, because people of their partner's gender are incapable of understanding. The less likely there is to be violence or abuse on either side.
Marriage could be made stronger by.... a cultural shift away from the idea of marriage or relationships as a goal and overarching source of fulfillment for women. As it is, this places tremendous pressure on women to find a partner, exact commitment from them and then, single-handedly, manage the inevitably two-person job of a happy and healthy relationship. Women can stay in miserable relationships because they hold themselves responsible and fear being alone. Women can feel miserable about good relationships because their lives are unsatisfactory and they believed that marriage was supposed to fulfill them. Having a partner in life is not the same as a partner being a life.
Basically, marriage would be so much more meaningful in an egalitarian universe. On which subject...
5. A growing acceptance of romantic and sexual diversity, Civil Partnerships and soon, coming to a wedding venue near you, Equal Marriage.
There was time, not all that long ago, perhaps up until the mid-eighties, when it was extremely common for exclusively gay men and women to marry straight people. Some of those marriages were mutually convenient arrangements between close friends but others, I'm sure, were absolute hell. Straight marriage got a lot more meaningful when being gay no longer necessitated complete secrecy. It got yet more meaningful when gay people began to have some options for becoming parents. These days, it is only those from extremely zealous religious backgrounds who feel the need to use straight marriage as a closet.
Equal marriage will mean that marriage is no longer even slightly about being straight. A marriage certificate will no longer be a certificate to say that your relationship is valid and superior to other relationships between people with the same strength of feeling and commitment towards one another.
If your a woman who finds a man you want to spend the rest of your life with, you climb up to the top of the nearest office block, church spire or silo and cry out "We're in love!". You don't cry, "We're so straight!" or as some Tory MPs seemed to think you might, "It would be typical for two people of our respective genders to have baby-making potential for at least the earlier portion of our adult lives, regardless of whether we're still young enough, each have the necessary equipment and chemical capacity or indeed, the slightest desire to have children! Hooray!" (People on the ground could never comprehend such a long sentence).
Marriage could be made stronger by... ditching the gender binary in legal language around marriage (Why? Why on Earth is it still there now?) and trans folk who had their marriages dissolved as part of the gender recognition process, getting to have their marriages back (here's the tabled amendment).
My marriage will mean so much more to me because I could marry anyone. It removes the element of straight privilege that only belongs to me by a double coincidence. It makes me part of something which is now so much more inclusive. This is not the be all and end all of queer rights (not nearly) and marriage is by no means a perfect institution. But in the last few weeks, the world has become a slightly better place.