Forbes and Fifth

Something Old, Something New

Part 1: “First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage” and Other Lies Society Told You

I don’t know if I want to get married.”

It is as if I’ve announced that I’ve decided to gnaw off my own limb for sport. “WHAT,” my roommate exclaims with a look of deeply disturbed awe, a reflex programmed by eHarmony commercials and reruns of Say Yes to the Dress. I’ve managed to tear her bright, innocent eyes away from her ‘Dream Wedding’ Pinterest board. “Are you serious? I mean, why wouldn’t you?” I show mercy to her blind naïveté and spare her the morally repulsive truth. “Eh, just not sure it’s for me.”

Make no mistake; I’m not sure that it’s not for me either. Meaning that in the eyes of a good majority of Americans—certainly my Catholic relatives—I’m not a complete lost cause yet. But I don’t dare reveal my fully developed answer.

Personally, I don’t understand why people feel the need to legally legitimize their relationship with someone else.

When most people think of marriage the first word that comes to their mind is “love.” Marriage, after all, is a cotton candy coated love fest made of pink Starburst and snuggles, where codependence is fun and problems only happen to other people. Merriam and Webster, however, are not most people. Their primary definition of marriage is as follows: Marriage: 1. a (1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.

Words like “love,” “lifetime,” “loyalty,” and “companionship” are not included. “Opposite sex,” “contractual,” and “law,” on the other hand, are.

In ancient societies like Athens, marriage was practiced for the sole purpose of creating a lineage. While the marriage was public, and afterwards the wife was considered the legal property of the husband, spouses were not expected to provide each other affection or emotional fulfillment; their relationship was strictly business. Passion and lust were considered grossly inappropriate between spouses and were reserved for the husband’s mistresses. “We keep hetaerae [courtesans] for pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our body, and wives for the bearing of legitimate children and to keep watch over our house,” stated one ancient Grecian (Boboltz). This practice continued for hundreds of years. In 1174, over five hundred years after the period of ancient Greece had ended, the Countess of Champagne wrote, “We declare and we hold as firmly established that love cannot exert its powers between two people who are married to each other. For lovers give each other everything freely, under no compulsion of necessity, but married people are in duty bound to give in to each other’s desires and deny themselves to each other in nothing” (Capellanus). Seven hundred years later in Victorian England, women were often forced to marry out of economic necessity, and their husband’s extramarital affairs were expected. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, published in 1884, Friedrich Engels explains: “Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual—a man—and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other. For this purpose, the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy on the part of the man” (Engels). In other words, women had to be faithful so that her husband could be sure that her children were his and he could, therefore, pass his wealth on to them. He, on the other hand, enjoyed much less stringent societal rules.

Procreation still plays a major role in the culture of marriage, but the concept of marriage purely as a reproductive mechanism is more or less obsolete in contemporary Western cultures. If having children and getting married were mutually exclusive, starting a family outside of wedlock would be unheard of—yet a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins found that nearly one-half of women who became mothers in the new millennium have never been married (Weissmann). A separate study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that there are more than 51 million households headed by unmarried Americans, or roughly 44% of all households (Kreider).

Childless marriages would also not exist; yet in a 2013 study, 6% of married couples in the U.S. had no children, adopted or biological (Reyes). While this percentage seems surprisingly small, it is significant enough to disprove the idea that marriage today is simply a means of passing on the family name. In fact, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was hearing Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, a case on gay marriage, 26 prominent professors wrote in an Amici Curiae Brief of the Professors of the History of Marriage, Families, and the Law that “Marriage is not essentially about procreation because procreation is not essential to any marriage” (Blankenhorn 152).

Throughout history, marriage was also commonly used as a means to gain wealth and influence. Marriages of power were negotiated amongst prominent families as if arranging a business merger. Between commoners, a father determined his daughter’s fate based on the size of the dowry he offered. For some cultures this is still a common practice; it has been reported that roughly 30% of Japanese marriages today are omiai, or arranged (Westlake). Many Indian marriages are also negotiated by the bride and groom’s families; a middle-class family in India can spend around $100,000 on their daughter’s dowry. Even Indian Americans living in the U.S. often adopt this lifestyle. My next-door neighbors growing up, a lovely Indian couple, met once before their wedding day.

