So I’ve written before for Dan Fincke and Libby Anne’s Forward Thinking Series, but this week’s prompt has me REALLY excited. Essentially it is “what is the purpose of marriage”? Oh boy. So many thoughts. My senior year at St Olaf I took a religion class entitled Sex and Community. It centered a lot around questions of marriage (and gay marriage), and spent a lot of time defining different purposes and meanings of marriage. So I’m greatly indebted to David Booth for sections of this post that I probably wouldn’t know about otherwise.
Here’s the thing about marriage: it does not serve a single purpose. Just like family does not serve a single purpose or government does not serve a single purpose, marriage has changed and grown and shrunk and done all sorts of loop de loops throughout history and across cultures. To me, this illustrates that we get a hand in defining what we believe the purpose of marriage is. Tradition is important, yes, and we may want to pull some meanings from history, but we get to actively define what our relationships mean to us and how they change with certain rituals. For me personally, that means that marriage means nothing except benefits and a title. I would never marry unless I was already 99% certain that I would stay with the person the rest of my life regardless of our marital status. Marriage is never going to be a goal or an aim in a relationship for me. If I’m going to marry, I expect to have already committed to the person: marriage would make that commitment more public, but I don’t think that telling other people something has to change the quality, strength, or character of your relationship.
But just because that’s my attitude about marriage does not mean that the purpose of marriage is to get benefits and put a label on a relationship. There are SO MANY purposes of marriage.
Take Paul for instance. Paul believed that celibacy was the best path. However he also recognized that some people simply could not control their urges and would not be able to live celibate lives. In those cases, he advocated marriage as a way to safely enact sexual impulses, because marriage was the quickest way to kill off your sex drive.
Many people on the Christian right believe that the purpose of marriage is children. Now that’s a little worrisome to me, because if the only purpose (or the main purpose) is procreation, won’t we grow up with a lot of really unhappy and really poorly raised children? Children need stability, and happy relationships modeled to them. Children generally have a hard time growing up well if their parents are miserable. So if the only focus of your marriage is having babies but NOT on creating a happy family and strong relationships within that family, if it’s not to have a caring and loving relationship with your spouse, if it’s not to create a home, then your kids probably won’t turn out the very best.
There is another religious strand of thought that suggests that marriage is the highest expression of God’s will expressed in humans. According to this view, men and women have complementary natures, and only when they are united together can we be fulfilled and whole and live out God’s plan in the best way. In this view, women are created to serve, men are created to lead, and unless we are enacting these roles we will be unhappy (this is a view often espoused by the Catholic Church, see Pope John Paul II. They do allow that marriage to the church counts).
But wait, there’s more! For a lot of human history marriage was an economic transaction. It involved more than one wife. It was about creating heirs and expanding land and creating alliances. Even as recently as the last century (and for some people still) marriage is viewed in a very economic way: the wife provides labor and the husband provides money, and in exchange for being well taken care of the wife should also provide sex. There’s certainly a tit for tat view of relationships alive and well today.
In other cases, marriage was a way to keep control of women. Women were in control of their fathers before marriage, and the transfer of them (as property) to another individual was a way to make sure that they remained appropriately docile. One of the most effective techniques to subdue an uppity woman has always been pregnancy because it’s pretty damn hard to rebel when you’ve got morning sickness.
For many, many, many people marriage is an expression of love and commitment though. My father spoke about this once quite passionately, and said that for him, declaring in front of other people that you will commit to a relationship does change the flavor of it and makes a huge impact. The vows in a marriage often explicitly say that you will care for the other person: marriage often gives you the support to do that, to live together, to make a family together, to make health decisions and financial decisions together, to intertwine your lives. It’s a way to say “this is the person I have chosen”.
So we have a huge variety of opinions about what marriage does: it’s economic, it’s a signifier, it’s a place to have and raise kids, it’s an expression of love, it’ s a way to build a family, it’s God’s will, it’s the way to appropriately express your sexuality, it’s a tool of patriarchal oppression…
But what is it really? Is there a way to distinguish the “true” purpose of marriage? It seems unlikely to me because marriage is a human institution and it’s one that we have continued to define and create throughout our history. To me, that means that the purpose of marriage is whatever is the least harmful and the most likely to increase happiness and decrease pain (utilitarianism!!) If you choose to believe that your marriage is an expression of divine will because that makes you feel more safe in your relationship, then you can have that as your purpose of marriage. But none of us gets to impose our purposes on others, just as none of us should be able to impose our conception of family on another person. It is easy to tell that there is no set purpose of marriage and there never will be a set purpose of marriage. It is a social structure, and each of us co-opts (or doesn’t) social structures to fit our needs. The purpose of marriage is to create family in whatever way we deem necessary.
PS-I wrote a long and involved paper about gender complementarianism, the position that men and women are created to fit together, and why it’s bullshit. If you’re interested let me know and I can either email it to you or post it here.