Is marriage outdated? My past self sure thought it was and never wanted to get married. Ever.
Faced with the choice between a root canal or getting married, I happily would have picked the former.
It is not that I was against finding a life partner. I would have happily shared my life with someone, I just didn’t want to get married to him.
When I was a teenager, people questioned my anti-marriage stance as unromantic.
But can an institution that grew out of the necessity to re-distribute property really be seen as something romantic?
Marriage in the old days
Historically speaking, marriage had little to do with love. Even worse, the idea of equality in marriage is a recent invention.
For instance, under the English common law concept of “coverture” (which also applied in North America), wives were dependents of their husbands. They had no legal identity of their own. No legal personhood.
The absurd practice of calling a married woman “Mrs. John Smith” is basically an expression of this concept. Can you imagine anyone calling Harvard Law Professor Bruce Mann, the husband of U.S. politician Elizabeth Warren, “Mr. Elizabeth Warren?”
Of course not! Doing so would be demeaning and depersonalizing, and would reduce him to being someone’s spouse, as opposed to his own person. However, doing the same to women used to be common practice.
Why does the English language have different words for married and unmarried women, but not for men?
It does not have to be that way. For instance, in my home country, Germany, all women — regardless of age or marital status — are addressed the same way, as “Frau XY.”
In an acknowledgment that the world has changed, the German Ministry of the Interior banned the title“Fräulein” for unmarried women from official use... in 1972 (!). Given this, I find it a super-archaic whenever English administrative forms give me the option to be addressed as“Ms.,” “Mrs.” or “Miss.” (If you’re going to make me choose, it’s “Dr.,” thank you very much.)
Why is it that to this day, many cultures expect wives to take on their husbands’ names? Why do we say that fathers “give away” their daughters? The answers to these questions might lie in the history of marriage.
As a teenager these questions led me to start admiring the relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. These two geniuses were the most important people in each other’s life, yet never got married.
Simone de Beauvoir’s thoughts on marriage:
To say that de Beauvoir was critical about marriage would be an understatement. In her masterpiece, The Second Sex, she went as far as writing that “[i]t is said that marriage diminishes a man, which is often true, but almost always it annihilates a woman.”
So unlike my now-husband (spoiler alert! I’m happily married…), who had read less feminist literature in his teenage years than I had, I was adamantly against tying the knot.
The only reason I begrudgingly accepted that we had to get married were geographical and legal. Nothing that Simone de Beauvoir wrote could take away from the fact that my love and I were living on different sides of a big ocean, and that immigration law is less welcoming of conscientious objectors to marriage than French existentialists.
As someone who is now happily married, I guess I owe my lack of "permanent spinsterhood" to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Consider this my thank you letter to them!
I now realize that an equal, happy and authentic marriage is way better than a root canal.
Admittedly, that is a low bar to meet, so let me rephrase: today, I feel loved and supported by my partner in ways that I did not know were possible before we made this deep commitment to each other.
While I know that marriage is not the right thing for everyone, I personally really enjoy being married.
I am just glad that these days, marriage doesn’t come at the expense of my legal status and I am free to keep my name (or give it to my husband if he wants), as well as open a bank account for myself. (Isn’t it crazy that I even need to mention that?)
This has made it easier for me to arrive at the conclusion that de Beauvoir’s criticism of marriage may no longer be valid in many parts of the world. Similarly, it is worth pointing out that it is questionable whether being in an open relationship with Sartre really made de Beauvoir happier than a marriage would have.
So, is marriage outdated? Here’s my verdict:
My takeaway from this is that when it comes to marriage, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Instead of asking whether marriage is obsolete, perhaps we should question if the criticism against marriage is obsolete. After all, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote down her thoughts about marriage, she lived in a very different world than the one we live in today.
True, there are many things to dislike about the institution of marriage — its unromantic and unequal history, as well as its traditional limitation to heterosexual relationships.
The good news is that many of us live in countries where the face of marriage itself is changing, and where we are free to live our marriage as we see fit.
More and more countries are allowing people to get married (regardless of sexual orientation or where they fall on the gender spectrum). When it comes to heterosexual marriages, more and more countries are treating both spouses as equal (instead of assuming that the husband is the head of the household or even taking away the wife’s entire legal personality).
In other words, we are free to create a conscious, equal marriage with a loved one.
We could call this "marriage 2.0."
Marriage 2.0 is anything but obsolete
Yes, the rituals associated with getting married are mindbogglingly traditional, which begins with the “traditional engagement story” of a man on his knees. However, we don’t need to buy any of it. When it comes to getting engaged, we can be unconventional.
Similarly, the consumerism associated with the wedding ceremony itself can be off-putting. However, it is possible — and potentially even advisable — to forego all that.
For instance, actor Dax Shephard revealed that his wedding (which he called the “World’s Worst Wedding”) to actress Kristen Bell cost only $142!
If we for a moment leave aside any legal/financial advantages and disadvantages of the institution of marriage, there are a few major things it can do for us: apart from personal growth, it can create a stronger bond in a relationship, and it can help take that relationship deeper.
And marriage can do that especially if we throw out all the bathwater associated with it.
"Marriage 1.0" might be outdated. However, if tech has taught us anything, you can always upgrade to version 2.0.
Sticking with people we have made a commitment to even when the going gets tough is something important we should retain from Marriage 1.0. But the lack of equality we find in this version? Let's treat it as a bug, not a feature!
When we support movements that are in favor of making marriage more equal (whether that is about allowing gay marriage or improving the status of married women), we do our part to de-bug marriage. And hopefully, at some point, everyone who wants it has the option to choose a relationship model that runs on program "Marriage 2.0."
As someone who had to get married in order to live with the person I love, I'm glad I got the upgraded version of this model. I don't know if you hear this often but, umh, thanks again, U.S. Department of Homeland Security!
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