Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Goldfish Treatise on Marriage #1

I've been wanting to write about this for ages, but now realise it has to come in two halves. The first is, unfortunately, where I rip up marriage as it is for a lot of people. In order for this to be a readable length, I'm going to make some generalisations about a subject which people tend to get a bit emotional about. I'm sure I'm not talking about you.

There is no way to increase the numbers getting married and decrease the number of people getting divorced without backtracking on sexual equality. The principle reason there were more marriages and less divorces in the 1950s are mostly to do with the facts that it was made very difficult for women to cope practically, financially and socially without men, particularly if they had children. Women felt compelled to marry if they wanted children and many felt unable to leave when things well and truly fell apart.

The trouble with marriage is that, even in this secular society, it carries an almost supernatural reverence. People see it as magic. People insist that it is good for us, good for children, good for society as a whole. Meanwhile, the wedding ceremony, whether or not the participants are religious, carries a great deal of hocus pocus; white dresses, gold rings, Abra Kadabra words. And we imagine that it has always been exactly what it is, even though we're kidding ourselves to imagine it is only one thing to everyone who enters into it, let alone everyone who has ever entered into it. But as long as that magic remains, frankly, we're going to keep messing it up.

Marriage or an equivalent civil contract is necessary for one reason; it defines an important next-of-kin relationship within the law. It defines families and as such, it protects those family members in the event of anything going wrong. The main disasters being relationship break-down, serious illness (i.e. where one person has to make decisions for another) and death. It is a useful piece of paper. Even I've got one!

But is it good for anyone? Is it better than having the same domestic arrangements without the paperwork? And is there any reason to discourage people – or disapprove at all - when they feel they want to bring this contract to a close?

The statistics suggest that marriage is good for us, but only if you read marriage or lack thereof as the cause of everything. There is a relationship between marriage and economic wealth but this is more likely to be explained by the fact that whilst it only costs about a hundred quid to get married, the hocus pocus element which most people still deem necessary costs an average of £16K. As far as I can see, this and the relationship-stress associated with unemployment and poverty, are the only explanations for a connection.

Similarly cohabiting partnerships appear more unstable, but that is because most cohabitating couples either break up or get married. There is little data about committed partners who have a conscientious objection to marriage. And then there is the anxiety about single parenthood, but single parents have one income rather than two, most of them are women and women continue to earn markedly less than men. It is therefore maths, rather than morals, which disadvantage single parents.

Right so, let's tear this apart.

Culturally, marriage is not about children, but about women. In it's most inequitable manifestation, marriage is the ownership of women; this woman is mine, her womb is mine, she will work for me and have sex with me and any offspring that come out of her womb are mine. Very often women were bought (the dowry systems we're most familiar with now are those in which a bride's family pays the groom; was not ever thus). Naturally women were provided for, but not necessarily any better than any other slave.

Fortunately, that's the extreme end - I've already stated that I do think there is a necessity for something like this contract as far as the security of couples and families are concerned.

However culturally, marriage remains about women. Men are supposed to initiate relationships, to seduce us and get us into bed, but women are supposed to do all the work from there on in. Women are supposed to persuade the man to commit. Women, we are taught, are a monogamous bunch who wish to settle down and have babies at the earliest opportunity. Men, we are taught, are a promiscuous bunch who have no interest in settling down or babies; they must therefore be cajoled.

I'm not saying men are not passionate about the women they love, but our culture belittles the passions of heterosexual men, relegating it to lust.

The traditional wedding is a fantastic manifestation of the traditional inequalities in marriage. Women do all the work; the bride must organise everything, the venue, the decoration, the itinerary, she must appease family members when the political conflicts arise over the seating plan. In many cases, the bride even chooses what the groom is going to wear. And all this for her big day, the happiest day of her life etc., etc.. Meanwhile, the groom is obliged to make a big show of reluctance, stage parties and so on, and turn up to perform his brief role in proceedings somewhat hungover. He gets to speak, of course; whilst the women did all the work, it is the men who get to make the speeches.

It's a horrible caricature, but you have attended this wedding, haven't you? You bought them the hideous vase with the turquoise flowers on, remember?

Women are expected to do the bulk of the work involved in the marriage. This is not to say women are expected to work harder than men in general, but girls are still brought up to be wives and mothers; these roles revolve around the other. Boys are brought up to be men, which is a markedly different role and at times a very difficult one, but it is principally about the fulfillment of the self. So women make most of the domestic decisions, do most of the housework regardless of their own employment status and study magazine articles and self-help books about how to be a good wife, how to keep him happy and faithful and so on.

But of course, no partnership works without teamwork. It is not that two people cannot get on if they are performing very different roles in terms of the practical tasks necessary for survival. But there must be an equal investment in the team. Our culture promotes a situation where women have an irrational level of investment. Which brings me to the crux of the matter:

For many women, there remains a reliance on marriage for personal happiness.

Thus, many women are unhappy. Married women are more vulnerable to clinical depression than unmarried women (the reverse is true in men). And three quarters of all divorce proceedings are initiated by women. It's not a piece of paper that does this. Nor do I believe it is because men are an inadequate bunch who don't love their wives or try to make them happy.

The problem is a culture which holds up a legal contract as a supernatural rite.


SallySunshine said...

Great Essay, Goldfish!

I came your way via Sage's site.

The funny thing about marriage is women are told through media and other avenues that we should be desperate to "make our guy commit" ect.. but in reality, it's men who are benefiting from it. Odd, indeed. I've searched the internet and bookstores for sites about women who are anti-marriage, their psychology and what not. Yet, all I can find are sites/books about men who are afraid to commit! Go figure!

