M’colleagues and I at Interrobangs Anonymous are big fans of Jian Ghomeshi, so it’s not at all meant as a snipe at him or his work in general when I say that I’m a bit disappointed in the debate he had on Q asking whether marriage is still a relevant institution. The debate was broadcast about two weeks ago, but I’ve spent the past bit traipsing around various parts of Canada for Christmas, so I’m just getting this all down in electrons now. The audio (~20 minutes) is at the link, and this post will probably make considerably more sense if you listen to it first.
The debate had Iris Krasnow arguing that marriage is still a relevant institution, and Russell Smith arguing against it. Karsnow’s arguments centred on interviews with women she did for a book she wrote on women’s roles in marriage; she cited that the majority of the women she talked to spoke highly and longingly of marriage and long term commitment. Smith’s central argument was that there are no legal teeth in marriage that enforce commitment, especially considering that there is a significant divorce rate, and that the benefits of marriage are not meaningfully dependent on having signed a certificate. I personally am solidly in Smith’s camp on this issue — I have no intention of marrying, and many of my thoughts on marriage were mirrored by points he brought up. In that light, then, I have some specific beefs both with arguments put forward by Krasnow, and also some glaring omissions on everyone’s part (though obviously not every aspect of the question can be covered in 20 minutes).
My principal objection is that the debate (and Krasnow’s argument in particular) focused almost entirely on the relevance of marriage in individual partnerships, rather than how we as a society collectively treat the institution. While an individual marriage is very personal and the parameters of it are particular to the individuals involved, marriage as an institution has more depth and complexity than just being a sum of components. As such, how we regard marriage as a society is not informed just by our individual experiences with marriage (either directly or by proximity to others), but also how we perceive the institution as a whole, with all the legal and economic considerations that it entails. The legal considerations were touched on in passing in the debate, but the considerable economic considerations were nearly entirely ignored.
This is shortsighted; expounding that marriage is a relevant institution simply because 90% of USians will get married at some point in their lives (as Krasnow does; the figure in Canada appears to be around 85%) misses much of the picture as to why people get married. Leaving aside that Krasnow’s argument is based on a rosy-glassed romantic view of marriage, which she later says is not the basis of a marriage, insisting that a social institution is culturally relevant without exploring why people opt into it is toothless. There are still plenty of economic and codified social benefits to marriage, including the oft-cited (and much dismissed by the insistently rosy-glassed among us) things like tax incentives, increased availability of pooled resources like health benefits, and next-of-kin status in the event of hospital stays.
Women, historically, find their social and legal identities more transformed than their male partners. (Of course this varies on an individual basis, but I’m talking on a society-wide scale here. Since same-sex marriage is a recent addition to the legal definition of marriage, I’m leaving it out of this argument, which is rooted in more distant history.) This is evidenced by (among other things) the difference between Miss and Mrs, the fraught discussion about name-changing, the legitimized social status that often comes with marriage, and the traditional assumption that women drop out of the work force after marriage. Setting aside personal nomenclature for this post, there are still considerable economic pressures facing women who marry. If they’re looking to having children in the foreseeable future, do they stay in the workforce, or do they stay home with their child(ren)? How much can they afford to spend on childcare? To what degree can they expect to have a stable, equitably paid job (to the extent that anyone has a stable job, and any woman is equitably paid) if they return to the workforce? How do they manage the typical burden of child-rearing in conjunction with their career? (I wish more people asked that of men.) There’s still a significant pay gap between women with and without children — and women (and men) with children have extra mouths to feed, clothe, and attempt to keep healthy. Codifying a relationship via marriage, for many women, provides some economic security. Their husbands have a better chance of being well paid and keep a stable job, often even better than men without children (see eighth paragraph down; however, it’s unclear to me in which direction the causation goes). Legally pooling the economic resources can provide the woman with some measure of economic insurance. If things go awry, there are legal avenues she can pursue to ensure her economic security which may not be available to her without a marriage certificate.
