I’ve declared to my mom more than a few times that I’m going to end up following in her footsteps and spending my life single. It might have started out as a pseudo-serious statement, uttered in my moments of greater romantic cynicism. But I realized the other day that I really can’t picture myself getting married. For all the social custom and persisting (if increasingly relaxed) expectation surrounding the institution, marriage fits awkwardly at best into my sense of life and self. This realization came about around the time when Prop 8 passed in California and the depressing prospect of the time it would take to legalize gay marriage throughout the country absent Supreme Court intervention loomed particularly large. For those like me who aren’t so enamored of the tradition of marriage, and for those who are excluded from it by law whether enamored or not, it may be time for an alternative—an alternative in the form of a reinvention of the institution on non-institutional grounds.
I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with the existence or institution of marriage in and of itself. In fact, a robust case can be made for marriage on the grounds of the practicality of signing one agreement that affords all the protections and arrangements that a couple committed to one another for the rest of their lives would naturally want in place: parental guardianship, inheritance rights, hospital visitation, decision-making power in the event of medical misfortune, joint tax filing—the list goes on. And yet, while it’s sensible and helpful to have a system in place for dealing with the logistical matters of conjoining two lives, the meaning and power of marriage is rooted in the commitment to conjoining in the first place.
As soon as contracts are signed and formal arrangements made, a sense of legal obligation comes to bear. Despite major advances in the acceptability of divorce in recent decades, still the marriage contract carries with it a weight of implied permanence—and it should; that’s the point. Any union—at least one involving close physical quarters!—that is to be sustained over the long term will go through periods both good and bad, and the bad are not always indicative of a deep-seated plague to the union that can only (and for the better of both involved, should) be removed by separation. Rather, sometimes the problems can—and again for the better of both involved, should—be overcome through effort and compromise. But for every case of a couple that stays together for the better, thanks largely to the sense of obligation imposed by institutional matrimony, there is at least one case of a miserable couple clinging to their paper commitment absent a long-gone sense of emotional-spiritual commitment.
Of course, before making rash decisions about whether to sustain a union or not, it is important to recognize what feelings constitute said “emotional-spiritual commitment” and how they may evolve over time; as Stevie Nicks says, “the feeling remains even after the glitter fades.” But careful consideration to the merits of continued union can be given whether the union carries with it the sense of insititutionalized obligation that comes from a formal legal marriage or not. What, then, is the urgent necessity of legal marriage?
The most inspiring commitment is the one based solely and genuinely in the power of the love behind it and sustained through turbulent times by that power alone. The easier it is to break a commitment to another person (the less institutionalized and socialized the commitment, the less red tape involved in its severance), the more meaningful continued togetherness becomes. Suppose there was no such thing as formal legal marriage. In its stead, bonds formed between two (or, hey, maybe more if they feel it) people and symbolized as they see fit (ring, ceremony, what-have-you). To be married would be a matter of consensual declaration, meaning no person or institution could interfere to prevent people bound and united by love from getting “married.” The legitimacy of a marriage would depend simply on the depth of its parties’ genuine mutual commitment to togetherness. Heterosexual, homosexual, what have you—all arrangements equally legitimate in the eyes of social tradition and equally invisible in the eyes of the law.
As for all the practical rights bound up in one easy signing of the marriage contract, those are pretty undeniably pretty damn convenient. So the best alternative in the here-and-now would probably still be to just open up our traditional contractual marriage mechanism to a wider variety of individuals and situations. But barring a timely such opening, there is a perhaps equally appealing alternative for anyone who is fed up with the widespread preservation of discrimination within this mechanism: that is, for each couple who would normally make the marriage commitment through established legal channels (it’s not enough for just gay people to do it while the rest of us reap the benefits of traditional marriage) to make that commitment in spirit and declaration only.
I am not advocating a reckless abrogation of contract-based marriage by all those who are impatient with waiting for our legal system to recognize a wider variety of unions. Rather, I am suggesting that by deconstructing institutionalized commitment in a conscientious and thoughtful way, we could actually strengthen the power of long-term commitment.
We could also weaken it. It is possible that, in a world absent legal marriage, social custom would shift over time such that the majority of people would end up alone by the time they reached old age. More likely, the old-timers would simply be with partners of, say, ten years versus forty or fifty—but more importantly, even in the case of widespread geriatric singlehood, there is no reason to believe people would, on the whole, be worse off than they are now. Rather, the locus of our human need for love and solidarity would simply shift to relations other than spouses—namely, friends. Of course, there is something uniquely special about going through thick and thin with one single other person for forty-, fifty-odd years. But for that very reason, many people would still aspire to long-term partnership—so it would still be possible, and it would still exist.
If this “spiritual marriage” alternative to fighting for gay marriage rights is an “equally appealing” alternative as I’ve suggested, it is admittedly appealing on very different grounds; it is future-oriented and idealistic, with the aim of affecting social transformation, while a political approach is on-the-ground realistic with the aim of achieving useful rights under the current system. Preference is personal. At the end of the day, something’s gotta give, and one or the other change—in the system or of the system—will have to come first.