Thursday, November 15, 2012

Musings on Marriages

I read this recent blog entry by my friend Rachel about the topic of marriage and I am left feeling uncomfortable with it. This is because what is said here about marriage simply does not seem true to me, it does not mesh with my experience of the whole thing. It seems to me that what is being talked about here is an old out-dated model for “marriage”, and hence as a result by default it seems to me that this argument presented has become somewhat of a straw-man argument. What bugs the most with this piece is that I see this attitude reflected here as being one that is common within a lot of radical circles.

Let me say a bit more about where I am coming from here... I grew up, like many people did, with this idea drilled into my head that getting married, having children, yadda yadda yadda, is what I and everyone else should do with their lives. But then also, at the same time that that message was being conveyed to me, I saw what real-life marriage looked like for people. For my mother’s parents it looked like my grand-mother being disabled and my grand-father being the care-giver as well as the money-maker. For my father’s parents it looked like the two of them living in two different parts of the country and never seeing each other. For my own parents it looked like the two of them hardly ever being in the same room at the same time and then ultimately getting divorced, and subsequently each of them having such very different memories of their marriage that it is hard to believe that they are both talking about the same thing. For my mother and step-father it looked like my mother working two jobs and my step-father doing whatever it was that he did. In other words, the images that mass media was giving me for how "marriage" was supposed to look like was not matching up with what real-life marriages looked like before my own eyes.

Also, as a child, I grew up seeing many many many of the people in my parents’ generation getting divorced. I mean, seriously, I saw *A LOT* of divorces! Aunts, uncles, people in the Baha’i religious communities that I grew up in, friends’ parents, coworkers of my parents, you name it, everybody was getting a divorce. This left me with the impression that, despite claims to the contrary, marriage is just something that people do for a period of time, and then one goes on and does other things. Sort of like being in middle school or high school, but with more intense heart-breaking emotional pain involved.

Now, fast forward to my adult years, and I’ve seen some other kinds of marriages on display. I have seen first-hand unmarried couples, singles and groups of people have and raise children, people getting married for legal reasons to get citizenship, for financial reasons to get medical insurance coverage, I have seen polyamorous marriages, intense NVC-oriented emotional processing-based marriages, married couples living in income-sharing communes, married couples running Camphill-style homes, marriages based in weird obscure religions, marriages based on mutual Vipassana Meditation practice, same-sex marriages, and probably some other kinds of marriages that I am forgetting about at the moments.

This all leads me to a certain conclusion about marriage – thanks to the contributions starting mainly from the Baby Boom generation in the West, the old notion of marriages necessarily looking similar to each-other and being an institution of patriarchal domination is over. This is not to say that that way of having marriages no longer exists. I think that in many places around the world that old patriarchal model is still is how marriages are usually carried out. I also think that a lot of my peers in my generation, probably even some people I know, are having marriages done in that old way. The thing is that I do not think that marriages have to be carried out in a uniform pattern in the old patriarchal way any longer, at least in the West.

When I think about it, I suspect that this is very much related to the crumbling, shrinking and changing that has been taking place within organized religion as well. Organized religion is no longer the big social force that it used to be, and within many of the religious institutions that do exist nowadays an intentional process has been taking place to eradicate the old modes of patriarchal top-down domination. I think that it was probably the Baby Boom generation again that contributed enormously to initiating the demise and changing of traditional religious institutions and this probably relates to the parallel shifting of how marriages have been carried out as well.

Marriage as an institution is something that I see as being potentially valuable as not only being a public expression of love between people, but also being a kind of commitment of ongoing support and active involvement in each-other’s lives. Yes, this can happen outside of “marriage” per se, but the advantage to marriage as an institution is the legal and financial commitment and protection that comes along with the institution as well. That is, as long as we still live in a world where the concepts of “legality” and “finances” are still the norm!

Ideally I would like to see the institution of marriage be expanded and experimented with more as well. There should be same-sex marriage, of course, but also marriage between more than two people as well. Marriage, in a way, has some of the same advantages that the 501d tax status has, which is the same legal category that monasteries are put in, and that the income-sharing intentional communities within the FEC use as well. The differences between marriage and the 501d status is with marriage the couple has the right to visitation and involvement with the other when one is hospitalized, and has a say in what happens when the other one dies.

I do recognize that relationships based on guilt, shame, duty, obligation, fear, etc., as well as domination itself, can very easily exist within marriage. However, I see this as equally being the case for non-married romantic relationships, as well for relationships between people residing within income-sharing communities as well. These kind of social dysfunctions and psychological neuroses do not necessarily recognize the distinctions between “married” and “unmarried” people. This is something to be consciously worked on regardless of one’s relationship status.

Marriage as I see it now is basically a legal and financial structure for people to be more closely involved in each-other’s lives, as well as a social signifier of ongoing love and commitment between these people. Aside from that, it is basically a blank slate that the people involved can fill with whatever they want. You can choose to fill it with the old school stuff of patriarchal domination, social inequality, guilt, shame and obligation. Or, you could fill it with any number of different new, creative and interesting arrangements, patterns and relationships. It is up for the people involved in it to decide, for now, thanks to my parents’ generation, the old gods are dead.


Rachel AB said...

I think you've missed my main point: Marriage, as an institution, discriminates between those who are married and those who are not. If people have to get married to stay in a country or get health care, for example, there's something inherently skewed. The General Accounting Office has counted over 1,100 federal laws that use marital status to determine who is eligible for some rights/benefits. As the Canadian report i cite in my post points out, many of these rights and benefits would serve people far more equitable if other things are taken into consideration than marital status, which often is pretty irrelevant to the underlying social intent of a law.

I agree that there are marriages that have moved beyond the patriarchal origin of this institution. However, that does not mean that the traditions attached with it aren't still patriarchal. In addition to the examples i gave, the tax code comes to mind (married equal earners are penalized) or social security payments (that go to the widow based on the assumption that she can't support herself). These again have real consequences for singles and also for the power dynamics within a marriage.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. You've put into words many of my own musing on marriage and how to use it positively.

Bel said...

I enjoyed this Ian and reflects my thinking too.

Wish you could come to our wedding, I think you would really enjoy it.

Bel :)