Friday, December 17, 2010

AS LONG AS WE BOTH SHALL LOVE: The institution of marriage is under attack? That’s fine with me.

         I live with a woman who is not my wife. Her name is Gail. We share the same bed, and occasionally we make love to each other. We have been doing this for 18 years. At least once a week, Gail and I look at each other, shake our heads, reach out to hold hands, smile and say how lucky we are to be living such a pleasant life. Honestly. We do. You can ask her.
         People use different terms for the way Gail and I live: cohabitation, living in sin, fornication. I call it simply “living together,” because that’s what it is, and the phrase has a kind of understated poetry: We live, and we get to do it together. According to the 2010 census, there are about 15 million other Americans living together as we do. The Census Bureau says we are “Persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters”--POSSLQs, for short. But POSSLQ doesn’t quite capture the poetry of it.
         Last week, for the five hundredth time, a friend asked me, good-naturedly, “When are you two finally going to get married?”
         I gave him the answer I always give to that question: “Never.”
         Sometimes I’m asked the question differently: “So why don’t you two get married?”
         Again I always answer the same way: “Why should we? There’s absolutely nothing marriage can add to our life together that would make it any better.”
         I was married once, for six years, long ago, to a good woman who was a fine wife and a wonderful mother to our son. The marriage license did nothing to change the fact that we were not right for each other. It did nothing but keep us together longer than we should have stayed together and make us a little unhappier for longer than we should have been. We were, for each other, clothing we had both outgrown, and the law did everything in its power to keep us buttoned tight and strangling.
          It’s popular in some circles (you know which circles they are) to say that today the “sacred institution” of marriage is under attack or threatened--by Hollywood movies, by rap lyrics, by the gay rights movement.
       Personally, I think that if marriage is under attack, that’s a good thing. If the institution of marriage were ended tomorrow, I think the world would be a happier place. “Marriage is an institution,” goes the old joke, “and I’m not ready to be institutionalized yet.” If we keep the institution, I think people should have to live together for years and pass all kinds of written and psychological tests before they are allowed to get married, and I think divorce should be easy. This sounds very Counterculture Sixties, I know, but on this issue I think the Counterculture was right.
         For centuries, of course, marriage laws were a way for the church or the state to control the distribution and accumulation of wealth and land, and to keep the powerful in power. To protect his family legacy, a father made sure that his son married a woman of equal or greater property value, preferably a woman who came with many fields and farms, plus a castle or two; legally joining the wealth of two powerful families helped keep them both powerful. To protect the elite in other ways, certain castes were not allowed to marry other castes, lest they pollute the upper classes; and certain colors were not allowed to marry other colors, lest they dilute the color scheme that kept the dominant color dominant; and certain creeds could marry only within their own creed, lest the church lose its force. Marriage, in other words, was a way to legally assure that like bred with like, so the status quo could be maintained.
         Marriage was also a way to institutionalize the repression of women and to protect the power of men; once married, a wife was legally subject to her husband, and all she owned became his--but not vice versa. Marriage was moreover a way for women to acquire, in exchange for sex and child-bearing, the small measure of economic security legally required of their husbands. And marriage in America has always been a way for the Puritan power structure to suppress the fun of sex. In fact, for nearly all of its history, marriage has had almost nothing to do with love and everything to do with power and control.
           Are things different today? Not much, despite the propaganda to the contrary. But I’ll grant that more men and women than ever before now marry “for love.” Marriage, they say, is a way to demonstrate their lifelong commitment to each other. What I don’t understand is this: What kind of commitment is it that requires a license, a wedding cake, and a thousand laws to ratify it?
           I can honestly say that I don’t comprehend why marriage is so “sacred” to the general population, unless it’s to sustain the economic voltage of those publishing powerhouses, the bridal magazines. There is no need for marriage anymore, if there ever was a need for it. Making sure that fathers provide for the children they sire used to be a respectable reason to encourage people to marry when they had kids, I suppose. But it’s easy enough to put laws on the books that require fathers to support their children, even if the kids are born outside of marriage, and in fact such laws already exist.
          The problem is, love may die, but the law lives on. It’s hard to tell in many marriages where love ends and the law begins. Marriages are not made in heaven, they’re made in licensing offices. They’re not blessed by God, they’re blessed by bureaucrats. There is love in many marriages, but it is love under the umbrella of the law, where the wind and rain and sun that both test and nourish other relationships can’t reach until it’s too late. In many marriages, a single strong gust--a fight over money, a lustful glance at someone else--can blow such a relationship away, because its roots are too shallow, having been sheltered too long by the law.
            It’s not just that marriage is unnecessary, I believe, it’s that it’s actually harmful. It replaces choice with compulsion. It makes that which should be voluntary, compulsory. If I am faithful to my partner because I am legally bound to be faithful, that is no more emotionally meaningful than stopping at red lights. If I live in the same house as my partner only because the law makes it massively inconvenient for me not to, we are no longer living together, we are simply moving toward death together. If statutes are the only thing driving me to provide for my children, then I am a father by statute only.  Marriage replaces affection with the law.
            But love does not flourish under the sheriff’s gun. If I were to marry the person I care for, and the weight of the government can be felt behind my every act of caring, how do I then prove my personal commitment to my spouse? In marriage, every caress becomes an act of public will, not purely personal affection. In marriage, every hug can be seen as a hug of convenience, every kiss a kiss from a court of law. The marriage bonds get all tangled up with the simplest ties of affection.
            Things are clearer for Gail and me, and for others who live together. We know why we’re there on Sunday afternoon, reading the paper on the sofa, looking at each other occasionally and smiling. It has nothing to do with covenants and courts. We’re there because we like each other best. And we’ll be there as long as we both shall love.

For more on this subject, check out the web site I’m also told that the book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz, is an excellent  history of marriage, though I haven’t read it yet myself. This column originally appeared in the online version of The Memphis Flyer in 2004.


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