There’s an interesting…

There's an interesting article by Michael Kinsley about the the privatization of marriage (and thanks to Debra Hyde for the pointer). This is a subject Kev and I have talked about a fair bit, without coming to much of a conclusion. (Roshani has thrown up her hands in despair, saying that we act more married than most married people, so as far as she's concerned, we're married and we should just stop talking about it, so there!)

The main point of discussion has to do with marriage with a capital M, as opposed to breaking down the components into a commitment ceremony, a set of explicit legal agreements (wills and powers of attorney and such), mushy romantic stuff, etc. And I have to admit, I honestly don't seem to be able to hold a firm position on this one. Some days I think one thing, some days I think another. I feel brainwashed, and fuzzy -- it's irritating.

So here's a question for you -- if you're married, or planning to marry, or think you might want to get married at some point -- if you're emotionally invested in the idea of marriage, do you actually also want the government automatically involved?

It's convenient, sure, that getting married entitles you all at once to each others' health care, and the right to visit in the hospital (and make whatever decisions might be necessary in the case of your partners' incapacity), and shared custody of children, and possibly tax breaks (though lots of married couples I know seem to do better financially if they file separately anyway). But if the country moved away from that model (if couples could sign up for some of the elements of that stuff explicitly, in some other way than Marriage), would you find it upsetting?

Would you feel like your marriage weren't 'real', if it weren't sanctioned by the state? What else would be going through your head, if you were married by a minister, or a Las Vegas casino, or a close friend whom you respected and admired? Would it matter whether you did it in private and didn't tell a soul for months (hello, Karen), or whether you had a huge crowd of your friends and family and announced it over the net?

I know that in England (and Australia?), the actual legal marriage rate is far lower than in the US, but that there are plenty of long-term couples contentedly cohabiting. I wonder what's happened there that hasn't happened here. And whether it'll happen here eventually.

30 thoughts on “There’s an interesting…”

  1. I think the main problem with government involvement is that the setup is so rigid. No room for gay folks, poly folks, etc. I have often thought that the next time I get married I will have a religious ritual only, not registering the committment with any civil authorities. If a group marriage were legal, I might well feel differently.

  2. Well, right, that part’s obvious to me, at any rate — it’s clearly inequitable as it stands. But my question was sort of different:

    Why do you want the governement involved at all?

    Historically, there were some clear reasons for the way marriage is set up, mostly having to do with protecting women who weren’t really allowed to have a separate income outside the home, and were therefore dependent on their spouses. Made lots of sense at the time. But is it relevant now? And if so, which parts? All of it?

    I think that’s why the taxes thing doesn’t work so well now, though I’m not entirely clear on it — that if one partner is earning lots more than the other, than it makes tax sense to declare jointly, but if you’re earning evenly, then it works better to declare separately? Is that right?

    Of course, kids are the other big part of this, but what about couples who don’t have kids? Should they even be getting the same tax breaks etc. that couples with kids get? Should a lot of this stuff be tied to the birth of your first child, rather than your marriage? Would that make more sense?

  3. Yes, married filing jointly is better if only one person has income. Married filing separately is not as good as each person filing as single, though, when both have roughly equal incomes. As nearly as I can tell, the real reason for this is that the government is somehow worried that people will use being married as a tax dodge. I suppose only rich people are entitled to tax dodges. The most obvious thing is the difference between the standard deduction for single people versus married filing separately.

    As to whether the government should be involved at all, that is a good question. I think maybe the answer depends on what one sees the role of government as being, in general. Insofar as the governemnt provides protections from abuses by others with power, it is maybe useful to have something registered that you are entitled to this or that sort of protection. Of course, Libertarians would argue that the concept that the government provides protections is a disingenuous fiction. But, having had very little income herself during the 55 years she was married to my father, my mother gets somewhat more in Social Security payments based on my father’s lifetime earnings than she would based on her own. (She will turn 81 the day before you turn 32.)
    Of course, she knew that that sort of protection would be available for her whole adult life. If it were taken away, her children would be able to take up the slack, but not everyone is so lucky. Although this does at first glance appear to revert to the “take care of women” point of view that you talk about, I believe that it is now gender neutral, in that a widower who has had less income and thus paid less SS taxes than his wife would also qualify for increased benefits.

    I wonder, though, what exactly does one give up by involving the government in a marriage committment?

