Marriage today is a simplistic and often patronising institution that is irrelevant for the thinking person, argues Simon Camp.
Now – before I defend the above statement, bear with me while I explain what I do not mean. By ‘marriage’, I mean the social institution, not the legal one. I have no issue with signing a piece of paper that gives me visiting rights if my partner is in hospital – that’s really about as serious as giving someone a front door key. And I am not speaking in ignorance of the numerous studies that catalogue marriage’s effects on the stability of the family unit. I am well aware that a public promise can put pressure on couples to maintain the nuclear model for the sake of their offspring, and I suppose that’s all well and good (if rather coarse and unromantic). I also might have included the word ‘outdated’ in my opening, but I’ve been firmly set straight on that front by friends I’ve discussed this with. No, it must be admitted that marriage is not outdated: it is, unfortunately, very much alive in the social consciousness (if not quite kicking). Finally, I am assuming the religious element of marriage absent, for this discussion at least. If a ceremony ‘in the eyes of God’ is important for you because of some belief system or other, then I suppose you have a somewhat shaky excuse for saying ‘I do’.
Good, that’s out of the way. If you’ll stay a while longer, let me define the institution as I see it. Two people (it actually doesn’t matter at all whether they are of the same sex or not) enter into a relationship which turns romantic. They decide, on some unspecified basis, that they want to ‘spend the rest of their lives together’ and so make a promise in front of their family and friends to do this, that and the other as long as they both shall live, so help them God. Henceforth they are known officially as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and so long as they fill the form out properly, they can share assets or something.
If it sounds a little businesslike and contractual, that’s because it is. Historically, marriage has primarily been a mechanism for binding social groups to one another, and for establishing a secure environment in which to produce offspring. Everything about the ceremony, right down to the father walking his daughter up the aisle so as to ‘give’ her to a suitable heir screams symbolism and statement. Consequently, there is not a great deal in the idea of marriage that seems modelled around how humans actually engage romantically. As it is, it perpetuates a naïve and simpleminded understanding of love and human relationships.
Love is not a series of stages: it is a continuum of ups and downs, of unspoken agreements and tacit commitments. If I had been in a stable relationship for several years, it would frankly be patronising to suggest that I were somehow less serious because I hadn’t said a promise in front of witnesses. Business deals are like that, but loving commitment is not. And if we do maintain that people in a stable relationship are indeed as committed as married couples, then what is it for? Is there a single thing that a married couple could do by virtue of that status that a cohabiting, non-married couple could not? If, as I said above, all the legal rights were the same, as they should be, then surely the answer would be ‘no – not a single thing.’
It isn’t even that useful for telling you what a couple’s relationship is like. Some people are in a happy, balanced marriage while others are dreaming of deliverance in the form of divorce papers. Still others are secretly screwing their colleagues then picking the kids up from playschool in time for Mama’s home-cooked meal. It’s almost as though marriage had been designed to assure something other than the romantic status of a relationship – although that last may be crazy talk.
Picture this: marriage as a concept doesn’t exist. All the people you know who are married are not. Nothing else changes; they just haven’t had the ceremony. What have we lost? Perhaps a few honeymoon snaps and some memories of a white dress. But really, we have only gained. The relationship between two (or, God forbid, more than two) people is no longer digital, no longer one-or-the-other. No more is there the smug little section on the census that maintains that if you aren’t ‘married’ you are ‘single’. Instead, human partnering is seen for what it is: analogue. Dynamic, changing, even volatile. People would not make ridiculous lifelong contracts with other people that they would stay together for ever and ever, Amen. Instead they might have more of a year-to-year rolling contract that took into account the undulating nature of the romantic graph. It might be a little more difficult to tell at a glance who was in a serious romantic relationship, but this slight inconvenience would be a small price to pay for the honest appreciation that everyone’s partnerships and friendships are subtly different – and that perhaps they might not fall neatly into place under the purview of some ancient tradition that was never really about love in the first place. Tradition always was a terrible reason for making a supposedly life-changing decision anyway.
But it still feels as though we’re missing something. A ceremony, maybe? If only there were a clear, predefined point to celebrate the length and success of a partnership. An ‘anniversary’ of sorts. Actually – that’s a fabulous idea. Why not call all your friends and family together and have a big party to celebrate the fortuitousness of the last decade or three? You could both talk about how much you love your partner and how dearly you hope for (but, of course, cannot be certain of) many more years of like companionship. You could even take a little break afterwards on some Caribbean island or other. Just please don’t wear a white dress. We don’t want anyone to think you’re getting married.
Simon Camp is a Philosophy student, who also writes here: on.simoncamp.co.uk