While in Western cultures dowries are mostly a thing of the past, we haven’t written off arranged marriages just yet. It is often speculated that high-profile marriages between celebrities or politicians are organized to make money or gain influence—think Bill and Hillary, Tom and Katie, Kim and Kanye. The list goes on. But outside of modern royalty, power dynamics don’t spur most marriages anymore.

What about marriage’s contractual benefits, like medical rights and inheritance? Marriage comes with a bundle of super-practical perks that make it all the more desirable. After all, when is making one’s life easier ever not a good thing?

One of these perks is hospital visitation. Upon entering into a marriage contract, this right is automatically given to one’s spouse. Before the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015, which gave homosexual couples across the United States the right to marry, many gay marriage activists believed that homosexuals were deprived of this right since they were not permitted to marry their partners under federal law. While gay couples were actually able to obtain this right before the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, such was not the case until 2011. In 2007, Janice Langbehn was denied the right to visit her partner Lisa Pond at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida after Pond suffered an aneurysm. Pond slipped into a coma and died while Langbehn was arguing with hospital administration to let her and their shared children into Pond’s room (Langbehn v. Jackson Memorial Hospital).

Three years later, in light of a lawsuit filed against Jackson Memorial on behalf of Langbehn, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum urging hospitals participating in Medicare or Medicaid to prohibit discrimination of visitors based on “race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” The memorandum rules were adopted into federal regulation in early 2011. In short, they allow patients to choose who has visitation privileges, extending them exactly the same rights as immediate family members (Presidential Memorandum—Hospital Visitation).

Partners out of wedlock also have the ability to make medical decisions for their loved one. However, unlike married couples, they are not given that right automatically. By obtaining a legal document called a health care proxy, anyone can appoint an agent able to make his or her medical decisions. You can appoint your best friend, an ex-lover, your next-door neighbor—whomever your heart desires.

The same goes for inheritance. Married couples automatically leave their property and possessions to their spouses when they pass away. Pretty sweet deal, yes—but not a reason to sprint to the altar. Like almost everything these days, it can be just as easily accomplished with an attorney’s help and a few signatures. Create a will, and you can leave your estate to a person (or persons) of your choosing. While this is certainly better than having no ability to choose, it still separates the wed from the unwed. Married people can rest assured knowing that they don’t have to worry about decisions like this, while unmarried people have to have the foresight and initiative to seek out and establish such rights. Don’t be fooled—there are some legal benefits of marriage that aren’t extended to non-married persons at all, like tax breaks and joint-adoption rights. We’ll discuss those later on.

If family planning and acquisition of wealth are out-of-date reasons to get married, and many benefits like inheritance and medical decision-making aren’t exclusive to marriage, why are 2.208 million marriages predicted to take place in the U.S. this year? “LOVE!” screams a Hallmark-obsessed, Rom-Com binging 21st century that is embodied by my roommate. For the most part, people have reconciled the notions of love and marriage; it’s safe to say that love is the foremost reason that most people get married today. We’re taught that marriage is about finding our pre-destined soul mate, vowing eternal loyalty to them, and living blissfully together for the rest of our days. However, this notion is new—like, really new. Love was first introduced into the marriage equation during the Enlightenment, when people began to apply ‘the pursuit of happiness’ to their everyday lives.

However, most people were still skeptical. It wasn’t until a century later during the age of romantics like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte that marriage based on love became a widely respected idea. Ironically, Austen was denied by her first suitors family because she lacked a dowry; she eventually accepted a proposal from a man whom she had little interest in, out of fear of becoming a financial burden to her family. The next day she changed her mind, stating that she simply could not marry someone she did not love (Abbott). What’s more, marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, professor at The Evergreen State College and author of Marriage, A History, told Forbes magazine in 2010 that it has only been in the past 25 years that people have said they’d get married just for love (Goudreau).

