Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Goldfish Treatise on Marriage #2

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!


Anonymous said...

Some very good points, especially about society putting the main burden of caring onto individuals, and not doing enough to help.

It's hard to be helped by people we don't know, so maybe society is too big and impersonal; smaller and closer communities would be a boon. The legal situation doesn't help either - there's the fear you'll put a foot wrong and someone will sue you.

A while back I mentioned on my blog a book I was reading - 'Red Rowans and Wild Honey' by Betsy Whyte. (It's a sequel but I've not found the other book). She wrote of the lives of Scottish travellers, and about how they took care of each other, and kept a kind of 'community' eye on kids (though a child would still be the mother's responsibility). There was also something there about step parents, or rather not having them - but that's another story. :-).

Elizabeth McClung said...

I liked your comparison with adult learners and committed relationships. My partner and I never fought for eight years, not because we had no issues but because we felt we had promised for eternity, that it essentially was grin and bear it. Only when we started telling the genuine painful truths to each other, and looked full in the face of spliting up or deciding we wanted to be together right now, because of how we felt right now (not what we promised X years ago). Then, like adult learners we took ownership of our own relationship, we were invested in it, we argue because we WANT to have an open relationship that works and if someone is getting hurt or isn't getting listen to then we need to find out how to fix that.

As for children I think it is a western tragedy that men who are genuinely supportive and like to help with children and viewed with suspecion (primarily because of the acceptence of sexual abuse or incest as a cultural norm) - Most primary school male teachers quit, and I know one who was sent to prison for being a pedophile for six months when a gay six grader decided it was easier to say his teacher gave him the gay mags than he got them himself (the teacher was later cleared, though how you 'clear' someone of living as a pedophile in a prison for 6 months I don't know - he quit teacher therafter).

Girl Anachronism said...


As someone who has had two failed marriages, I think the institution needs a way closer look and more customization. People change, needs change and not all relationships can make those shifts in time.

Mary said...

Personally I need something in the middle.

I don't want to be looking at a long-term relationship as a life sentence with no escape and no get-out clause no matter what happens. Having a partner who's only around because they feel obligated wouldn't be much fun.

But, by the same token, I want it to be something I can rely on - I want a certain level of commitment and I want to know it won't be shrugged off lightly. When the inevitable problems happen during the course of life, I want to feel certain that my partner won't go "eek! I'm off!" and instantly vanish into the sunset.

"Experiment" is too, too right :)

BloggingMone said...

Again, very interesting! Just something about the "marriage" of gay and lesbian couples: In Germany it is called Registered Partnership officially. Much to the annoyance of especially the churches, people do not seem to care. Even my mother said that she had observed two men comming out of the town hall, who obviously had got "married". Gay and lesbian people talk about how they got married and refer to their husband or wife without anyone frowning because they have used the wrong term for their kind partnership. The best one was when a big German newspaper, which in general is quite conservative, wrote that Sir Elton John and his partner "got married in a registered partnership", which is a very strange way to put it, but obviously even they did not feel they could avoid the word marriage.
It is not that Germany is a country in which homosexual relationships are considered normal by everyone - we are far from that. But for some reason the word marriage in this context seems to be acceptable even to those, who are much opposed to it. I have also heard people saying that "it's a shame that these people are allowed to get married!"

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone.

Diddums - I think society can help in two ways. One is that if the whole lot of us accepted this stuff, marriage and children wouldn't be nearly such great political footballs as they are.

The second thing is to do with close communities; helping to support one's friends, family and neighbours where possible and appropriate. Other cultures - including travelling communities - arguably manage this much better than we do.

Elizabeth - I'm glad you two are stronger now; it's all a great learning process. And yes, it is a great shame about men and the way we look at them - perhaps it is that we consider sexual abuse normal. Yeah. Which is a great great tragedy for all of us.

Girl Anachronism - thanks for dropping by. :-)

Mary - this is it, exactly. Ultimately, you can't stop a person vanishing in a puff of smoke, but marriage does provide some legal protection, some damage-limitations, for if that happens.

Bloggingmone - our media has behaved in a similar manner, talking about "gay weddings". Although when Civil Partnership came into being in December 2005, I remember seeing a cartoon which implied that there might be some confusion between these ceremonies and Santa's Grotto - very kitsch and camp and over the top. Instead, most couples seem to be doing it very quietly with little fuss.