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musings on marriage
nola
evcelt
moiramisu said something in her LJ that got me thinking:

...how life changing is marriage really? Why do some people fear it so much? There are a million answers to this of course. But specifically, if two people are in a commited relationship for a number of years, and living together, in many ways they're *already* married IMHO. The ceremony and legal paperwork change some things, sure, but in such a circumstance far less than people seem to fear, I think.

There is a great deal of legal, cultural and spiritual meaning behind marriage*. It's something that has a great deal of contextual force- something we've been immersed in from childhood as being an important life step, a change from one state of being to another. Even if you don't believe in the spiritual/religious side of things, you can't deny the cultural weight of such a step. Even doing a quick JP ceremony has a lot of psychological impact.

Not to mention that (legally if nothing else) it's easier to enter into marriage than to leave it... although divorce carries less of the stigma that it used to (almost none in some subcultures), all of us have been exposed to cultural stereotypes of the past that generally held a negative view of it. And the idea of marriage as part of the "American Dream/Nuclear Family" had a lot of cultural energy poured into it... even if one doesn't buy into it, it's still kicking around the collective and individual subconscious.

Also, it may not change anything about the relationship itself, but it is a formal commitment to that relationship. There's no more denial possible- no more "oh, we're just living together, it's nothing serious" (even if the couple in question has been living together for years, sharing possessions and possibly even a mortgage). You're acknowledging before your friends and family that this is serious, something that you are going to work on and maintain for a long time. You are making promises, promises that people hear- ones that can be verified by reference to the ceremony, ones that (hopefully ) have been considered carefully.

And then let's consider the religious angle. If the couple in question are religious, then there is a whole added component to it. From the traditional "Religion of the Book" POV, marriage is a very serious thing indeed- a natural part of life if not actually something which one needed to do in order to be devout. And no matter what the modern views of some of the sects of these faiths, divorce in many of them was originally either something you never did, or it was hedged about with many restrictions.

From a more "Aquarian" (Pagan/New Age/UU/nontrad) POV, at the very least you are asking God/Goddess/the Gods/Spirit/etc. to pay attention, to bear witness, to help you uphold your vows. In many ways, it's swearing an oath before the Powers- and some of them are a mite unforgiving towards oathbreakers.

Let's say there's a couple that has been monagamous with each other for let's say nearly five years, lived together for over two years, and owned a house together for one year. They get married**. Externally, they are legally slightly more tied together. They have these cool rings, some nice photos, a bunch of gifts. But their life is pretty much the same, otherwise... except that they are MARRIED. They are husband and wife.

Just words, you say? But words have power. Words shape the way we see and interact with the world and ourselves. They make up our reality.

The impact of this change is hard to quantify, hard to describe- but no less profound. It can be big, and it can be scary. It has a host of implications, some of which are very hard to predict. Uncertainty... change... commitment... add in the magnitude of cultural (and possibly spiritual) meaning, and it can be a pretty big hurdle for some.

---
* outside of Hollywood, of course
** monsteralice and I, in case you didn't guess. ;-)

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Terrific post with much insight. One of the reasons you are as good a minister as you are. :)

For the actual People of the Book, marriage is no more/less convoluted,
reststricted, whatever than divorce. We got rules for EVERYTHING! :-)
Interestingly, the only real shame about divorce is if a man lies about
his wife in order to get one (or to invalidate the marriage in the first
place), or if he refuses to give her a divorce. The first one has Toraitic
penalties. The 2nd one has some societal penalties that can make the 10
Plagues look fairly sedate (Oh, have I got stories...).

Marriage is a Legacy system...(1 of 2)

I have felt for a long time that Marriage is a legacy system. It works, it does it's job, but slowly, badly and with an increasing number of kludges and fixes necessary to keep it functional at all. It's like a VAX in a data warehouse, still chugging along through a multitude of bizzarre specially built interfaces to make it interoperable with the modern world, some of those interfaces so old they require their *own* legacy equipment to function.

Oddly I was thinking about the subject just this morning. For folks who don't feel like following the link, the New York Times has reported that 51% of American women live without a spouse. That's up from 35% in 1950.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/16/us/16census.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper&oref=slogin

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington, described the shift as “a clear tipping point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women.”

“For better or worse, women are less dependent on men or the institution of marriage,” Dr. Frey said. “Younger women understand this better, and are preparing to live longer parts of their lives alone or with nonmarried partners. For many older boomer and senior women, the institution of marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for, growing up in an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era.”


