A revolutionary time for the marriage institution
Sometimes an idea is so prominent in my head that a blog post practically writes itself, and all my reservations just have to stay aside.
I took a train to meet a friend in London on Saturday. I woke up at 5am to catch the off peak train, and I couldn’t for the life of me fall back asleep while I was settled on the train. This is because, as a kind of aftershock from my coming out blog post, the idea to write something about the shift in how I view marriage got so strong that my mind would not shut up.
On the same day, my mother sent me an unannounced message while I was browsing art at the Tate Modern. The message was unexpectedly earnest and meaningful. She said that after doing some independent readings on her own, she has come to the conclusion that the traditional institution of marriage is indeed outdated and problematic, and as such, young people should be encouraged to test out more progressive models of marriage, instead of being pressured by their parents into conforming to tradition. In this message, my mother apologized to me for hurtful things she has said in the past about my sexuality and relationship choices. And that, of course, meant a lot to me.
When I arrived home from the long day trip in London, I had my daily Skype conversation with my partner. Incidentally, he was was reading an article about someone who grew up in a polyamorous household, so we read it together and discussed it in our Skype call.
As much as my secular mind does not encourage believing in superstitions, all of the above must be signs that I just have to write about the concept of marriage. Hopefully I can do my own convictions some justice.
My views on marriage: idealization(?) to realization
The apparent only way of life
Like most girls, I had a semiconscious idea during my childhood that I will, certainly, marry a man some day. And who can blame me? The majority of the adults I know had a marriage with one spouse of the opposite gender, so that’s what I learned about what adult life looked like.
I didn’t just learn it; I practiced it, too. I played “house”, or the Chinese equivalent of it, with my friends regularly. There was always one father, one mother who is married to the father, and one child (because that’s what families looked like in China) in the pretend family. The father would go to work, and then come home to watch TV. The mother would go to work, and then come home to cook, clean, and take care of the child and her husband. The child would study and play.
I vaguely remember some adults I knew who were divorced, and a few adults who were unmarried. These people were pitied, but with a hint of an implication that there was something wrong with them to begin with to make them deserve this obviously unhappy and failed life. If the divorced person was a man, maybe he would find a new, perhaps less attractive, wife. If the divorced person was a woman, she’d probably have to wait a lot longer to find another husband and he would almost definitely be a lot older than her. And if she had a child, the chances of her remarrying were almost nonexistent.
Married couples didn’t always seem happy to be together. In fact, the majority of the married people I knew seemed to have nothing but frustration for their spouse. Nonetheless, it was a widely accepted “fact” that each person has one partner in their life, and once you get married and have sex, your lives are bonded forever. And all people marry as virgins, unless you’re a divorced man (because, remember, divorced women don’t marry again).
The cultural shock
When my family became acquainted with western culture, relationship models drastically contradicting those my parents believed in were blatantly shown all over mainstream media.
And no, I’m not talking about nonmonogamy. I’m not talking about LGBT. I’m not even talking about hookup culture! I’m talking about serial monogamy. You know, the kind of relationship where you date, have sex, cohabit, and then get engaged for marriage, and through the process you weed out a bunch of potential mates until you find one that you can live well with. And even then, you might get divorced for various reasons (some seemingly trivial in my parents’ eyes) and get back in the game like nobody’s business.
For the longest time, before I actively engaged myself in the contemporary “normal” relaitonships, my family thought that what was shown in TV shows like Friends was completely fake and dramatized, and my mother still had the delusion that the average western youth was just like herself: virgin until the marriage with your one and only partner.
All the while, hookup culture had already been mature in western society for several decades.
My internalized sex negativity
Unlike kids who were born and raised solely in the West, my earliest views on sex and marriage were founded on communist Chinese values, where family and even the work place have more to say about your intimate relationships than you yourself do. I’ve internalized a lot of it.
Over my teenage years, I had the arduous task of moderating the greatly clashing views on sex and relationships imposed on me by both Western society and Chinese culture. To talk about marriage and relationships, you can’t escape talking about sex.
My first partner was a Chinese immigrant like me. We were both 15. There was a lot of drive and pressure to have sex in that relationship, which was not predicted by the teenage me. At the same time, there was immense pressure both from him and from my internalized shame that we/I had to remain virgins until marriage. Or at least until 18. Or at least 16. And so it happened. (Later on I learned that the Canadian legal age of consent was 16, with leeway for younger teenagers to engage in sex with similarly aged teenagers; a very reasonable approach to consent, in my opinion.)
My behaviour was easily justified by the behaviour of other teenagers, both in real life and in mainstream media. But justification with the behaviour of others does not resolve one of moral shame; only the critical analysis of ethics can. And so I learned. I learned from feminists and from sex educators. I learned that the hymen concept was a myth. That the concept of virginity until marriage was a patriarchal and misogynistic construct made for the exploitation of women. Understanding these was how I got over my virginity hangup.
