Monday, September 14, 2015

Marriage

Because marriage has been in the news a lot lately due to the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage, I thought I'd say something about it. Regarding my personal background in this matter, as mentioned earlier, I was married somewhat coercively in 1974 because my girlfriend's parents didn't approve of her living with a man to whom she was not married. I was unceremoniously dumped eleven years later for reasons which included the stress of raising children, the feminist ideology at the time, a quest for greater social status and a touch of mental illness. The minor financial issues that came up early in the marriage do not seem significant now, because we still managed to see our children through four-year colleges and we both retired early, she at 55 and I at 57. I have remained unmarried since 1985 and will never marry again. Marriage is a complex topic with a long history, so I'll just mention a few aspects of it that interest me.

In modern society marriage is a lingering artifact of the past that no longer serves much of its earlier purpose. Once it was a formal way of recognizing the union of a man and a woman in the eyes of society and served as a statement of their commitment to each other and as an announcement of their withdrawal from availability as potential mates. In many societies intermarriage was a device consciously used to maintain harmony among conflicting groups. Outside the U.S. arranged marriages have been popular for centuries. Marriage has often been unrelated to love and has served a transactional role with respect to money and power. According to my current thinking, there is no valid reason to elevate the importance of marriage, and it would be just as well to phase it out as an institution.

Cultural and economic changes in the U.S. and most developed countries have been rendering the institution of marriage obsolete over the last fifty years. The reasons for men and women to cohabitate now probably have more to do with sex, child rearing and companionship than any of the more complex social functions that marriage once entailed. The economic independence of women eliminates their need to marry for financial reasons, and there is now little stigma associated with remaining single. With less incentive to marry, people are now marrying later, if at all, and divorce rates remain high. Lavish weddings are popular, but, according to recent statistics, the more expensive the wedding the shorter the duration of the marriage is likely to be.

Many of the laws regarding marriage seem dated to me. They are hangovers from the puritanical days of America's past in which all normal adults were expected to marry. The more recent social engineering that has encouraged marriage and home ownership through tax breaks has done little to stabilize society and should be reevaluated without relying on religious doctrines. If the legal framework that currently supports and encourages marriage were dropped, marriage as an institution might soon fade away.

Based on my experience and observation, marriage is handled by society in too haphazard a fashion with respect to education. It is difficult for most single people to know what they will need to do to sustain a marriage or whether they will even want to sustain a marriage after a few years, and no wide-scale system exists to guide them. If I had been able to see into the future of my relationship with my ex-wife I would never have married her. Similarly, married couples are often insufficiently prepared to be parents, and all could benefit from training in that area. The ceremony of marriage itself could be replaced with training and the reaching of formal or informal agreements between couples. Government involvement could be restricted to clarifying and enforcing the legal responsibilities of parents to their children and to subsidizing relevant education for couples who choose to live monogamously. In this scenario, every person would be seen as a single individual from birth to death from a government standpoint.

With these views in mind, there is little to applaud about the acceptance of gay marriage, which looks to me like a poorly-conceived attempt to provide affirmation to gay people. Now we have more people participating in a pointless ritual that makes them feel good about themselves and is a boon to the wedding industry. I suppose my skepticism about the value of democratic processes is confirmed whenever pointless-seeming events like this occur; an outcome in which marriage went out of fashion would make more sense to me in the long run. Now we are looking at wider acceptance of an institution that I think of as irrelevant.

I don't think that romantic love is central to heterosexual or homosexual relationships. The primary fact is that almost no one likes living completely alone. This becomes more apparent as you progress through life and your relationships evolve. Early in their lives most people are motivated by heterosexual attraction and have a tendency to develop monogamous relationships which may or may not remain intact. If children follow, that provides some incentive to continue a relationship but is not sufficient in itself. The underlying force, if you want to look at this deterministically, is probably chemical activity in the brain that makes us feel good and consequently affects our behavior. Generally, the chemicals that favor long-term relationships are going to play a more important role in determining whether one is happy or not than the chemicals associated with romantic infatuation. It should also be noted that we have not evolved to engage in fifty-year marriages, because our ancestors simply didn't live long enough for that.

For the record, my current relationship is with a woman I've known for fourteen years, of which we have lived together eight. We each have grown children, will never marry, keep our finances separate and intend to stay together until one of us dies.

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