This explains why the basic institution of marriage, the foundation of which was created thousands of years ago, arguably has nothing to do with romance. As said before, marriage requires nothing but a consensual and contractual relationship. When a happy couple goes to apply for their marriage license, no background check is conducted to make sure they’re deeply in love, except when they’re applying for a green card. Such a practice would be seen as an invasion of privacy. Why? Because, people would argue, your relationship with your partner is not the government’s business. Yet marriage is a government-regulated institution. So the practice of getting legally married is - and should be - separate from love and romance. Bingo.

Scenes from a Jersey Restaurant

“Of cooouuurse my mother knew. My father had a mistress for yeeaaarsss, honey.” When he talks, he looks like he should have a cigarette nestled gracefully in the V of his long fingers. “I told her if she divorced him, she was nuts. He was a good husband and a good provider.”

We stand in the five-by-six foot servers’ station, leaning up against the faded blue counters stacked high with clear plastic cups and foam to-go containers. Matthew* has been serving at the restaurant for twenty years, and has been a loud, self-proclaimed ‘diva’ for twice as long. Behind wire rims, his beady eyes search me for a sign of agreement. I nod, not knowing how else to react, and begin refilling saltshakers in order to avoid his gaze.

“You know honey, women change after having kids. They take on the role of the mother and forget to be a wife. But women need to make their husbands a priority. They spend all their time doing things for their kids and at the end of the day they’re exhausted, they’re irritable, they don’t want to have sex anymore…”

I wonder how he knows so much about women, being a man who is married to a man and has only ever been with men. I switch to filling the peppershakers.

“I think my mother was mostly to blame for my dad’s cheating. She let herself go. And let me tell you, if you’re not satisfying your man, you better believe he’s getting it somewhere else. Men have needs.” Men have needs, I think. But women, needless and unfaltering, are bound to the ceaseless duties of both child rearer and vivacious playmate, expected to ask for nothing in return. Matrimony.

“If my husband cheated on me, I’d cut his dick off,” spits Trisha*, a tan, blonde, twenty-some-thing bartender, as she cleans ketchup bottles in the sink behind us. Although I know her poisonous tone can most likely be attributed to a hang-over, I am grateful for her unspoken alliance.

“Oh stop it, Blanche.” Matthew dismisses her with a quick wave of his hand. “Look. Women need to keep themselves in shape to look good for their husbands. Men aren’t like women. They think with their penises.” Is that why your argument is so mind-numbingly sexist? My inner voice sasses back. The hostess shushes us from her stand several feet away, clearly embarrassed by the topic of our discussion.

Unfazed, Matthew continues. “Do you think I like that? No. I’m embarrassed by how much it rules over me.” He gestures in a V towards his crotch. “I’ve made mistakes too; I’ve strayed. So has Frank. But we know we love each other, and we know it was just sex, it has nothing to do with how we feel about each other. If you don’t think most married men cheat, you’re delusional. But we’ve been together for fifteen years. So you work through it.”

My head feels like it’s about to rupture. That’s it? I think, with the same deflated feeling in my chest as when I realized Santa wasn’t real. I’m supposed to expect my husband to cheat, and just forget about it and move on? That’s the key to marriage? I feel the scar of another one of society’s lies already forming on my brain, right next to the ones from the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Is the perfect marriage just as much of a far-fetched fantasy as they are?

Trish a makes a face at him like she just sucked on a lemon. Her interest apparently lost, she heads back to the bar.

