Marriage has got to be one of the most fiercely debated ideas in the last few years. Not since abortion and euthanasia have we seen such righteous indignation over an issue, refreshingly free of economics or other ‘real world’ practicalities that can muddy the waters; an issue of enough ideological, theological, sociological and political drama to supply a tabloid paper with a decade’s worth of sensationalist headlines in and of itself. Talk to the right people and marriage is either the last bastion of a beleaguered decent moral Australia, or the final shackle of bigotry holding an enlightened Australia back from its future.
And yet the intensity, the sheer fervour of this debate is all the more remarkable when you realise that the vast VAST majority of people couldn’t give a stuff about it. Mention the politics of gay marriage, or any marriage for that matter, to the person on the street and the result is generally a bemused shrug. Who cares? Get married if you want. Or don’t. Whatever.
‘Whatever’ seems to sum up our attitudes to marriage in general, with marriage rates slowly but continuously decreasing over the last 20 years, civil celebrant marriages increasing in proportion to religious ones, co-habitation (not to mention sex) prior to marriage spiking, and all this despite a recent ‘mini-baby boom‘ that would traditionally have seen a proportionate upswing in weddings. While marriage is definitely still a significant institution in Australia, it’s quickly losing ground, and depending who you talk to this is probably a good thing.
Obviously you have extremist on both sides; the religious folk who are absolutely convinced marriage is the only legitimate form of relationship, and the anarchists who believe that any form of social structure or label is wrong, but let’s talk hard facts here: what is the point of marriage?
Historically there’s a few theories but they’re all pretty damn pragmatic. There’s the biblical approach which puts your neighbours wife at equal value to his ox or donkey and basically boils marriage down to a market transaction. Then there’s the idea that marriage evolved as a way of making sure pesky menfolk didn’t hightail it when their lady friend got pregnant. Other systems like arranged marriages seem to aim at tying the community closer together (through the ‘market transaction’ idea doesn’t seem far away either). And while this all seems pretty horrible, from a historical perspective you can see the point – when survival is on the line, twoo wuv isn’t really your first priority.
But now in an age so decadent that we use the ability to access the sum of all human knowledge to mainly look at funny cats and naked people, issues of survival aren’t really that big a deal and the question has to be asked again; is marriage something we should bother with, or is it, like vinyl records, analogue clocks and the Pope, something we’ve just kinda accidentally dragged along for the ride?
Well if the skyrocketing divorce rate is anything to go by, then the prospects for marriage look pretty grim. And when you actually lay out the basic idea of marriage – to spend the vast majority of your time together, be sexually monogamous and financially interdependent UNTIL YOU DIE – you have to admit that the concept seem pretty insane. What if things change? What if it turns out your partner has a nasty side you didn’t find while you were dating? What if you’re just straight-up sexually incompatible? You better thank goodness for divorce because it’s your one and only way out.
“Think of the children!” usually pops up at this point, but as usual for those who fling this catchphrase around, they’re not actually thinking of the children at all. There is no denying that the breakdown of a relationship is stressful for any kids involved, but you know what’s more stressful for those children? A dysfunctional, loveless, trap of a marriage that doesn’t end. As with death, divorce is too often viewed as the problem, when in fact it is the release from that problem. And let’s be honest; how much of the stress of divorce is actually caused by our belief that it should be stressful, that it denotes a failure, that it must be avoided it all costs?
This society-wide aversion is all the more weird when you contrast it against the bizarre, endless commitment expected by marriage discussed above – no one in their right mind would lock themselves into so much as a phone contract without clear and present options of escape. But for some reason the decision to opt-out of a life-long social, financial and romantic obligation to a complex human being when is goes sour is a scandal? Despite what proponents of the ‘good old days’ will tell you, in the days of marriage without divorce the reality was simple; you got lucky or you died miserable – and even then you counted yourself a little lucky.
So marriage is a horrible, archaic, oppressive institution that should be hastened to it’s already inevitable doom then? No.
Marriage is a concept, a label, an idea. And as a fair slice of my audience is no doubt yelling at the screen by now, we all know dozens of people in happy, beneficial, wonderful marriages. We’ve all been part of excellent wedding celebrations that showcased and even enhanced the love between a couple. So what’s the distinction between these brilliant examples and the dire theory I’ve so gleefully laid out here? It’s a matter of making the concept work for you.
When the concept of marriage serves the people within it, serving as a voluntary tie, a celebration of the love between them and a demonstration of it to their family and friends, then that concept is a powerfully positive thing. Not only is it a beautiful symbol, it can help a couple weather troubles that might otherwise have pulled them apart, not to mention the financial and legal benefits it provides. But more importantly; when marriage serves the people in it and, after calm deliberation those people decide they would be happier apart, the marriage doesn’t mean squat.
It’s only when people start to serve the concept of marriage, changing their behaviour to meet the demands of an idea designed to serve them that we start to see the sort of mess that makes marriage not only cease to benefit relationships, but actively undermine them. Can you imagine a less healthy influence on your relationship than being kept in it when you want out? If you had a friend who threatened to badmouth you if you left your partner, we would be horrified and rightly so – the coercion, the choice between your friend and your own happiness, the sheer unnecessary unfairness of the situation would make a sad decision into a truly awful one. And yet that is exactly the sort of pressure we put ourselves under when we start to look at marriage as an ideal we must live up to, regardless of whether it actually contributes to our health, happiness and prosperity.
As an ethicist, I’m usually all about encouraging people to live up to ideals, but only when those ideals improve our lives. Concepts such as marriage, along with a whole host of other labels are great at this when we use to make our lives easier, better and clearer – but the second they start to take on a life of their own and threaten to take away our happiness, that is the second those concepts are no longer worth our time.