    Is this at the core of your question?

  4. Yes, or that’s part of it, at any rate. At first glance, it seems that all you get are benefits with government-endorsed marriage. Are there hidden costs to you? And aside from the cost issue, is there any logical reason remaining for government involvement in people’s romantic relationships?

    As well, what are the costs to those who don’t have the government endorse their relationships? But that doesn’t interest me as much at the moment as the first two questions.

  5. An obvious cost is the additional hassle of divorce. It makes a breakup even harder than it would be anyway.
    Although I suppose it is equally valid to argue that it is none of the government’s business that certain people are no longer together, as was the case with my own divorce. We only did the paperwork to legalize the divorce when my ex wife wanted to get married to someone else.

  6. I like the symbolism of semi-publicly committing to each other. The state is merely a convenience.

    That said, I can see something to having marriage as a legal contract–it’s good to be able to act together as a unit the same way a corporation does. In that case, I fully believe legal marriage should be available to any group of two OR MORE people of ANY AND ALL genders. (Even though this couple consists of one monogamous male and one monogamous female.)

  7. The monogamy part is interesting to me too, of course. Even if I did ever get married, I wouldn’t be at all interested in pledging monogamy. But I think infidelity is legal grounds for divorce, no? It makes for something of a muddle when your own agreement with your partner(s) is so different from the legal one…

    Of course, if you take monogamy out of the equation, and extend it to both same-sex couples and three-or-moresomes, then one might ask what differs ‘Marriage’ from roommates. Why should the state care if you’re actually having sex with them, or if you’re in love with them? Should long-term roommates get the same legal privileges, be able to be treated as something of a legal unit, like a married couple or a corporation? (I suppose this is where common-law marriage sort of comes in…)

  8. Another side of all this is that the state considers itself to have an interest in promoting/supporting marriage (and families). There are all sorts of reasons for that, some historical and some still relevant, but I think it’s worth considering; it’s not just that individuals want state sanction, it’s also that the state wants to promote certain lifestyles.

  9. Right, of course, and I can even sort of see that in terms of enhancing long-term financial stability, home ownership, etc., which is no doubt good for the state overall. But if you leave out the moral/religious/romantic aspect, and focus solely on the social/legal, it becomes unclear to me why the state should care to promote heterosexual monogamous marriage in particular, rather than multiple person legal mergers in general.

  10. One other reason for the state to be involved is that without that, if the relationship ends, the less economically successful partner can experience a disastrous reversal of fortune. It’s particularly necessary in those relationships where one partner devotes her/himself to making sure that the other’s career is a success–which is not as uncommon a model these days as you might think.

  11. There are a lot of components of marriage, some of which I have more interest in than others. The romantic notions don’t much interest me. My idea of romance appears to be extremely different from most other people (thankfully not so different from my wife), so I have absolutely no investment in the concept of Two People Forming a Great Union. Bah. Anything that allows for more flexibility in that regard is a good thing, and that means dumping the government ’cause government doesn’t do much of anything flexibily.

    As for the legal side of marriage, well… I think I’d rather just have individual contracts that people can have with each other or groups which provide exit strategies and differences in taxation.

    The problem with my opinion is that I’m basically an anarchist.

  12. I would much have preferred to spend the rest of my life with Pr without being married, but as we were citizens of different countries it was necessary to involve the state. We didn’t vow anything about monogamy and we had a pretty smooth transition from being a couple to being a married couple. Certainly we’re emotionally as married as can be, but the legal status doesn’t factor much in my consciousness. It used to annoy me back in the days when I couldn’t stand the word “wife” applied to me.

    We did it the way we did (in secret) to avoid having our married status be something that would cause changed attitudes to be thrown at us from the outside. So it’s always been pretty much nobody’s business but our own. I don’t feel the government is particularly involved in my marriage. But of course it’s easier to ignore that sanction when you’ve got it.

    Also it helps to be married to a Swede, as in Sweden marriage is not such a distinct state from unmarried couplehood. Swedes get together and have kids all the time without being married, and it’s quite acceptable. Often people get married years after they’ve had kids (with each other or with different partners) and I’ve never seen any censure of that.

