I wrote off marriage at the ripe old age of 13. Years later, I met someone, fell in love, and got married after all. But it wasn’t love that made us decide to marry. In fact, I don’t think marriage as an institution has anything to do with love.
Marriage, like many institutions, is historically rooted in ideas about ownership, maintaining the patriarchy, and government control — not love, independence, or real choices. The earliest records of marriage show that it was widely used as a means for men to maintain power: marrying off daughters and producing heirs to “forge alliances and accrue land.” Marriage was often a non-romantic act in which women had little say.
Just as we often do not closely examine the origins of marriage, we also overlook ways in which the institution needs to be reformed. Married couples are typically offered tax benefits, health insurance, family leave, and other advantages. Meanwhile, couples who choose not to marry are not allowed visitation rights if their partner has been hospitalized, cannot file taxes jointly even if they have combined their finances, and in many cases lack a degree of respect enjoyed by people who get hitched. Non-marital options, such as domestic partnerships and civil unions, have explicit limitations, and are often only recognized in the state in which they were contracted. These are just some of the ways the government encourages and even pushes us to marry.
It’s often said that since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage, the institution has completely changed — that it now serves all communities. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Marriage is still widely understood to mean either opposite-sex or same-sex couples, a view that ignores both nonbinary couples (like my own) and polyamorous unions. There is still a class divide that serves to motivate couples to marry if one individual cannot afford adequate health care. And there’s still a major motivator to marry in order for one spouse to gain U.S. citizenship. Marriage has been established as a bridge to other institutions it does not necessarily have anything to do with.