The Point of Marriage

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The other day in Comments Hot Flash asked  “what is the point of marriage? Especially if you use divorce as a way out of what is supposed to be a life time commitment?”  Today I intend to tackle that question, but I don’t expect to exhaust the subject.  (I already have several posts about marriage and I expect I’ll have several more!)

If you do an Internet search of quotes about marriage it becomes obvious that people view marriage in many different ways. One of the quotes I ran across the other day is Susan Sontag’s “[Marriage is] an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is Repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong mutual dependencies.” Not the most positive view of marriage. But then she wrote this in reference to her own marriage which only lasted eight years.

The truth is that marriage is what we make it, and we have been reshaping the meaning of marriage since at least the ’60s when the divorce rate really began to rise. Now in at least fifty percent of the cases, marriage is not a lifelong commitment. That doesn’t mean that the parties entered into it with the idea that it could be temporary. I know from my own marriages that it is quite possible to marry for life each time that you marry. But I don’t think that anyone means for that to feel like a life sentence. Marriage is not meant to be punishment. (At least I would hope not.)  Everyone should have the possibility of parole if that is the case!

Marriage may not always stand for lifelong commitment. But it is still true that marriage stands for some kind of commitment. Otherwise why bother to marry? Why do gays want to marry, for instance, especially when they are already able to reap the benefits of marriage by establishing themselves as domestic partners (a possibility that isn’t universal, by the way)?

I once had a mother-in-law who refused to marry her boyfriend of 25 years because she didn’t want him to have any rights to her children’s inheritance. Shortly after her death, he was told to vacate the home that they had shared together but which had belonged to her alone. It was as if all the years they’d spent together counted for nothing. They may have made a commitment of some kind to one another, but since it wasn’t legal, that commitment wasn’t recognized, not even by her children. I thought it was a sad commentary on the feelings that they had for each othe, or at least, on the feelings she had for him.

But that was their business. There are all different ways of showing that you have a commitment to another person. One is to have children together. You’ll always have ties with the other parent, even if you don’t marry. When the actor Heath Ledger died, the mother of his daughter, Michelle Williams, was treated like his widow even though they had never married and weren’t even together anymore. If she had just been an ex-girlfriend, that wouldn’t have been the case.

Some people believe that staying together without marriage shows more commitment, because after all, you don’t have to stay together. When the actress Farrah Fawcett was dying of colon cancer, the man she had lived with for decades and had a child with (Ryan O’Neal) was there by her side even though they hadn’t been together for several years. In my opinion, this shows that they had felt married, no matter what they told the world.

You could say that marriage is nothing more than legal recognition of an avowed commitment. You could also say that society has a vested interest in legal marriage contracts because they encourage a longer period of commitment than might otherwise exist. This means that they are better suited for the raising of children. The average length of time that people stay married is eight years. Just long enough to get the children into school. When Marriage.com surveyed 700 people about why they stayed married, 30% said it was because of the children. (30% said it was out of love.)

Commitment is the real issue here. People get married because they want to show that they’re committed to the relationship. They often stay married because of that same commitment. But if the commitment is no longer there, divorce will almost inevitably follow.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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