    This works in Sweden partially because their economic/social system allows single parents to raise kids in relative security, so there’s not the same anxiety over financial/legal dependence that marriage in the US is imbued with. And of course people who don’t have kids are even less dependent on the legal contract to get by or plan for their future. School is free, health care is free, seniors are taken care of. Gender roles are much less divided than they are here. You don’t get the classic American model of e.g. wife puts husband through medical school and raises their kids in return for his financing their future together.

    Any form of stable family, it seems to me, is good for the state. People who want to take care of each other and stay together ought to get some exterior support for doing so. There is a real social validation that happens when you use the word “married”, and even if it’s a validation I personally find annoying, it would be worse if I wanted recognition of the reality of our relationship and couldn’t get it because there were no words or structures available to indicate that reality.

  13. Overall, I’ll probably be swayed by whatever the other person’s views are. I’m pretty neutral about it–as far as I can tell, in an equal partnership, the only thing marriage does is give you a piece of paper that makes it harder to leave. And I don’t want someone staying with me because it’s easier. At the same time, I do see examples of people that I really would feel more comfortable with if they were married–my cousin, for example, is 24, with two children under 4 or so, a HS education and minimal work experience. She’s not married, and this upsets me because if her boyfriend leaves her, she has no legal right to support other than child support.

  14. I can certainly see that it’s in the state’s interests to protect partners who give up some of their own earning potential in order to enhance the others’ (presumably with some long-term goal of enhancing the couple’s overall). I’m sure that isn’t an uncommon situation at all, and it even seems morally kind to me, as well as societally wise. A kind of hedged risk, if that type of terminology makes sense. But there’s a certain — patronizing attitude about it, as it is? The way the state defaults to protecting you in that situation, as if you couldn’t think ahead and protect yourself? I suppose what would seem more sensible to me would be to have some standard legal templates available for that kind of situation, so that if you decide to make that kind of choice, you and your partner would download the file from the government, print it out, sign it, notarize and file it at City Hall.

    Not very romantic, I know, and perhaps that’s the problem — marriage helps to cloak all the legal/financial stuff in a cloud of pink romance. I’m actually a big fan of romance, and also of joint partnerships; I just worry when all sorts of things get jumbled together in an automatic sort of way.

    As it is, people who live together for decades in that kind of one-supporting-the-other relationship don’t have any legal protections in place, for either partner. That seems undesirable, to me, on a personal and societal level. And it leads to the classic situation of the woman pressuring the man for a wedding ring, not for romantic reasons, but because she’s feeling financial anxiety. Yick.

    Sweden’s sounding really good right now, Karen. You’d better remind me again what the winters are like…

  15. I don’t think there’s much poly stuff going on in Sweden, at least not loudly. But Swedes tend to take rather different approaches to social change and identity and movements than Americans do, so it’s hard to compare without bringing in a whole wider cultural backdrop. In many ways it’s a very homogenous country, it’s just that their sexual mores are generally much more relaxed than American attitudes. Sweden does legally recognise same-sex partnerships, for example. But the winters are really fucking cold.

  16. Interesting you should post this, Mary Anne. A politically conservative group blog I read (Know Your Enemy) — National Review Online‘s “The Corner” — has been showing a remarkable schism between grudging live-and-let-live semi-libertarians, who don’t favor gay marriage but have no grudge against civil unions (because they would help foster monogamous commitment), and social conservatives who think the upcoming Massachusetts court decision will be the thin edge of the wedge. If gay marriages are sanctioned, then the floodgates open up to polyamory, incest, bestiality, and so on. Which is, of course, the true agenda behind gay marriage — gays are promiscuous, and want to weaken the institution itself so they can have group marriages.

    This may be a pivotal moment coming, as it may be these social conservatives out to make polyamory a household name. One of those guys to watch for is Stanley Kurtz, who in his column “Heather Has Three Mommies” writes:

    Yet, as I showed in the Commentary piece cited above, group marriage is inherently unstable in a Western cultural context. So legalized polyamory means still another radical increase in the difficulties of children. And polyamorists (not to mention polygamists) are already organized and ready to take advantage of any opening in the law. (Just try running a Google search on “polyamory.”)

    Once we cross the border into legalized multiple parenthood, we have virtually arrived at the abolition of marriage and the family. The logic of gay marriage leads inexorably to the end of marriage, and the creation in its place of an infinitely flexible series of contracts. Monogamous marriage cannot function if it is just one of many social arrangement. Marriage as an institution depends for its successful functioning upon the support and encouragement that the ethos of monogamy receives from society as a whole. If anything can be called a marriage — including group marriage — then the ethos of monogamy that keeps families together will have been broken, and the social reinforcement that is the essence of marriage itself will be gone. Again, it is children who will pay the price.

