The institution of marriage gets some serious stick both from liberal commentators and people with ‘alternative’ lifestyles and from the people who choose to commit themselves to it with disastrous consequences, be that 17 day publicity-stints or 40 year abusive hell-holes. At the same time laws across the world protect it and prosecute those considered unfit to enter into marriage. So what can we realistically mean when we choose marriage and should we bother?
This is perhaps a complex issue for me; more difficult than your average heterosexual, monogamous, quasi-christian pairing at least.
Anthropology does not agree on definitions of marriage, suggesting that different cultures have different expectations of the rights and duties in confers on the individuals concerned (sometimes including but not limited to – legitmisation of children, sexual access rights and financial concerns) and this is evident simply in the variety of expectations people within one country can bring to the table.
Personally, I am forced to disavow the unions set up under civil law in this country not because I despise the notion of a legal contract but I cannot under any good faith feel part of a marriage that is described as the union of One Man and One Woman and yet nor am I happy with a Civil Partnership defined solely as a partnership of two individuals of the same gender. Religious expectations are even more complex and perhaps more relevant to people of any given faith than legal stipulations but have little relevance to those outside those spiritual boundaries. Thus my natural inclination tells me that ‘marriage’ can be either spiritual (and/or ‘church’ sanctioned) or civil and although you may have both of these forms if you do not you are simply in a relationship (with whatever degrees of commitment, involvement and responsibility you have agreed).
Perhaps surprisingly I find that I am very much in favour of the insitution of marriage and of my marriage in particular. No matter how many time people tell you that its just the same after marriage as before (especially if you are long-term co-habitees) that wasn’t my experience. My ‘religious’ union was my first step towards life-time commitment but the civil ceremony was a relief and a genuine source of delight.
I am comforted by the legal protection and the recognition in documentation and simultaneously saddened that I can’t offer anything vaguely similar to B. But my marriage is more than a vague contract; its not just something to hang our legal rights on in courts and custody, or an expression of joint culpability. It is more than simply an agreement to spend my life with another, or to live with them and yet it is also not defined by the requirement of excluding all others, emotionally or physically. Perhaps this makes it more honest than many marriage contracts or perhaps it is an uneasy formality.
As I have commented before commitment is an important issue for me – my marriage is a commitment to share my life as completely as I can and to offer love and support through good and bad times; to make an effort to work through the problems we may have personally and jointly as they arise and put in the time and energy to make our relationship work. Marriage is nothing more or less than something I work on and within everyday, it is part of my identity and I adore it – being someone’s wife.. its an amazingly good feeling of connection and belonging.
The only things that bug me about it are the law (and its special sets of restrictions) and feminists etc who tell me I’m restricting myself rather than realising it allows me to become greater than myself.