Idealization of marriage
Even as I became sex positive, even more sex positive than my generic Canadian peers, I realized I still harboured views that were baggage from my Chinese upbringing.
A clear example was when I discussed the idea of cohabitation before marriage with my university peers. I was, for some reason that I couldn’t quite logically explain, very against the idea. I thought, well, that’s something to be saved for marriage, surely! Even though the same bullshit excuse was pressed on me about sex, too.
My friends explained to me that it was normal for couples to cohabit before marriage. In fact, it was common Canadian wisdom that you should cohabit before marriage in order to test your compatibility in life before you are legally bound together by marriage. I simply couldn’t argue with that, except for…uh…well, I have…ideals.
The ideal vision of marriage was a sacred thing. Something that we shouldn’t try and “test” before committing to it, because you’re supposed to commit and then just follow through with the commitment. That’s how I felt at the time.
Eventually, I cohabited with a partner. It was the only practically reasonable way to have a fulfilling relationship before marriage, I realized. Obviously, I didn’t “lose” anything by cohabiting, because the relationship was good and fulfilling — even more so due to cohabiting. And besides, the only thing you can lose by going into a relationship is your “innocence”, which is again just an illogical construct.
With all these myths busted and all my values now progressive, I still desperately wanted to get married some day, and have kids. I wanted to be someone’s wife and bear children ASAP. As much as my friends told me that my idealization of marriage was completely contradictory to everything else I vouched for, I held on to that bit of my childhood dream.
What is marriage?
Before I say exactly how I view marriage now, I have to pause my own story for a bit and talk about the theoretical side of marriage — the institution.
If I ask you to define marriage, what would your answer be?
Well, it’s the…it’s the lifelong commitment between a man and a woman who love each other. Wait, I guess it doesn’t have to be a man and a woman; just two persons who love each other is fine. Well, they don’t technically have to love each other — it’s immoral if they don’t, I suppose, but they don’t have to — they just have to make a lifelong commitment. Unless they get a divorce, so it’s not lifelong. But it has to be between two persons only…at least in modern days; we’re not talking about concubines in ancient times. Yeah, it just has to be between two people. Those polygamous Mormons don’t count…and some Muslims, too, I’ve heard? I’m not really sure, but those other cultures are weird so why does it matter…right?
So, we end up with the common ground of “it’s a commitment.” About what, exactly? Love? Sexual exclusivity? Parenting? How about the sharing of money? Perks from being a recognized family unit? And don’t forget social status.
Questions that we can no longer ignore
Being in the information age, I have the opportunity to see different kinds of relationships play out in all parts of the world, every day, through the vastness of the Internet. These real life examples, albeit of internet strangers, are constantly supplementing my own contradicting experiences with love and relationships in forcing me to critically think about the concept of marriage.
On one end of the spectrum, I have heard of stories of Indian couples who have met through arranged marriages — ones that actually become best friends and respectful lovers, as well as ones that fail miserably due to the husband finding out about the wife’s secret, wild, sexual history with white men.
I have heard of stories of the young people whose relationships are being actively hindered by controlling Asian parents who disapprove of their relationship due to young age, sexual activity, or even race.
Stories of people being hurt over their partner cheating on them via a hookup, a kiss at a party, an emotional bond with a coworker, or a flirtatious texting conversation.
Stories of people who are in sexless marriages for one reason or another, but see no way of getting out because cheating, opening up the marriage, or divorce are all off the table for one moral reason or another.
Stories of successful long term relationships and/or co-parenting without marriage ever being in the equation, stories of happy, loving, nonmonogamous or polyamourous marriages, and of course, stories of your typical happily ever after.
Evidently, the definition of a relationship or marriage varies from relationship to relationship, from society to society. A relationship model that works for one family and leads to happily ever after may lead to catastrophic failure for another family, whether that is a conventional monogamous marriage or something completely different.
In a society where information is presented to you about not just what is allowed, but what is physically (even if only remotely) possible, it falls on us, the youth of today, to consciously and critically decide what exactly is the right way to live, for each of ourselves.
Let’s look at history!
I know that there are all kinds of ways for people to manage their relationships, whether with the institution of marriage or without. However, not everyone in this society knows or understands, and sadly not everyone in the society is okay with everyone else’s ways of life.
Some say that we are experiencing a moral degradation within the younger generations. In fact, it has been common throughout all of history for older generations to be dismayed by their younger peers, so I’m not surprised.
However, civilization must move forward, and social structure must progress. The evolution of the marriage institution is but one of the ways in which progress happens, and it’s been happening for millennia.
A quick Wikipedia search makes it obvious just how much marriage has evolved as an institution since ancient times. If you want to see a summary of the tumultuous history of marriage, here is a nice BBC article which focuses on British history, and here is one from the Huffington Post.