    This guy will be among those against any liberalization of state-defined marriage because of “what it could lead to” beyond gay marriage itself. When you consider that the Federal Marriage Amendment has a reasonable shot of passage in Congress if it gets past the Senate, and that 3/4 of state legislatures might well (IMHO) approve it — well, I think we social libertarians are in the minority in a LOT of issues in today’s socially conservative America.

    (Sigh.) In other news, MSNBC fired Michael Savage for telling a gay caller that he should just get AIDS and die. Long way to go.

  17. To be fair, I think he’s probably right, to an extent. Especially about the ethos of monogamy being dependent in large part upon social pressure. The question is where we go from there — children are adaptable to all sorts of situations, but just how adaptable is it fair to ask them to be? And how much of the child’s difficulty with having a non-traditional
    parenting set-up comes not from the actual parenting, but from the social expectations and stigma?

  18. I guess one thing that makes me uncomfortable about the idea of flexible contracts is that it seems to make human relationships the equivalent of market relationships: I will love you as long as it’s in my interest to do so, and you will love me as long as that gets you access to my health care benefits, sign here please. Of course, traditional marriages are also contracts, veiled by romance. But I am starting to think that the veil is important and necessary, and actually allows people to *be* something other than articles traded on a market. I guess I come down on it this way: I’m no great fan of the institution of marriage, but the alternative seems worse.

  19. The issues raised by legal poly marriages are more complex (and more interesting, I think) than those involved in same gender marriages. Poly makes perfect sense to me from an emotional standpoint, but I do think it might take some work to create a viable legal marriage. For example:

    How would you work out benefits for multiple spouses? I realize that many/most poly relationships aren’t set up this way, but what happens to the man who marries 10 women, all of whom stay home with the children and have no personal income. Is his employer required to provide health insurance for all of them, or just a set maximum that he can divide up among them as he sees fit? What about social security benefits? If you have a good job, is there anything preventing you from marrying all your friends so that they receive benefits based on your salary? Although now that I think about it, you can have as many kids as you want and they all get benefits , so maybe this isn’t so unreasonable.

    I think the issue of kids is significant too. Not because I think children would be horribly traumatized by having multiple parents (hey, even Hillary told us it takes a village…) but because the decision making involved could get pretty unwieldy. What if the child gets sick and someone needs to make medical decisions? What if the parents split up and there needs to be a custody/child support arrangement? I realize that even in traditional marriages there are already 2 people with 2 opinions involved, but I’d sure hate to be the judge trying to create a custody agreement between 5 co-parents. One weekday per house?

    I’m not saying that it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, just that it’s kind of an intriguing problem. If you could sit down and write a law allowing poly marriages, how would you do it? What (if any) limitations would you place on both a person’s right to enter into a marriage and society/employer responsibilities to those who have done so?

  20. here is a simplistic answer to the original questions asked (on the main page of the journal, not the comment section here).

    I got married last year. It was really important to be to have a public commitment cerimony. It was a celebration and a moment in our lives we wanted to share with the people we loved.

    as for the state’s involvement, I rather feel that if a marriage is valid between the couple and the people in their lives then it is a marriage period. However, I do appriciate a lot of the benefits afforded to monogomous, heterosexual couples by the state, and got a marriage certificate for that reason. It deeply saddens me that these rights and priveledges are not extended to all love/family relationships.

    just one last thing I wanted to point out, which I believe David brought up as well — state marriage does protect a lot of people from suffering the additional stress of financial adjustment when one partner dies. There is enough concerning death to be worried and fretted over, without worrying about who is going to get the house.

  21. So, i need to read everything that others have said – this is really interesting.

    I love being married. I love being a wife. I love being bi, and i love that my husband as bi. I love that we have built into our relationship agreements and guidelines about poly, even if we don’t call them into play so often over the last year or two. I feel very secure in my relationship, and i love having made that commitment standing up in front of the people we call our family, friends, and community. (If anyone care what our vows actually were, you can see them here: ) We don’t call out the poly hugely explicitly, but our immediate families know. My grandmother doesn’t know, but right now she doesn’t need to. I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her if it were important, though. (Though the big in-oke during the ceremony is that John, or officiator, was the guy dating Russell’s wife when Russell and i started dating, and was one of my dearest friends during that period. He’s still a dear friend and confidante – see if you can find the places that i tried not to giggle about during the ceremony.)