I've written a couple of posts about my distaste for marriage...


Cheers! ~Sally Sunshine

Elizabeth McClung said...

I guess it won't help to suggest gay marriages for everyone as 1) they're cheaper since most relatives won't show up and 2) they can be as small as you want them to be and 3) They start your very first big traditional fights so if you make it to the ceremony you have already made some sort of commitment.

Mary said...

As one who has already been married and divorced once, I'm very much looking forward to the second part of this.

My current two penn'orth is that, culturally, humans are rather fond of rites and celebrations for this and that and the other. Birth. Burial. Coming of age. Housewarming parties. Killing your first bison. Whatever. I'm not convinced that such rites are an entirely bad thing.

Anonymous said...

damn, I knew there was something I'd forgotten when I trod on that bison this week. I'd best go and get the ceremonial headdress down from the loft...

obviously, this post made me reflect a little on marriage and wedding days (although I've been doing that somewhat anyway), but I hadn't particularly realised that it was that unusual for me to co-plan the wedding with my wife, choosing the venue together, the menu together, the vows together, choosing one reading each, choosing who was sitting where, writing out wedding cards and so on. Together, together, together. She obviously chose the brides and bridesmaids outfits, but I chose the groom/best man/usher ones. I guess the only thing specifically 'ours' that was solely 'hers' was choosing the flowers: but I thought I'd better let her have something - after all, I was the one who had wanted the big wedding in the first place (she would have been happy to do the 'going away on holiday marriage'.

Oh, and my wife made a speech too (father of the bride, groom, best man, little break, bride) - although I admit I was aware that that was unusual.

But then again, it's probably not that common for men to wear an engagement ring either, is it? And we both had one of them as well (although mine isn't at all girly in case you're wondering)

But then I guess we'd always assumed we were in it together: does that make us liberated modern people, or both just strong minded individuals with our own wills who are still capable of compromise?

BloggingMone said...

Very interesting post and in principle I agree to everything you have said. I have indeed been to weddings very much like the one you have described. But just to let you know that there is hope:
When my husband and I got married we had to agree about our future name(s). We decided in favour of having the same name instead of keeping our maiden names (is it "maiden name" for a man as well??!) We put both of our names in a cup and threw dices to find out who was the one to pick our name. It was me and I picked my husbands name. We felt that was very democratic.
In Germany we have a registered marriage and and optional church wedding. We decided in favour of having both for the simple reason that at the register no one could be bothered to ask us if we really love each other and are ready to stand in for each other, come what may. That's what they do at church.
I was not led to the altar by my father as I refused to be handed over by my dad to my husband. I got married at the age of 33 and already had successfully mastered living on my own for years and years. Pretending that my dad has been taken care of me and now expected my husband to do the same would just have been rediculous. We as a couple walked down the aisle together.
My husband and I both held a speech at our reception. He was speaking, I was doing it in sign language. None of us had a hangover, but both of us had cought a terrible cold.
No fixed seating, except for the family table. Everyone sat down where they could find an empty chair. No quarrels!
And it wasn't just us trying to be different. Most of my friends got married in avery similar way.

Looking foreward to part II of that post!

fluttertongue said...

I'm having an ongoing discussion with my boyfriend about marriage: he is all in favour - I happen to know of 0 marriages that are happy or fulfilling to either party. This is because feminism has evolved and marriage has not. Traditional women's roles are not valued by either men or women and yet they still have to be performed and are in fact the very glue of the coninutation of the species: we happily give our chilren away to poorly paid nannies while we make a vast amount of money for a multinational corperation. Funnily enough I know a lot of men who are desperate to be fathers yet not a lot of women who are desperate to be mothers or to be married.
What cheers me is that people were queueing up to be married when gay marriages became legal. Perhaps if the right to marriage was taken away we'd have a rethink about its values.

Sage said...

On Fluttertongue's comment above, my parent's relationship ruined me, not because they divorced, but because it was a beautifully fulfilling relationship for both of them. It was too perfect to copy.

And what always really interests me about cultural brainwashing, is the people who seem to avoid it completely. How do they do that? I'm able to do it in several arenas, but I do get caught up in the stereotypical relationship dynamic despite my upbringing.

And what happened with my dad? He and my mom did everything equally around the house and outside of it too. He was brave enough to marry a woman getting a PhD in physics in the 1950s. Where do people get that willingness to ignore convention? And, more importantly, can it be taught to my guy and kids who are all outstandingly conservative and traditional?

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone. I hope I'm going to cover most of the points raised here in the second post. :-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Just an observation on the subject of gay "marrigaes" ..ok, ok, I know its "civil partnership". My female partner and I have been together happily for 17 years & have 3 children. Since the introduction of the civil partnership, nearly everyone we know (including our families) have been mithering us about when we are going to do it. So, now feeling the pressure many heerosexuals have felt for years. But still very unsure.
Eagerly awaiting your nex post, Golfish.

Anonymous said...

Continuting from my comment above...just another two pennorthworth.... Before the Civil Partnership came about, we used to decline to go to any weddings as a point of principal (why should we attend a legal ceremony when the law refused to recognise our partnership). It is quite sad that it led to us losing a number of friends because of this(tho we saved a fortune on wedding presents). or else they were just shifty and embarrassed about it.

Mary said...

Sage, I don't think there's anything shameful in doing "traditional" things and fitting the norm, as long as you do it because it's what you want to do rather than because you feel you should do it.

Just because man + woman + a couple of kids is a "stereotypical" family unit, that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

You shouldn't feel obliged to fit in the box, but by the same token you shouldn't feel obliged to push the boundaries.