I know better than to argue with Matthew, so I hide my disturbance and say the only thing I can think of. “Hey Matthew, do you think the sugars need filling?” *names have been changed

Swan Song

Of the thousands of species in the animal kingdom there are roughly 15 that are considered monogamous by nature. Gibbons, penguins, termites, French angelfish. Bald eagles, cockroaches, wolves. Sometimes humans make the list, but not always. The most well-known of this group is the swan. The swan’s tendency to form long-term, often lifetime, bonds has been recognized and admired for centuries and is almost as legendary as its song—its final gift before passing away. In fact, their loyalty to their mates is so storied that the image of two swans with their necks intertwined in the shape of a heart has become an almost universal symbol of love.

Joyce is a 4’11” Italian woman with untamable hair and a spirit to match. She talks with her hands and a slight underbite, and prides herself on her taste in jewelry, Mediterranean cuisine, and men. She hates Oprah and the word “boob.” When you visit her, she’ll backhandedly insult your new haircut before offering to whip you up some ravioli. If you tell her a secret, it’ll be on the front page of the next day’s paper.

Bill was a large Polish man from Kensington. He wore rectangular wire-rimmed glasses that moved up and down on his perpetually red cheeks when he laughed. He loved to smile, and smiled the widest when he was fishing—and when Joyce was yelling at him for not slicing the vegetables correctly or for forgetting to take the dog out. His eyes sparkled mischievously when he told one of his many jokes, especially the one about the priest and the barber.

For over fifty years, they drove each other crazy. “William!” she’d scream at him after he’d make a sly comment about the inevitable and inescapable insanity of Italian women. “BE. NICE. TO. ME.” She beat the words into his chest with the flat side of her fist, her face tilted up at him at a 90-degree angle. His glasses would bounce as he snickered. “Sorry, dear,” he’d coo sarcastically.

“What the hell’s the matter with you!” She yelled this often. He’d just stand back and laugh; no matter how hard she tried to stay mad at him, she would inevitably submit to laughter as well. Even at 65 years old, with two fully-grown children, she called him her “hunk,” her “man.” Their union was two opposite halves forming a perfect whole.

She was supposed to go first. When the doctor discovered her heart defect at birth, he had given her 14 years to live. She grew up not being allowed to play outside with her seven siblings—the adults feared that her circulatory system would fail. At 14 years old, the doctors said she wouldn’t make it to 21. She wasn’t allowed to date because her parents didn’t think it would be fair to her suitors if she suddenly got sick. At 21, she was told she’d never be able to have children. After two children, she stopped listening. When she was 63, her pacemaker began to fail. After weeks of intensive care, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told Bill she had less than 10% chance of survival. Bill had been mentally preparing himself for this since their second date, but it hadn’t felt possible until now, 35 years into their marriage. He informed the entire family, finalized her will, and made all of the necessary arrangements one makes when planning for the worst. She came home a month later.

She was supposed to go first. And then Bill was diagnosed.

His esophageal cancer had already reached stage II by the time they found it. Nine months, they said. Nine months left of fishing, of telling jokes, of driving her crazy. That was it.

During the chemotherapy process Bill lost over 75 pounds, but that goofy smile never budged. He still told the priest and the barber joke the following Thanksgiving as he ate his plate of gluten-free bread, organic chicken and steamed vegetables, as per his new dietary restrictions. If he craved the marshmallow sweet potatoes and stuffing that passed over his spot at the table, he never let it show. He went on fishing trips with his sons often and sang louder in the church choir than he ever had, his baritone voice booming over the piano. “I feel better than I have in years!” he’d started saying six months into his treatment. The joyful look in his eyes had everyone convinced.

It was almost two years before he left her. It’s unclear if it was his fight that allowed him to outlast his death sentence, or hers. She was determined to hold onto him. “If you leave me, I swear to God I’ll kill you,” she’d said before, only half-joking. “I told you I want to go first!” It was the only time Bill disobeyed her wishes.

The next spring, Joyce received a bouquet of a dozen fresh red roses delivered to her doorstep. He had been gone since January. Yet the note attached read, “From your loving husband, Bill.” Her frail, pacemaker-driven heart nearly stopped.