Family structures have shifted from matriarchy in prehistoric eras, to mainly polygyny in patriarchal feudal societies, then to monogamous nuclear families that promote gender equality.
Marriage contracts have evolved from defining a man’s ownership of his woman for life, to allowing the possibility of divorce proposed by either partner for any reason.
The legal definition of marriage changed to recognize interracial marriage in the US in 1967.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in all of Canada for only about a decade, since 2005. In England, Wales, and Scotland, it was legalized 2014. In the US, it was 2015, I hope you remember. It’s still not legal in China, and even though it’s decriminalized, homosexuality is being massively censored on Chinese media.
The current revolution
Evidently, the definition of marriage changes over time. And every time, the change is for something better. Not necessarily better in every way, but the progression of history always has a driving force, and the evolution of an institution is simply a part of that progression. The evolution of marriage does not end here.
There are still many societies which are struggling to “catch up” with what is now the norm in western society, whether it is widespread monogamy or legalization of same sex marriage.
Even within western society, the fight for the acceptance of same sex couples is far from over — the Conservative Party of Canada still defines “marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (Section 70, CPC Policy Declaration), for example.
Similarly, people from all marginalized groups — nonmonogamous people, single parents, victims of domestic abuse of all forms, victims of cheating, victims of sexless or loveless marriages, etc. — are all speaking up in one way or another about just what went wrong between them and the idealized monogamous marriage.
All these frustrations are not going unheard. As human sexuality become less taboo and more of a scientific and public health interest (as it should), respected experts on sexuality and relationships are hearing the stories of people and their relationships, and they are speaking up on these people’s behalf.
Books are being written about the numerous forms of contemporary relationship models; studies are being published; articles are going viral on social media. We are at a stage where non-traditional family models are no longer being ignored. The evolution of marriage as an institution is slowly but surely being revolutionized!
Does the marriage institution still mean anything?
Thinking about it critically, the word “marriage” has such a fickle definition that there is no point in holding on to it. People are certainly living perfectly without a “successful marriage”, or without getting married at all.
However, for millennia, societal pressure has been about being “married” no matter what the contemporary definition is. I would be lying if I say I do not still hold some internalized ideals about wanting to be married, as if that is the only acceptable way to live.
I think this is the main reason why, instead of “owning” their differences and rejecting the traditionally patriarchal institution of marriage, LGBT people and various minority-group activists are trying to fight for the broadening of the definition of marriage, instead of fighting for the demolition of the institution as a whole.
Essentially, getting married is conformist behaviour. People get married to be recognized by society, to prove something to other people, instead of proving something like love or familial bonds to themselves. We don’t need a marriage contract to love or to bond. However, humans are gregarious, and the desire to be accepted by society is inherent.
And as much as the fundamental purpose of marriage is dubious, people have to live in societies, and they have a right to want to be accepted. Allowing them to be married just how they want their marriage to be is the best way for people to feel accepted.
So, do I want to be married?
Well, yes. But the more clearly you think about an issue, the less romantic you can make it. And for me, I have clearly thought about what marriage means, and so I am painfully aware that my reasons are less glamorous than what media wants you to think.
It’s not about love. I can love just as well without a marriage certificate, and the way I run my long term, committed relationship would not change with a piece of paper.
It’s not about children and properties. Unmarried people co-parent or raise children alone all the time. People can share properties without marriage, and married people can opt to keep finances separate. It’s not about that.
Honestly, it’s because I’m vain, and I’m sensitive to the judgment of others.
I simply want my relationship and my family to look legitimate. It’s no more or less legitimate in my own mind, but others may see it differently, and I can’t ignore it. And this reason is vain, and there’s nothing to be proud about, unless you count making my grandparents happy…
I also have practical reasons to be married, or at least to enjoy the legal benefits of having an officially recognized spousal relationship. Namely, I need to be able to immigrate with my family if I so desire! Yep, that’s right, that’s about the only real benefit for me to get married in today’s day and age: it makes immigration a little easier.
But the true reason is probably because I desperately don’t want to “fail”. I’m simply too used to having a smooth ride and following the textbook path of career advancement, up to now. Getting married would just be another tick off my life “to-do list” that would make me a little more secure about living in this world.
Dan Savage & Esther Perel: “Love, Mariage & Monogamy”
Upon writing this blog post, I turned to Youtube to find sources that can back up my thoughts in a more authoritarian way. I was absolutely delighted to find that my two favourite speakers have come together recently on Talks at Google to discuss the exact thing I’ve been thinking about and trying to put into words.
I’ve been a long term reader of Dan Savage — perhaps the most well known sex advice columnist and activist for LGBT rights; he is definitely flawed, but his work has influenced generations of people.
Esther Perel is truly an expert. As a practicing psychotherapist, she has tremendous insight on the nature of love, marriage, and relationships. I highly recommend watching her TED talks.
Originally published at heydandan.com on March 24, 2016.