Marriage is fine if you want to enter into it, but it should not be recognized by the state nor serve as a method to access unfair benefits. Also, it’s really not fair for non-hetero, non-cis, non-monogamous people.
Before you hit the back button in rage, hear me out.
By “ban marriage”, I don’t mean stop people from getting married. I mean remove marriage as a status recognized by the state. If people want to have marriage ceremonies for religious or other reasons, let them: but the state should not have a say in, nor knowledge of, this relationship status.
Marriage, as a state-sanctioned institution, is used to maintain wealth in the wealthy’s hands and disenfranchise the poor and marginalized. Marriage is an oppressive system that supports ideas of “owning” other human beings. It limits the sexual and emotional potential of every person.
All consensual relationships, short-term and long-term, with or without children, are valid. I am not against relationships. I am against marriage, as it has become a privileged status that gives married people unfair benefits.
Marriage maintains wealth for the wealthy
In Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz notes: “through most of human history, marriage united not just two mates but two sets of families.” Marriage has been used to consolidate land and wealth, to broker political arrangements, to build capitalist and political empires. Although it is less the case today, women have been used as the goods in these exchanges. I’m not saying anything revolutionary or radical here: anyone with a basic knowledge of Western history can make that conclusion for themselves.
But what of today, then? Prime Ministers do not marry off their daughters to Presidents to support military alliances anymore. But there is still an obvious pattern in who marries whom: people of similar classes, appearance and wealth marry each other. Theories of “mate market value” explain why high-value women (fertile, pretty) marry high-value men (rich, powerful). Not surprising, some would say: “Birds of a feather flock together”, and so the pretty, rich, and famous marry each other because they are around each other all the time.
In Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland describes how the very rich rarely interact with “the masses”, which further increases the concentration of wealth in their hands. They marry each other to maintain business interests. A great example is Betsy DeVos, whose business interests are tied to her husband’s, and who is using her political post to fill her and her husband’s families’ pockets.
But even in the ordinary world of middle-class people, marriage has financial benefits. In Canada, these include spousal transfers and benefit pooling. Even though income splitting (a law that allowed a person to use business income to “pay” a family member who doesn’t work in order to reduce their own tax load) has changed in major ways in our country, there are still many ways that the rich can lower their tax amounts and keep money in the family.
During the Bush era, instead of actually dealing with the structural causes of poverty, politicians held up marriage as an anti-poverty measure. “Nah, you don’t need stable jobs with a living wage and affordable housing, you just need to get married!”
In other words, people who are married have advantages that the unmarried do not.
Some people would say that these benefits are necessary because raising children costs money. But there are specific tax benefits for children that have nothing to do with whether or not the parents are married. It is unnecessary for the parents to be married, or even live together, to have access to child-related benefits.
Just consider the argument that “marriage makes you wealthier”. Sure, marriage pools resources, reduces (some) costs of living, and, as I showed, has plenty of tax benefits. But apparently, marriage makes you wealthier also because wealthy people are getting married at much higher rates than poor people; in some countries, the likelihood of marriage is four times higher for the wealthy.
There is an obvious inequality here. As poor people delay or avoid marriage because it costs too much or they cannot find a mate, they cannot access the financial benefits that come with the status. This contributes to their remaining poor. The wealthy, on the other hand, have the money for marriage, and increase their wealth through it.
Marriage contributes to economic inequality. This alone should motivate us to take a look at whether or not it is fair for the state to recognize and encourage marriage.
Marriage disenfranchises the poor and marginalized
My generation recognizes this: since the collapse of the one-earner-per-household middle-class economy, people are putting off marriage for longer and longer, and sometimes even forever. As I have discussed above, access to the institution is itself linked to class and income: this (lack of) access keeps poor people poor, and makes the rich richer.
But it does more than that. Marriage as a legitimizing institution is used to keep the LGBTQIA2S+ marginalized. Obviously, non-heterosexual couples who cannot get married cannot access the wealth-building benefits of marriage. But more than that: requiring that the LGBTQIA2S+ marry reinforces marriage as an institution, instead of truly legitimizing non-heterosexual, non-monogamous forms of relationships.