Assuming it was a mistake or a well-meaning yet heartbreaking gesture from one of her sons, she called the flower company listed at the bottom of the note.

“Ma’am,” the knowing florist on the other end said softly, “before he passed away, your husband ordered a dozen red roses to be delivered to you on your anniversary for the next ten years.”

Her heart stuck in her throat and her eyesight quickly going blurry, she thanked the woman and hung up. Through her tears, she gazed at the roses on the table.

Bill was her swan, and the roses were his swan song.

Part 2: “Saying ‘I Do’ to Government Regulation of Your Private Life”

“The totally true answer is that we got married so that my partner could answer the telephone at my house.” The furrowed look behind his rectangular black frames is replaced by a smirk. “We were living together and my parents didn’t know that, and my parents are super conservative. Historically, I’m not that good at disappointing my parents. It’s actually a really dumb reason to get married.”

Professor Michael Goodhart received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 2000 and works as an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is considered an expert in human rights and political philosophy, and was invited to teach at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin in 2009. His classes always have a wait list.

Goodhart is happily married and has been for years. Yet when asked if he believes in legal marriage, he jumps to answer: “Not in its present form. I think it’s way too restrictive. Obviously the gay marriage stuff is changing fast, and it looks like that will be legalized. But it’s also not clear to me why the state should confer benefits on people who join up in certain ways and not other ways. Why should the state support my wife and me with lots of tax breaks and inheritance and whatnot, and not, say, two elderly sisters who have been living together for 30 years? I just don’t see the rationale in that.” His Ph.D. kicks in: “The state discriminates based on lots of historical and racial reasons that have nothing to do with public policy, and winds up being unfair to lots of people.”

I glance at the cluttered wall of books to the right of his desk. Hundreds of titles on public policy, global injustice, and philosophy are crammed into every cranny of the towering wooden shelves. Several, including Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization, have his name on the spine.

Goodhart has been married “an embarrassingly long time,” according to his precise calculations. After years of weathering and shaping, he says his perception of marriage has changed dramatically. Now, one advantage comes to his mind that he hadn’t considered before: “I guess I would say, I now better understand the arguments made about why some kind of formalized or socially recognized relationship can be beneficial to the people who are involved in it. I was practically a child [when I got married]… there were moments when it wasn’t at all obvious that my partner and I would stay together. And the fact that we were married and there would actually have to be steps taken to undo that, there was a kind of inertia that helped us get through them.” He pauses and struggles to collect his thoughts, a problem not common for him. “It’s not even an incentive, it’s like a restraint—it actually prevents you from easily breaking up. The hassle involved… it’s funny that way.” His eyes light up with the realization of his own irony: one of marriage’s biggest advantages is its restrictiveness. “I didn’t understand that, for sure, at one point in my life, and now I understand it. So that makes me a bit more… I don’t want to say pro-marriage, per say. But I definitely see the value in publically committed relationships.”

He stares intently at the far corner of the ceiling, seemingly into space, as if his glasses are showing an engaging film that can only be seen inside the lenses. The silence in the room is charged with an almost-tangible energy. Finally, he answers.

“In a completely ideal society, everybody would be totally okay with people who are different from them, and there would be no need for formalizing relationships through the state. Which is not the same as saying there would be no need for publically recognizing relationships. But if the state has to be involved, marriage should be gotten rid of, and there should be a whole bunch of kinds of civil partnerships people could form, and those could make things like child custody and inheritance and that stuff easier to work out. People could just decide whom to share that stuff with, and they could enter agreements that would be suited to the kind of life they want to live.”

“If people want to have some kind of ceremony to make their commitment to one another, I think that would be just as good. Really, it’s the same thing. Well, if you’re an atheist like me, it’s the same thing.” His smirk finds its way back for a fleeting moment, and again is lost in thought.

“Probably… probably the main lesson I’ve learned in life is that life is really big. There are so many different people with different wants and desires and fears and hopes and whatever, and there’s no, like, one-size-fits-all pattern that can accommodate everybody. And I should say, part of what it means that ‘life is big’ is that for lots of people, marriage can work. But it’s just one way of being. It’s just one.”

