Marriage is one of those long-standing cultural concepts that’s become part of the furniture, so to speak. Its cultural meaning and legal meaning have both changed over time though. What does it mean now, and what might its future be?
Google dictionary isn’t very enlightening on this:
the formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.
After some research and pondering, and trying to be as culturally diverse in my thinking as I can be, the one common meaning that I think seems to underlie all marriage is this: it represents a “next of kin” status between two adults, who are (or are going to be) in a sexual relationship. For some cultural backgrounds or religious traditions, this status is created by the act of getting married. In my own cultural context, marriage merely reflects or formalises the fact that it has already happened; that a romantic relationship has progressed to a point where the couple feel they are “family” to each other, and envisage their lives as a shared one. (Whether or not they “have a family” in the usual sense – with children.) And it’s perfectly possible for a relationship to be like that without marriage.
Is marriage a “commitment”? There is usually the intention of permanence, certainly, just as there is in our relationships with our family members – and we won’t easily let these relationships break down. But in all honesty, we accept there is a chance they could. In the Christian tradition, couples promise to stay together “for better or for worse”; divorce then means breaking a promise. In a civil marriage there is no requirement to promise anything – the formal wording simply indicates acceptance of the other person as husband or wife, and declares that there are no impediments. I don’t think any vows are made in the Islamic tradition, either. Growing up in the Christian tradition it’s easy to assume vows are a fundamental component of marriage, but this is not the case.
In the UK, legal marriage may be a convenient way of getting the rest of the world to treat the two of you as “kin”.* Cohabiting couples who are not married may need to be more pro-active to achieve the same thing. But I guess some people would rather engage actively, and not have all this decided (or assumed) for them anyway.
Legal marriage is also designed to offer protection from the risks associated with relying on a partner – risks such as giving up an income to be financially supported by them, or allowing the home to be held in their name only.** Also, there are various tax breaks for married couples that seem to only be relevant for the well off, and/or couples with one partner dependent on the other. These just seem like incentives that are part of a conservative agenda.
Interestingly, while there are few requirements for getting married and attaining this legal “next of kin” status, the same is not true of the divorce procedure. Justification is required, which either means demonstrating that unreasonable behaviour or adultery has taken place, or simply undergoing a lengthy separation period*** and using that as grounds instead. I guess this means that a couple cannot end their legal marriage status while remaining together – not that many would want to, I suppose, but it could happen that a couple undergo an ideological shift in regard to marriage and want to come out of it, in which case – too bad!
This disparity between the entry and exit points to marriage, in terms of the amount of legal interference and hurdles, may be a reflection of the UK’s Christian tradition. It’s interesting that adultery isn’t included under ‘unreasonable behaviour’ (which is a pretty mild name for a collection of things that includes domestic abuse) but has its own separate category. This seems odd, unless you’re aware that adultery is the one and only justification Jesus is quoted as permitting for divorce in the Bible.
Legally and culturally, marriage is becoming less and less important. Feminist thinking clashes with much of the associated cultural baggage – the engagement ring, the fancy white dress, the father giving the bride away, the woman’s name (and title) change. A lot of us these days are wondering what relevance these traditional relics have to our lives and relationships.
On the other hand, the introduction of same-sex marriage is one good example of marriage adapting to the modern reality and the values we hold, and it seems to offer a welcome opportunity for the development of alternatives to traditional patriarchal rituals. Getting married has always been a rite of passage with symbolic and personal meaning, aside from entering into a legal institution. We embrace ritual, ceremony and celebration at key points in our lives, and “tying the knot” with a partner is one of them. It will probably remain so for many people, even if many others decide it isn’t for them.
* The list of differences between marriage and cohabitation (in this regard) that I’ve gathered is:
- some organisations, such as pension providers or hospitals, use marriage as the criterion for regarding a partner as next of kin (although some do regard living together as equivalent, or look at the details of your life together to decide – and in 2006 the law changed around some of this)
- marriage gives the husband automatic fatherhood status of any children the wife gives birth to; if unmarried, this doesn’t happen automatically (but is easy to arrange)
- it allows one spouse to make National Insurance contributions on behalf of the other
- it entitles each to inherit from the other’s estate without inheritance tax (unmarried partners can ask the court to look at giving them an inheritance if there is no will, but it seems tax would apply above the threshold)
- it gives certain immigration rights that would otherwise not be available until having lived together for a number of years
** Spouses each have the automatic right to live in their partner’s home while married – they cannot be kicked out. However, unmarried partners can apply for occupancy rights. The issue of compensation for lost earnings seems to be handled the same way regardless of legal marriage since 2006.
*** 1 year – used to be even longer