As marriage for gays and lesbians approached legality, around 2003, Canadians were treated to an unprecedented visual display of respectable homosexuality: an extended series of photos displaying not the ashamed and effeminate homosexuals that used to be posed in dark corners in 1960s reportage of seamy gay life, but rather an array of perfect “same-sex” couples, usually shown in the full glare of sunlight, a lighting convention at odds with representations of the classic homosexual.
She goes on to show that the “respectable same-sex couple” is usually made up of two (usually white) gender-conforming individuals with middle-class professions and lifestyles. No mention is ever made of their sexuality; in fact, Valverde argues that the very conditions for them being “respectable” is that they be 1. married, and 2. with their sexuality evacuated from their portraits.
Diana Richardson, in Sexuality and Citizenship, also argues something similar:
It is the (sexual) couple, wishing a particular domesticated setting, that has become the rights-bearing subject of lesbian and gay claims to citizenship. … In addition to the marginalization of other forms of caring and kinship relations, this new ‘othering’ might include people whose lives and relationships are not based on particular norms of domestic coupledom.
In other words, the only way that the LGBTQIA2S+ can access full citizenship is by marrying within a historically hetero- and mono-normative institution. Marriage has not been “queered”; the queer has become domesticated, and is therefore no longer queer.
By longing for recognition within the institution of marriage, the LGBTQIA2+ deny the revolutionary potential of their identity. Non-heterosexual marriage is not liberation: it is further marginalization of those who cannot access, or refuse to enter, the marriage institution, including the poor, disabled, immigrant, and PoC LGBTQIA2+.
Marriage as possession, marriage as limitation
When people ask me why I refuse to get married, my most common answer is: “because I don’t think that people should own other people”. The emotional and sexual exclusivity requirements of marriage turn me off. I don’t think it’s healthy, or fair, to limit the amount of love one person can give or receive. This becomes especially visible when monogamous couples use emotional or sexual withdrawal to punish each other.
We all need emotional and physical connection. In marriage, it is expected that these connections come solely from the partner. Yet, as many people (including myself) could tell you, removing affection or sex can have devastating consequences. Rejection is literal pain, and abusive partners who use the withdrawal of sex and affection know this. They manipulate their partners into giving them what they want by promising the return of affection and sex. It’s incredibly easy to harm someone this way. Monogamous marriage enables this abuse by demanding emotional and sexual exclusivity.
What if you were hired at a company for a job you liked, but only under the condition that you can never ever leave the company? This is literally indentured labour. You cannot escape your circumstances because leaving would mean never having an income again, from anyone, in any other circumstances. Would you risk it?
Monogamous marriage is indentured emotional labour. You make the promise to never connect emotionally, beyond friendship (and even then) with people other than your spouse (and your children). If your spouse decides to remove that emotional connection and the physical intimacy that comes with it, you are stuck. You can either divorce (which, for women, means worse economic outcomes and stigma) or suffer.
People in polyamorous arrangements understand this. They see that human connection happens whether we are committed to someone or not. They understand that emotions are fluid and many-sided, that attraction cannot be controlled. Commitment is different from love; that they come together in marriage seems natural because that is the only model we know. Can commitment exist without marriage? Absolutely. Can love be valid without commitment? Very much so.
Monogamy is a valid choice, but only if it is entered into openly and honestly. This means challenging our scripts about romantic relationships and searching our hearts and minds to find out what we really want and need. Marriage often short-circuits that process and imposes norms that many of us do not even know about, let alone agree with. Monogamy should not be a privileged position but a choice that we make freely.
Question your received ideas
In the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert, famous French realist, wrote a Dictionnaire Des Idées Reçues, or “dictionary of received ideas”. It lists words with their associated automatic reactions, their unexamined meaning for ordinary people. Going through it is a funny exercise, especially because of its age. But many stereotypes we still hold still reveal themselves and are exposed as the “received ideas” they truly are.
Marriage is a received idea. Relationships are all different, and they take work, but under marriage, they all become the same: monogamous, heterosexual, child-bearing, respectability-providing.
Scratch at marriage and you will see institutionalized privilege, disenfranchisement, and codified abuse.
Humans cannot live without social relationships, and romantic relationships are part of that social life. But humans can certainly live without marriage, especially in the form marriage takes today.
If we truly care for human liberation, if we truly aim to free people from all forms of oppression, institutionalized marriage should be among the first things on the guillotine block.