* * *

When playing The Game of Life as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed child, most likely in your living room with Rugrats reruns droning inaudibly in the background, you probably didn’t get caught up on this direction. In fact, you probably didn’t read the directions at all.

“When you reach this space, stop—even if you have moves left.”

Sure, it’s just a board game your mom picked up at Toys “R” Us. After a few uses, it most likely collected dust in some rarely opened drawer or cabinet before you opted to sell it, half of the pieces missing, at a neighborhood yard sale for $3.

But just how closely does it resemble reality?

You’ve probably always pictured yourself getting married at some point. I know I have. My elementary school notebooks, covered with “Future Mrs. Jonas” scribbles and loopy graphite hearts, stand as evidence.

When I was 13, after watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time, I told my parents I would only accept a proposal with an authentic Tiffany’s engagement ring. I picked out my dream wedding dress, a Princess Tiana-inspired gown from the Alfred Angelo Disney Fairy Tale Wedding collection, when I was 14. I would flip through my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Bill’s wedding album with intense longing - desperately wishing that I’d one day end up in my own perfect match with two children and a house with a white picket fence. It never occurred to me that there were other ways of life in which I might thrive. I was set on marriage before I was even old enough to date.

My narrative is a common one. Every Disney movie, Julia Roberts Rom-Com, wedding-based reality TV show, and headline reading “10 Signs He Wants to Marry You” or “The Key to Making Your Marriage Last” tells us the same thing: getting married is a fundamental part of life. We grow up immersed in it. It’s such a widespread expectation that it’s rarely given much thought. ‘Get married’ isn’t just a rule in a board game; it’s an unspoken rule in real life.

When taking the time to consider marriage as an institution, one thing that becomes clear is the immense pressure to assimilate to societal standards. Writer Jennifer Vanasco, after considering marrying her girlfriend, wrote that marriage is more than just obtaining benefits and publically announcing your commitment. It “validates membership in society” (Blankenhorn). We feel compelled to follow the norm because we’re afraid of being viewed as outcasts. Middle-aged single people are pitied as if they’ve been dealt a losing hand. Unmarried individuals are assumed to be undesirable; there must be something wrong with them, or else they’d surely have found a life partner. Relationships between deeply committed but unwed partners are judged as less legitimate than those of married spouses. We rarely, if ever, consider the possibility that unmarried people chose to live that way because we view their lifestyle as inherently inferior to married life. Not following the marriage rule means you will always be at the fringe of society, never fully validated or accepted. Those who take the road less traveled walk alone.

By meeting society’s expectations and becoming part of the norm, we subconsciously send the message to others that they should do the same. When we abide by what modern culture tells us is acceptable and proper, without giving thought to whether it’s the course that will provide us with as much happiness as possible, we slip into the mindless cycle of normality, one that will continue to draw others in without us even realizing our part in their assimilation. Vanasco writes, “We validate the institution at the same time it validates us” (Blankenhorn).

As humans, feeling validated by society is essential to our psychological wellbeing. We fear isolation and crave social acceptance. In a society that only fully validates people with spouses, the individual self is seldom viewed as enough. This explains why people often refer to their spouse as their “better half” as if they’re not whole by themselves. While the idea is romantic, it is detrimental to individuality. Those who choose not to marry are not seen as independent, but as isolated. When did we begin to see ourselves as halves, instead of feeling complete on our own? Why are we only validated, by ourselves and others, once we’ve committed to sharing a life with someone else?

Marriage continues to be validated not just because we are afraid of independence, but also because we dislike change. That’s a fact. A 2010 study showed that “the longer something is thought to exist, the better it is evaluated” (Eidelman). We crave the comfortable and find comfort in the familiar. Marriage is an institution as old as time; without it, the entire structure of society would be different. Its history and tradition have rooted themselves in our culture, giving it immense value. This is largely why gay marriage is currently such a controversial topic. David L. Chambers, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a gay marriage advocate, states it would likely “make society receptive to further evolution of the law” (Blankenhorn). It would change the norm. It would upset the delicate equilibrium of tradition, and, frankly, that scares the shit out of people.