I can't say I entirely like the institution of marriage. Every element of it is an adaptation from an earlier culture. To say that it's "good" is like saying Slavery/Peasantry/Serfdom is good. Historically it's a political-military arrangement for protection that mirrors on a personal level the invariable institution of servant/leige on a social level. We're fairly clear on that, it's still a marriage "contract." The Jewish ceremony dresses up less the fact that it's a matter of property rights, obligation and protection.

We've tried to make the best of it as a society, associating it with love, making it a matter of free will. At core, I still think it's problematic.

It isn't per se that there is anything wrong with people deciding to make a long term obligation to each other. The problem is that overwhelmingly it promotes making an OVERWHELMINGLY HUGE commitment that statistically has a very good chance of ending in divorce. The chance isn't quite 50%, and has to do with the maturity of the people getting married at the age when they do:

Under 20 years old 27.6% 11.7%
20 to 24 years old 36.6% 38.8%
25 to 29 years old 16.4% 22.3%
30 to 34 years old 8.5% 11.6%
35 to 39 years old 5.1% 6.5%

Still, that's an enormous gap. Marriage is one of those things we tolerate because it's tradition.






Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...(2 of 2)

We take young people, who are generally confused by being "in love" which we know is partially a chemical reaction. Sure real abiding love may grow out of that, but it's often difficult to tell at first - how many romances turn out to be long term true love.

We tell them that sex, which is something they really want to do is really best if they do it with someone they are married to, and create a huge number of social pressures that STRONGLY predicate advantage and acceptance toward being married to one's regular sexual partner.

Then we add that this will be a presumptive lifelong commitment, and that if they ever change their mind they will have a period of considerable misery and confusion of at least a year. We add a morass of financial incentives which become a mess if the marriage splits up.

What sort of contract is that? Nobody would for a minute accept that in any other walk of life. Even the military doesn't touch it. Yet we seriously suggest that young people do this, encourage them to culturally.

Now, the fact is many people in our social group married fairly late, and lived together first, and fortunately society is a lot more tolerant of people living together.

Still I think that if financial and social incentives focused not on long term contract, but on the short term reality (are you raising one or more children? sharing a house? sharing a car?) and marriage were essentially outside the law - a choice like going to Church that had no real legal status...many fewer people would choose marriage.

In an ideal society I'd see issues of healthcare, childcare, etc. linked to specific contractual commitment, not the fiction of a lifelong commitment that statistically is not all that likely to succeed, with a smooth system for dealing with failure of commitment that works like any other element of contractual law. Given the huge body of law that we maintain for divorced people, it's unclear that there needs to be a presumption of marriage for our legal system to work. The system would work as well or better if all arrangements were considered to be of limited scope from the outset. Certainly, fathering/mothering a child would still be a commitment to raise that child to adulthood - but you might have to think about the future and present a plan rather than blithely pretending everything was going to be roses, and then going through chaos when it turned out not to be.

Of those that did marry under such a system, I have a feeling the success rate would be quite high, because the motivation would be personal and specific, not linked to societal pressure.


Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...(2 of 2)

We take young people, who are generally confused by being "in love" which we know is partially a chemical reaction. Sure real abiding love may grow out of that, but it's often difficult to tell at first - how many romances turn out to be long term true love.

We tell them that sex, which is something they really want to do is really best if they do it with someone they are married to, and create a huge number of social pressures that STRONGLY predicate advantage and acceptance toward being married to one's regular sexual partner.

Then we add that this will be a presumptive lifelong commitment, and that if they ever change their mind they will have a period of considerable misery and confusion of at least a year. We add a morass of financial incentives which become a mess if the marriage splits up.


What you mean "we", Keemo Sabe? ;-) Although my parents unsuccessfully tried to inculcate that belief system in me, monsteralice's didn't. Did yours? Regardless of that, I think that particular bit of cultural conditioning is slowly fading out- probably more prevalent in red-state areas.

I do agree with you that it's a bad deal, though.

Of those that did marry under such a system, I have a feeling the success rate would be quite high, because the motivation would be personal and specific, not linked to societal pressure.

A great deal of good could be done if marriage was made an entirely religious institution, and all of the civil/legal aspects of it were subsumed into an entirely secular concept of "civil union", which would be handle only the legal and contractual side of things. You could have a wide array of possible choices of union, much like those that were codified in the Irish Brehon Laws. At the same time, every faith in the world could define "marriage" the way they wanted to- but could only expect to have it binding on those who were members of that faith, and with no legal force behind it.

