What is marriage, and why should we keep it around?

I’m very thankful to Libby Anne for asking about marriage in the latest of her Forward Thinking prompts. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and my thoughts have been steered in new directions by a few conversations and experiences I’ve had. I’d like to propose a redefinition or restructuring of the entire concept of marriage, which is both radical and extremely traditional.

The redefinition I’d love to see our society accept is this: marriage is the creation of family. (Long version: Marriage is the intentional creation of family among adults who aren’t already close relatives.) It has nothing to do, per se, with romantic and sexual bonds between people. A romantic bond is one of the strongest motivators in human life for creating a family relationship with someone new; a sexual bond may raise the possibility of children, who tend to create a lifelong connection between their parents simply by existing (although there are exceptions, and it’s obviously not always a connection based in love for each other.) For these reasons, it makes sense that marriage, the intentional creation of family, is most often practiced between lovers. But there’s no reason it has to be.

So two questions emerge: Why is family important, and why should a government have any involvement in the formation of one?

As much as we in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) culture would like to think it, humans are actually quite dependent on other humans. We spent the first and last couple of decades of our lives being dependent, and in the interim time only some of us are able to support ourselves, resource-wise, for a majority of that time. Illness or injury, natural disasters or becoming the victim of crime, economic fluctuations or just bad luck can leave us in need of not only emotional but material help from those closest to us. Ultimately, I define family as the people who will give that help when it’s needed. Family are the people that will stand between you and homelessness. Family are the people that will rearrange their lives to care for you when you’re sick, injured, or disabled. In WEIRD culture, this kind of material dependence is usually looked on as a sign of weakness and inferiority, and possibly being a lazy “user” who takes advantage of others’ willingness to help. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being one really bad day away from dependence, reliance on those who love us the most. But we all are.

I’m talking mostly about material support here, but love is the basis and the prerequisite for giving it. (I suppose pride can stand in in some cases.) Family is not necessarily the people we enjoy the most or have the most in common with, but they are the people we love the most: the people whose pain wounds us most directly, whose achievements we take the most pride in. Familial love is deep-rooted and stable, marked by compassion more than passion. It yields, over a lifetime, the willingness to sacrifice our own resources for the people we love.

In most cultures through human history (at least since agriculture), this immediate support network consisted of blood relatives and spouses. The rise of individualism has weakened a lot of those blood ties in WEIRD culture. People move far away from their families of origin to pursue a job or an education or an interest. People choose a career, or a religion, or a lifestyle, that their parents disapprove of. In some cases this merely results in increased distance, and in some cases it creates total estrangement. On the “total estrangement” side, a lot of people begin to identify “chosen family,” the people that are long-term, stable parts of their lives, that love them and have their back.

I think individualism is great, and I also think family is really important and necessary, both emotionally and physically. Human culture has nearly always recognized the right to choose at least one person as family: a spouse. While in previous times the right to choose a spouse as family was important so that children would be born into a stable support network, today I think it’s just as important for the two adults, who may or may not have a familial relationship with their family of origin. It’s a way of reconciling individualism with the human need for interdependent, familial relationships. If the family you’re born into is oppressive, you can choose to create a new one.

And, as no one should be surprised to see, I don’t see why this should be limited to two adults. Chosen families can be big, as big as the extended aunt-uncle-cousin-grandparents families other cultures enjoy. There’s a lot of advantage to having more than two independent, resource-earning adults in a close support network. Most obviously, if one of those adults suddenly becomes dependent or stops earning resources for a time, it’s less strain on the others to pick up the slack.

To return for a minute to romantic love: one of the things romantic love does, in that first, 6-18 month flush of passion that we call NRE, or limerence, or eros, is give people a drive to provide and sacrifice for one another in the same way that long-term familial love does. That’s probably another reason marriage has been so closely linked to family-creation through human history. Romantic love can kick-start the “mutual interdependence and resource-sharing” dynamic that later is underpinned by familial love (storge, if you want to be Greek about it.) But it doesn’t need to. Even if it never becomes mainstream, I would like to see it considered more normal in WEIRD culture for people to form long-term bonds of interdependence with other adults they’re not romantically linked to.

Because so much of my understanding of family in this context includes resource-sharing and other material considerations, I do think the government should be involved in it, to the extent of recognizing the bond and making certain concessions based on it. Whether those should be identical to the ones currently recognized as marriage, or whether they should be adjusted somewhat, is something to figure out once a large portion of the population get behind this entire concept of marriage. I’m not holding my breath, but to me the idea seems so useful, so obvious, and so compelling that it’s well worth the couple of perspective shifts required to get there.

5 thoughts on “What is marriage, and why should we keep it around?

  1. I think this would be the definition of marriage that is closest with what I would like marriage was. Unfortunately, I don’t see atitudes changing in my country so this happens in my lifetime.

  2. ABOLISH CIVIL MARRIAGE. The government has no place dictating who can marry or determining inheritance, visitation, etc. It is egregiously unethical and discriminatory to grant tax benefits to married persons but not singles. Any property can be designated through legal documents independent of marriage, and insurance companies should jump on the opportunity to charge higher premiums to cover three or more persons under one plan-holder.

  3. I think the devil is in the details on this one. People might get behind an attempt to create familial relationships, but I think public opinion will differ greatly based on what kind of rights, privileges, and obligations you’re giving along with “family” status.

  4. Your definition of marriage is a good one, and I quite like it. Incidentally, it comes closest to how I understand the Biblical definition of leaving your parents and becoming one flesh with another person, although I don’t think you have to be a Jew/Christian to see the value.

    On the polygamy question… I’m honestly not sure here. It seems that there’s a qualitative difference between a relationship built on being solely committed to each other and one where you’re not. Maybe this is my own prudishness showing through – I have no desire to be in a polygamous relationship myself so may not be seeing how it can approach the commitment of what I think of as marriage today. (This doesn’t necessarily have to mean sexual fidelity, but emotional fidelity, the idea that I am committed to my spouse in a way others aren’t. But that said, I don’t want to forbid other people their relationships based on my lack of imagination, and I get what you’re saying about the value of extended family. I’d like to think I’m convinceable here, if not yet convinced. And I certainly wouldn’t have any problem with other relationships two people could enter into besides marriage, kind of the parallel of biological aunts and uncles.

    Incidentally I’m already in a relationship kind of like that. I’ve got a close relationship with a single mum and her daughter in my apartment building, and since she works in Manhattan whereas I’m a grad student so am usually around, I have certain legal authorities over her child. I can sign forms at the school if necessary or make emergency medical decisions if the mum is out of touch (or for the mum until her biological family is reached). There’s nothing romantic about it or even permanent. But I can see certain benefits in having this kind of relationship codified into the law.

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