Why does the law regulate marriage anyway? Again, this question is rarely dwelled on. The government does offer many privileges to married couples, including tax breaks, spousal immunity in court, the right to a late partner’s Social Security pension, and simpler joint-adoption methods. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided on the basis of marital status in Federal law. The reasoning behind this is simple: the government wants us to conform to the social norm. By getting married, we organize ourselves in a stable, manageable and predictable way. The family structure is the nucleus of society, and is essential to its order. Without it, it would be extremely challenging to regulate society, as there would be so many different types of relationships and classifications of people that one set of laws could likely not rule over all of them. Many people also believe that the ‘traditional’ family unit of a husband, wife and children promotes civic values and peaceful communities. The Family Research Council, an openly anti-gay marriage organization, claims that traditional marriages benefit society because married people have better physical health and higher incomes, and are less likely to engage in violent abuse or suffer from depression. Furthermore, their children are less likely to engage in illicit drug use, get expelled from school, become arrested, or suffer other behavioral problems (Sprigg). Therefore, the government offers legal rights as an incentive to comply with their preferred social framework.

It’s true that government officials don’t typically question the nature of your relationship with your spouse. Shocking as it may be, the government doesn’t care if you’re marrying for love, money, security, whatever. It doesn’t even pretend to care. To obtain a marriage license in Pennsylvania, you need a valid photo I.D., Social Security card, and $80 (City of Philadelphia: Register of Wills). That’s it. Of course, there are some cases in which the government takes a bit more interest. What it does care about is regulating immigration and labor. This explains why, when applying for a marriage-based Green Card, the government suddenly wants to know all about how you and your future husband or wife met, the plans you have to build a life together, all that jazz. You can be sure the Department of Homeland Security will check that you and your partner have legitimate reasons for getting married, if that marriage equates to letting a foreigner live permanently on U.S. soil. If government officials find your partner unsuitable for a Green Card or suspect them of visa fraud—using a visa with the intention of applying for a Green Card based on marriage— your partner can be deported at any time (Bray). So your vows should read, “Till death—or the Department of Homeland Security—do us part.”

Taxes, immigration laws, Social Security—these are the aspects of marriage that the government regulates. It gives no toast at your reception, takes no part in planning your honeymoon, doesn’t ask how you proposed or where you’re registered for your wedding shower. It has no interest in whether you want children or if you’ll have family dinner every night at 6:00 sharp. It doesn’t care if you remain monogamous with your partner or if you take your wedding ring off as soon as you walk out the front door every morning. Realistically, the government has nothing to do with what many people see as the most important values of marriage.

In 2001, 45% of Americans in their twenties believed that governments should not be involved in licensing marriage, a statistic that’s likely grown over the past 14 years (Unmarried Equality). Why? Because the private practices of marriage can continue without the state’s involvement. The only thing that legal marriage provides is a contract and the terms that come with it, most of which are in place in order to persuade us to marry. As Professor Goodhart said, you can hold a religious ceremony or reception to celebrate your commitment to someone without filling out a piece of paper and notifying the government of your relationship. You can establish a long-term or life partner without defining your connection in impersonal, unfamiliar legal terms. You can create a household, raise children, support each other financially, and grow old together, all without getting legally married. These aspects of marriage, the most intimate and widely cherished aspects, require only a desire to partake in them. 

