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.

She Really Did It! Feminists and Marriage

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The much-discussed marriage of Jessica Valenti and Andrew Golis finally took place on October 3, 2009. I write “finally” not because it was a long engagement but because it must have seemed like it was. From the moment her wedding plans were announced, she was subject to a barrage of media attention and feminist scrutiny. Apparently there are a lot of feminists out there who think marriage is an anti-feminist act. I say whether it’s feminist or not lies in the eyes of the beholder.

I recently heard from an old friend who encapsulated her marital history by saying that she and her long-time partner have never married because she couldn’t see the point. On the other hand, I’ve been married four times–obviously I see some point to getting married. And yet I don’t think either of us see our stances as being feminist or anti-feminist; they are merely personal choices.

The feminists who see marriage as a betrayal on the part of the feminist who is marrying are the feminists who still see men as the enemy. They also see marriage as primarily a patriarchal institution. It hasn’t occurred to them that marriage can be empowering for a woman. Anytime a woman makes a decision that she feels is in her own best interests she is acting like a feminist, whether she identifies herself as one or not.

There’s no one life formula for being a feminist. Having children can be a feminist act; parenting them most certainly can be. Marrying can be a feminist act when you do it on your terms. There are so many points of negotiation in any relationship, marital or not, that it’s simplistic to judge a relationship’s feminist suitability purely on whether or not it’s legally binding. What a woman does about her name, her freedom to choose work in or outside of the home, the division of labor, even how you argue–these are just a few of the things that offer up opportunities for acting “feministically” (on the part of both the man and the woman).

One of my daughters married a year ago. She and her now-husband had been together for a number of years and had already ironed out a lot of their differences and had learned how to fight fair about the rest of them. Marriage seemed like a logical next step to them. They had an unconventional wedding, she kept her own name, he does as much housework as she does (maybe more), he’s as invested in her career as he is in his own. They’ve even discussed the possibility of his staying home with the children when/if they have any. I can’t think of a more feminist marriage. Yet some would say that the mere fact that they married proves that they’re not feminists.

I honestly don’t think that following feminist principles was high on their list when they were contemplating marriage, nor should it be. Marriage stands for many things, but the primary thing it should stand for is who you and your partner are as a couple. If it fits your worldview to stay unmarried or to get married, then so be it. Doing what you want is the feminist act. Doing what you don’t want is the anti-feminist act.

Jessica Valenti had the wedding she and her fiance wanted, in spite of what others thought. Now they’re on the path of making the marriage they both want. Other people’s reactions shouldn’t be an issue. That’s a feminist principle that we can all live by.

Baby Showers

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From Getty Images
From Getty Images

As a spin-off from yesterday’s post, I thought I’d write about baby showers. First of all, why are there no baby showers for expectant fathers? Everyone knows that baby showers are for women. I’ve heard of some wedding showers being integrated, but not baby showers. (Although I’m sure there have been somewhere.) I suppose that’s partly so that the women can talk freely about things like childbirth and how soon you can have sex after delivery.

But there’s probably another reason why baby showers are for the mothers-to-be: they are seen as “naturals” when it comes to  parenting. They are the ones who supposedly care the most about all the baby paraphernalia, who have to nag their husbands to put the crib together (as if they can’t manage to do it themselves), and who dream all their lives of the day they hold their new babies in their arms.They are assigned the role of care-giver and nurturer before they even have a chance to decide whether or not they want kids. (It’s always assumed that women are nurses because they like taking care of other human beings and men are doctors because they can’t be bothered with that stuff.)

It could be argued that a baby shower helps to prepare the expectant mother for her new role. I’d buy that except I take issue with the message it sends. The average baby shower is based on the belief that all is going to be hunky-dory between mother and child. It isn’t designed to address issues like postpartum depression or problems with bonding. That’s why I like the idea of the Bad Mother Baby Shower. Every expectant mother is anxious about how well she’ll adjust to her new status. Why not address those anxieties head on? The Bad Mother Baby Shower is designed to lower the mother-to-be’s self-expectations. It’s not to give her permission to be a bad mother. It gives her permission to be human.

Bad Fathering vs. Bad Mothering

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An Example of Sexist Bias
An Example of Sexist Bias

Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon’s Broadsheet wonders if  Google is Freudian because she discovered that when you search for  “bad fathering,” Google asks you if you meant “bad mothering.”

I always assumed that these “Did you mean” prompts were based on the most common queries, like if you misspell a word or use a bad date. But to question whether the searcher could possibly mean “bad fathering” when that’s exactly what he or she searched for seems to me to be an example of societal bias. Actually, it is, because it shows that people are more likely to be looking for information about bad mothers than about bad fathers.

Not only does this reflect the bias that parenting is seen primarily as a woman’s job, it also shows that we’re just not programmed to blame fathers as much as mothers when our children don’t turn out so well. There’s another possibility, too: that women are more concerned than men are about the job they’re doing as parents.

Is this an ingrained biological reaction, or a learned one? But why would biology put the onus on women to be good mothers and let the men go scot free? After all, we’re told by psychologists and sociologists that fathers are just as important as mothers are to a child’s well-being. Otherwise. why all the fuss about single mothers? If that’s true then why do we come down so hard on mothers?

Banning Fat Talk

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Fat free weekI just learned that the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the Academy of Eating Disorders (AED) and other organizations joined with the Greek sorority, Tri Delta, to raise public awareness about body image issues among American women by sponsoring a “Fat Talk Free Week.” Although the week just ended, the example remains.

Over 10 million women suffer from eating disorders–four times the number of women with breast cancer. And in case you think the comparison is inappropriate, women can and do die from eating disorders!

Supposedly women suffer from depression more than men do. I wonder how much of their depression stems from the hopelessness they feel about their bodies not measuring up to the ideal. I know when I go to my psychiatrist, I get frustrated at the short shrift he gives my concerns about my weight. But then again, I always think that I’ll be happier if I weighed less, yet whenever I have weighed less, I’ve never been happy with myself and my body. Never. Not even when I weighed 110 pounds.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is closely related to eating disorders. It is a real psychological condition where the sufferer obsesses about what he or she sees as unattractive parts of his or her body to the point where he or she cannot function socially or occupationally. The suicide rate for people with BDD is double that of the general population. While it only affects approximately 1% of the population (and males and females equally), it makes sense to me that even milder forms of the disorder can also lead to psychological distress.

Banning “fat talk” for a week might be a small thing to do to battle the psychological damage caused by it. But if  a light bulb goes off for one person–“I don’t have to think about being fat all the time!”–then it will be worth it. Resolve to treat yourself the way you would someone you love. Would you constantly berate a close friend or family member about how fat he or she looks? Of course not. (At least I hope not.) Then stop berating yourself for not looking abnormal (the people we idealize for the way they look are actually the abnormal ones; they make up an incredibly small percentage of the population).

Even though “Fat Talk Free Week” just ended, try banning fat talk from your vocabulary for one week of your choosing. Heck, try it for just one day! You might like the way it makes you feel enough to keep it up forever. Here’s hoping.

Go to endfattalk.org to see a video about doing just that.