Conversely, as gender inequality is reduced, the institution of marriage as economic (and social) insurance becomes increasingly unnecessary. There’s no need to marry for economic reasons when your economic prospects look bright, or at least not dismal. There’s no need to marry when you are still considered a full and important member of society on your own, rather than as a companion to your husband. There’s no need to marry when your relationship is publicly acknowledged by your daily, mundane actions witnessed by your family and friends. As women are increasingly viewed as complete and vital citizens in their own right, and not just in relation to their husbands and children, the institution of marriage (which exists solely to codify those relations) becomes increasingly outdated and irrelevant. Rebranding marriage in terms of romance, couched in the language used to market diamonds, seems like grasping at straws, and I believe it tries to tie secular marriage to religious marriage in an attempt to speak to people’s emotional sides.
I’ve left out the religious aspect of marriage up to this point on purpose, mostly because I can contribute little to that conversation. Marriage comes out of a religious context, but the economic and legal aspects of it are secularly regulated now. Marriage as an institution exists as a secular/religious duality; the place of marriage in a religious versus a secular context is very different, and I’ll leave that discussion to those better versed in organized religion, but my criticism, I believe, of the secular branch of the institution stands on its own.
Because it’s pretty clear to me that if marriage is not already irrelevant, it’s heading in that direction. Something like 40% of young people (ie, the people we think of as of marrying age) think that marriage is becoming outdated, and I’d wager that a lot of that 40% end up marrying not purely for romance and emotional satisfaction, but also significantly for pedestrian things like health and dental benefits, immigration issues, or family pressure. Since people are marrying older and more educated (though the workforce as a whole is more educated than it was 40 or 50 years ago), the argument that marriage is designed to make us adults falls flat. Most of the people getting married have acquired to some degree many of the typical trappings of nascent adulthood (moving out of their parent’s home, full-time job, Ikea couch, etc) that in the past were acquired at the same time as a wedding ring. On the other hand, with unemployment rates among young people being astronomically high (though this is more true in the US than in Canada, where rates are falling), the division between independent adulthood and the ill-defined place that many people in their twenties find themselves is very murky. And what are the actual trappings of adulthood, anyway? Stable employment? Plenty of people well beyond their twenties find themselves in unstable jobs. A matching china set? A house in the suburbs and a car in the driveway? Trite material goods are a poor indicator of social maturity, and houses are often out of reach of younger adults (20- and 30-somethings) due lack of employment certainty. Is marriage itself the defining line between adulthood and non-adulthood? That’s just a circular argument which is ultimately meaningless and excludes all those who can’t legally marry from reaching adulthood (though thankfully, this is not an issue in Canada), and plus it doesn’t make any sense. I’m afraid I have no good answer to the question.
I should, in wrapping this up, reiterate that I’m not talking about your marriage. I understand that there’re plenty of reasons why people get married, and that many people who do find great personal meaning and fulfillment in it, and that’s great! That’s your personal beeswax, and none of mine (or the state’s). But how we approach the institution of marriage rather than particular, individual marriages is evolving and crumbling in light of a more progressive and open society. If anything, weirdly, I think that makes individual marriages more important: if it’s not socially compulsory, and you’ve got compelling personal motivation (possibly religious?) to get married, then isn’t that more significant than if you get married because you’re pressured or forced into it, or you’ll have a severely limited place in society if you don’t? It seems to me that entering into a marriage because you personally find it meaningful, rather than being pressed into it for any set of a variety of reasons, makes your choice that much more profound. To get to the point where people are marrying only for deeply personal reasons like the yearning for publicly affirmed commitment that Krasnow posits as solely the domain of institutionalized marriage (which I think is hogwash — plenty of unmarried people are deeply, publicly committed to their partners), we need to as a society strip out all the economic and pedestrian privileges of marriage. We need to work towards a society where everyone can get married if they want to (which in itself is another form of reducing inequality), but at the same time our work to reduce inequality across demographic axes (gender, race, social class, etc) is chipping away at the economic, legal, and social pressures that prod couples down the aisle. Ultimately, how you define your relationship is your business — and none of mine, and by extension, none of the state’s.