Furthermore, if the state does continue to regulate marriage, there is no reason it should reserve the power to tell people who they can and cannot enter into such legal contracts with. As previously stated, people are not comfortable with the government invading their intimate relationships. Yet, by imposing regulations on who we are permitted to marry, it does just that. Goodhart and Chambers agree that individuals should be allowed to join up and receive marriage benefits with whomever they please. If two best friends are both single and have created a home together, why shouldn’t they be allowed to enjoy the same benefits that spouses have? Is there any reason the state should deny them joint tax filing, Social Security, or survivor benefits, especially when the state doesn’t care if traditional spouses are romantically involved or planning on starting a family? In a legal article titled “For the Best of Friends and for Lovers of all Sorts, a Status Other than Marriage,” Chambers advocates for “a state-sanctioned status other than marriage that would be available to any unmarried pair with a close relationship—whether cohabiting or not, whether romantically involved or not, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, whether related by blood or not.” He would call this “designated friends” (Blankenhorn).

Some critics may worry that this would further weaken the supposedly already damaged institution of marriage. This is only true in the sense that it would move marriage further away from the status quo. The changes that marriage and the traditional family structure have seen, even just in the past several decades—including greater equality of the sexes, an easier divorce process, more married couples without children and more unmarried parents raising families out of wedlock—aren’t weakening. They’re liberating. They have made marriage less restrictive and less oppressive. At their very core, they have promoted liberty and personal freedom.

With more and more states recognizing gay marriage every year, the status quo of marriage is already evolving in a major way. As Chambers writes: “By ceasing to conceive of marriage as a partnership composed of one person of each sex, the state may become more receptive to units of three or more and of units composed of two people of the same sex but who are bound by friendship alone. All desirable changes in family law need not be made at once.” Gay marriage is the next necessary step in the government allowing people to marry whoever they choose without restriction, and possibly the next step in eliminating the state’s unnecessary involvement in marriage altogether.

Much to the dismay of my 13-year-old self, I don’t know if I want to get married. Marriage seemed like a given at one point in my life, and while I now view it with a much more critical eye, I can’t say I don’t still update my own Pinterest wedding board or watch episodes of Amazing Wedding Cakes from time to time. But I’m not willing to commit myself to one lifestyle just because it’s what the government and mainstream culture deem acceptable. If I opt for my Tiffany’s ring, Alfred Angelo gown and white picket fence, it won’t be because I reached the ‘Get Married’ space on the board and was told to stop. Life is just too big.


Abbott, Elizabeth. A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition. New York: Seven Stories, 2011. Print.

Blankenhorn, David. The Future of Marriage. New York: Encounter, 2007. Print. Boboltz, Sara. “Here’s Why The Idea Of ‘Traditional Marriage’ Is Total Bullsh*t.” The Huffington Post., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Bray, Ilona. “Can an Illegal Immigrant Get a Green Card By Marriage To U.S. Citizen or Resident? -” N.p., 2005. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Capellanus, Andreas. “Excerpt from Cappellanus [Heckel].” The Art of Courtly Love. New York: F. Ungar, 1959. N. pag. Print.

“City of Philadelphia: Register of Wills - Marriage License Information.” City of Philadelphia: Register of Wills - Marriage License Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Eidelman, Scott, Jennifer Pattershall, and Christian S. Crandall. “Longer Is Better.” Science Direct. Elsevier, Nov. 2010. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International, 1942. Print.

Goudreau, Jenna. “Why Men And Women Get Married.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Kreider, Rose M. America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Economics

“Langbehn v. Jackson Memorial Hospital | Lambda Legal.” Langbehn v. Jackson Memorial Hospital | Lambda Legal. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. “Presidential Memorandum - Hospital Visitation.” The White House. The White House, 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Reyes, Emily A. “More Married Women in U.S. Aren’t Having Children.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 08 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Sprigg, Peter. “Family Research Council.” Family Research Council. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Weissmann, Jordan. “For Millennials, Out-of-Wedlock Childbirth Is the Norm. Now What? .” Slate. Slate, 23 June 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Westlake, Adam. “Increase in Arranged Marriages after Last Year’s Disasters - The Japan Daily Press.” The Japan Daily Press. N.p., 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

previous | next

Volume 7, Fall 2015