    The luxury of being to easily add Russell to my healthcare when he was out of work was great. My company is interesting (Apple) – you can just as easily add a same-sex partner as a oppasite-sex married partner, but not an unmarried married partner (as the state has regulatioins about the latter, but not the former). I like a lot of the legal convenience built into what being married in the eyes of the state gives us – but i grok that it’s a privilege, and it’s annoying that same-sex couples can’t get it as easily. Were it not built into my relationship, i’d probably do what it took legally to secure those rights with Russell without it being easy – but i was willing to go through legal suckage in order to change our name, so that’s me. I can see how things might be really different in countries where health care and partners-rights are more generous and less litiginous than in the US.

    Rambling, sure, but that’s where i sit – i take joy in the romance, i feel lucky, i enjoy being married – at the same time as i can be annoyed that it’s not so easy for others, and know that parts of what the state believes, Russell and i don’t. And what we believe is more important. I’m comfortable in this dichotomy. 8)

  22. Stephanie Dray

    I’ve been married for six years and I lived with my husband for two years before that. I didn’t expect the marriage ceremony to change much. We felt married already. But it did.

    Insofar as government is a regulating body, its ‘presence’ in the marriage is really minimal. It controls when I can get legally divorced, what paperwork I need to file to register, and what taxes I have to pay, but it’s white background noise. Less than that even. There are more regulations involved with my relationship to my car than with my husband.

    So the presence of government in marriage becomes an abstract issue only. Is there some theoretical principle that government sanction violates that makes one uncomfortable or is it just an elusive rebellious impulse because the government is the government?

    For me, the presence of government in my marriage is just a stand in for society. A legal and binding societal understanding that two are one, or perhaps more rightly, two become three. Me, my husband, and the marriage. And that societal understanding makes a lot more difference than most people would like to admit.

    There’s all the externalities about how you’re treated and the benefits your relationship is accorded by society. But there’s also the internal understanding of commitments you’ve made not only to your spouse, but to a community.

    The difference between living together and being married was a slow and steady undertow into a happy, and different, place. And I never much thought about government’s presence until your post.

  23. Thanks for all the comments, guys — this was fascinating, and helped me clarify my own thoughts on this complicated subject. I think what I actually find most disturbing about it all is how the vast majority of people seem to get married for love, and just don’t think about all the other cultural/social/legal/governmental/etc. stuff that comes with it. And that’s understanadable, since all that stuff mostly tends to make your life easier and more pleasant. But I find it a bit disturbing/creepy nonetheless.

  24. One last thing — in the end, it’s the social acceptance issue that bothers me personally a lot more than the governmental interference one. Maybe I’m just hyperaware of it because my mother has spent the last decade explicitly pressuring me to get married — and I have to keep thinking in my head, “Why do you care so much? Why should you have a stake in my love life?” And obviously, she feels she does, and so does society in general. It disturbs a fair number of people that I’m not married. And while I understand the historical reasons why societal approval has evolved that way, and understand why I do sometimes feel the urge to receive that kind of approval, overall, it still creeps me out.

  25. I know you sort of closed out this discussion, but I want to make one more remark. I would love it (pun intended, sadly) if you would attend the East Coast LovingMore Conference some year. It is the first weekend in August, so you will be in Europe this year, but it is a great place for discussions like this.

    I tried to post this before, and something happened, and it did not show up.

  26. at the risk of running on…

    it seems that everyone has one thing in common (at least that’s been voiced here):

    it’s the love between people that makes or breaks a marriage (okay, that might have sound cliche but I believe it….)

    all of the social/gov/econ/etc implications are larger matters that need to be addressed politically.

    but bottom line, it takes a lot of love and trust and hope.

  27. Hey, David. I’d be interested in the conference, but travel funds are getting increasingly tight, what with all the SH-convention expenses. I’d be more likely to come out if my travel were subsidized by the conference… 🙂

  28. I will ask about that while I am at the conference this year. They charge enough for registration that they probably have some funds to support presenters.
    Or you could check out and probably find out about it yourself. Then you could maybe let them know what sort of class or presentations you would like to contribute.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *