Four words I both fear and want to hear. Sometimes I want to say them too. I look at the person I love and I feel an urge to propose. Not necessarily to get married. But to make this grand, lifelong declaration of love, to put a ring on it, around it. Sometimes, oftentimes, “I love you” doesn’t cut it; I want to say and do more to express my love. Perhaps I am a fan of marriage, then, after all. Not the institution, but the notion.
A legal, social and (often) religious contract between two (sometimes more than two) individuals that binds them to each other, supposedly for life, unless they divorce. In many religions, marriage gives legitimacy to sexual relations between said people. For much of marriage’s history, and still in many places in the world, it has only accommodated heterosexual couples.
In Christian marriage, the father typically “gives away” the daughter to the husband-to-be (see coverture). She wears white to symbolise her virginity, which her husband “takes” after they are officially wedded. Oh, and traditionally she loses her surname and adopts his. Marriage has changed over the years, but the language we use in relation to it, the white dress and the father walking the bride down the aisle still prevails in Christian countries even when neither of the marrying parties are religious or virgin-ious.
Because religion is still so entwined with the law in most countries, married couples (particularly the husband-and-wife kind) usually benefit from legal, cultural and financial advantages that others don’t, causing many people, despite not digging marriage, to get married anyway.
Based on a belief that your love for another, or multiple others, is infinite (or at least, will continue until death) and a desire to express that to the person or people you love and commit to it. Effectively, a statement of “You can trust me, to continue to love you, forever”.
Once upon a time not so very long ago (roughly 1250 - 1880) in England and then the USA (brought over by English colonialists), coverture was the law. It decreed that a woman did not legally exist in her own right, but was the property of a man—first her father and then her husband, once married.
This is why a man would have to ask a girl/woman’s father for permission to marry her. If a married woman worked, she could only do so with her husband’s permission, and all the money she earned would legally belong to him. It doesn’t stop there. It was legal, and commonplace, for a man to abuse his property, in other words his wife, children and/or slaves.
Coverture is the English (although really French) word for it, but similar laws existed in other countries around the same time, and continue to do so in some of them.
Almost every fairytale I can remember hearing as a child ends in marriage. Usually involving a handsome prince and a beautiful girl/woman who is rescued/discovered by the prince. Even Shrek, with all its trolls-are-loveable-too progressiveness, still adheres to this basic plot. As do most romcoms and mainstream love stories.
No wonder marriage feels like the thing we’re all supposed to go for. Or, if not marriage, enduring love (not the Ian McEwan kind). Which is utterly at odds with today’s marriage statistics. In Europe, on average, 39% of marriages in divorce; in Scandinavia, it’s more like 50%. When those married couples have children, you’re looking at a big chunk of the European population who have grown up with marriage-based fairytales and divorced parents and are understandably confused and disillusioned (me).
Although, I think watching my parents divorce and then refuse to speak to each other for the rest of my life has mostly made me extra careful about who I “end up” with, if anyone. I’m still a romantic and, despite my first hand experience of the opposite, I believe love can last forever. I think that in order to love fully in the present moment, one has to believe that.
But if I were to get married, a lot of things would have to be altered, including the entire history of marriage. My father doesn’t own me and therefore wouldn’t walk me down the aisle (nor would there be an aisle—perhaps a circle or a loose arrangement of people floating in the ocean instead). Needless to say, there’d be no white dress. My husband-to-be (except he wouldn’t be called a husband because it has recent etymological associations to “master of the house”) is not a business man from the 19th century and wouldn’t wear a suit. We’d probably show up arm-in-arm wearing identical red robes, except then we’d look like members of the controversial Rajneeshee cult, and most clothing, even a leaf over the genitals, has some kind of dodgy symbolism attached to it, so perhaps it’s better we just show up in nothing at all. A vulnerable, nudist kind of wedding.
We’re also realists, so our vows would probably go something like “I promise to do my best to love you forever,” and we wouldn’t want to jeopardise our sex life by committing to fuck each other and only each other for the rest of our life; that bit would be more like, “and if, at any point during forever, I want to try polyamory, a threesome (or any other -some) or sleeping with someone else for a while, I promise to discuss it with you first and not do it in secret, because I trust that you trust that I love you and you love me and that giving each other space sexually and otherly, if needed, is the only way we can truly love each other as full, complex beings, ‘til death do us part, or even ‘til after when we are reincarnated as octopussies.”
As for surnames, I would absolutely not take his surname even though it’s fun one. Nor would I want to force my surname on him as that would make me a hypocrite attempting to invert power structures rather than stamping them out altogether. Also, I have a boring surname.
Sidenote: why do we even have surnames anymore? In Denmark—that hailed feminist land that only just began to take #MeToo seriously—most women and men don’t change their surnames when they get married, resulting in children with two surnames, and then the next generation of children with four surnames, eight surnames and so on, until, 90 years down the line, it all becomes more unmanageable than it already is, and kids are going around with names longer than this sentence.
Here’s what I think we should do. Scrap the surnames. Or let people choose their own. That’s how it all started in the first place. The local baker became John Baker (and family), the local smith and family (who did an excellent job of reproducing), the Smiths. My brother and I, who currently go by the Welsh surname Evans, have considered changing our surnames to Permaculture and Winterswimmer, which we feel represent us better. How many smiths are there at work these days anyway?
I could go on, but it just occurred to me that, despite all my resistance to the institution of marriage, I’ve just gone and done that bride-to-be thing of imagining my perfect wedding. Oops.
Portugal are leading the way with 69% of marriages ending in divorce, while Kosovo are tailing behind with a tiny 6.9% divorce rate (2015). Interesting numbers indeed.
🤓 Coverture: The Word You Probably Don't Know But Should by Catherine Allgor
💃🏽 Feminist Marriage on The Guilty Feminist Podcast
💍 Why Bother With Marriage?, an explainer video by The School of Life
As usual, I’m neither for nor against, just confused and writing about it.
Last time I wrote about the PIV POV and then attempted some days of NoPIVember, only to realise I luuuuurve PIV, regardless of whether it’s biological or a cultural. So I have a tiny fear that, after I’ve sent this email out, the same thing will happen and by the time I write the next email I'll be engaged and more vanilla than ever. Oops #2.
‘Til unsubscribe do us part.
— H. E.