This is, of course, a rather utopian proposition, and would need a great deal of tuning to make it work- detailed definition of how the First Amendment applies, at the very least.

The things that make marriage scary- public commitment, ritual intermingling of lives, the initiatory aspects of stepping from one stage of life to another, and so on- are also what make it valuable. If you enter into it with the wrong mindset or for the wrong reasons, it will be disastrous. On the other hand, if you know what you're doing and why you're doing it, it will return you far more than you put into it. It's all a matter of intent and will.

Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...(1 of 2)

It works, it does it's job, but slowly, badly and with an increasing number of kludges and fixes necessary to keep it functional at all.

Hmm. Depends on what you mean by "functional". Certainly, the traditional Western marriage has a host of problems in that area, but I can say with a great deal of certainty that monsteralice and I have a functional marriage. I think you and sjo do, as well.

I can't say I entirely like the institution of marriage. Every element of it is an adaptation from an earlier culture. To say that it's "good" is like saying Slavery/Peasantry/Serfdom is good.

I think you're making a false analogy here.

We've tried to make the best of it as a society, associating it with love, making it a matter of free will. At core, I still think it's problematic.

I will agree that it needs a great amount of work yet, but I don't think that it means that it needs to go entirely. That's binary thinking, something that I feel is far more of a problem in this aeonal transition. In order to make the transition properly, we need to pick and choose what aspects of a given tradition or cultural institution still work, keep those and reject the rest. You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...

I will agree that it needs a great amount of work yet, but I don't think that it means that it needs to go entirely.

Just to be clear, I don't either. What I think rather is that it needs to be "privatized" like religion. Two hundred years ago, our founding fathers lived in a world where for thousands of years religion had been inextricably woven into the fabric of government. For the previous few hundred that had - like marriage - become very problematic, requiring kludgy laws and permissions because it was no longer really a very good or necessary idea.

They made a choice most of us feel was right and utterly severed the state and the church.

I think that we need to sever the legal/governmental aspect of domestic partnership and child-rearing from the institution of marriage. Meaning a move towards marriage as a partnership agreement with a system that assumes limited duration but allows for unlimited duration. So that divorce is not a special case which "breaks" the system, but rather partnerships simply come and go, and benefits etc. are handled on an ad-hoc basis. In practical terms that's the case now, but like British Chancery law in 1830, it is handled through an impractical set of kludges etc. The Government I should not already administers FEGLI benefits on this basis. FEGLI is all about a legal "designee" with no reference to any other relationship.

The state should simply have no involvement in anything other than the property elements of personal relationships, and that involvement should be limited to a set of formulary contracts designed with considerably more forethought and flexibility than most marriage contracts today (which often don't involve any sort of actual contract at *all* unless you happen to be Jewish, though they are the most important financial document you will *EVER* sign)..

I mean good GOD! Where else can you sign away half of your property (maybe or maybe not!) without even having any fine print to decide not to read.

With the "privatization" of marriage as a personal institution it could thrive or not in any given relationship without reference to our overall social structure.

However the consequence is obvious. Despite many liberties for nonconformers, the disestablishment of the Church in Britain was the real step in making nonconformers - Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. - truly "equal," not "unusual chaps who are looked down on."

Disestablishment of state-sponsored marriage would mean that alliances of every conceivable sort that could be legally put into writing would be just as "normal" as the traditional male-female marriage.

And that...in itself...would be a good thing. If you want to argue that I want to "destroy marriage" it is true, to the same extent that my Protestant and Methodist forbears wanted to "destroy religion" by breaking the monopoly of one archaic vision on what relgion should be.

Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...

"Goverment I should not" should read "Government, I should note,"

Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...

"If you want to argue..." I realize that seems a bit belligerent, seeing as how you made a quite similar point. I mean that in the philosophiical sense..."If one wishes to argue" not "you personally..."

Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...

So noted. ;-)

Re: Marriage is a Legacy system...

evcelt: I will agree that it needs a great amount of work yet, but I don't think that it means that it needs to go entirely.

Just to be clear, I don't either. What I think rather is that it needs to be "privatized" like religion.


Thank you for clarifying. We seem to be in substantial agreement on this matter.

They made a choice most of us feel was right and utterly severed the state and the church.

Well, that opens a whole other can of worms- of the historical, descriptive and normative sort- that I think we can leave for another day.

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