Challenging Marriage as a Sociopolitical Script

This is a guest contribution from Siobhán Healy-Cullen, A PhD Candidate in Psychology with a critical social psychology perspective, based at Massey University, New Zealand.

I self-identify as a cisgender heterosexual female, and I am in a monogamous long term relationship. On account of this, my sexuality and sexual identity is deemed to be ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ – in a society that favours those abiding by heteronormative gender rules. In addition, I am white, able-bodied, Irish and third level educated. Fortuitously, I exemplify what it means to be privileged in a Western world. These badges of opportunity and advantage that many of us don at some intersection or another (e.g., race, class, gender) often feel weighty and uncomfortable, as we regularly see social injustices being cultivated on account of these constructed ‘normalcies’ or ‘ideals’. Moreover, those who are married, particularly heterosexual couples, symbolise the epitome of ‘success’ in terms of social status. To be married is a performative way of demonstrating to your peers, work colleagues, family, community and society that you are normal, that you fit in, that you play by the rules.  To remain, or even become, unmarried, by choice or otherwise, disrupts this narrative.

With this in mind, how should my partner and I react to Western society’s widely uncritical conformation to this marital social order? Is this stage of the prescribed social script worth questioning through our own practices? I ask myself this as my partner and I (30 and 28 years old respectively) mark our (unmarried) five-year anniversary together, and our friends begin to get engaged. While we share genuine delight in the news of their engagements, these celebrations have also ignited discussions between us about the assumptions people make about the trajectory of our relationship, and why these assumptions make us feel uncomfortable. Society expects there will be: a surprise proposal (by him to me), a celebratory wedding, the purchase of a house, and rearing of biological children. ‘Surely’, we say ‘a loving couple deciding to be married and following such a script doesn’t cause any harm, per se?’… ‘Not necessarily’, we try to reason with ourselves. However, while there are many normative social practices that we engage with that are not outwardly and apparently harmful – there may be implicit adverse effects on account of their normalisation. Often, age old historical practices become embedded in our culture to the point of utter and resolute acceptance, and indirectly entrench inequalities through the rejection of anything that is ‘other’. Marriage, as I will argue, is one of these.

An institution that holds the power to disproportionally disqualify certain people from entry, and benefit those who are members, must prove its authentic authority, or else be dismantled and reimagined. It follows that there is motive to challenge the institution of marriage, examine what it truly represents in the 21st century, and then choose whether to resist or accept its legitimacy. In challenging its position as a system of power, I would argue that Marriage is an age-old tradition that has sexist and religious roots. In Ireland (where my partner and I are from), catholic marriages were traditionally arranged with dowries in mind, and weddings were held for God to witness. Power was held over women and their worth was measured by their eligibility as a housewife. Women were sold from one man, her father, to the next, her husband. Their worth was then measured by their ability to give birth and run a household – gender expectations which restrict women from focusing on personal pursuits. Marriage was a form of social security at a time when women were even lesser second-class citizens than they are today. Now, women may not be sold, but we are still presented (or bought) with a ring. If my partner and I choose marriage, it would seem we would be endorsing this patriarchal tradition, and hindering the gender equality agenda.

Marriage is no longer considered a necessity, as it was before, and both sexism and religion have lost considerable support in the 21st century. Women work, are financially autonomous, own property, have children without a male partner, and are fulfilled spiritually and emotionally without a husband. Women no longer need to be ‘taken care of’ on account of discriminatory laws. However, many people still get married. Marriage still ensures ‘good’ and ‘faithful’ sexual citizens, as defined by the cultural mores of Western socio-historical contexts; falling in love, finding ‘the one’, saving for engagement rings and weddings, working towards buying a home, and then planning to raise a family. Disruptions to this well engrained script, for example, being; polyamorous, promiscuous, single over 30, a sex worker, voluntarily childless, transgender, divorced, a single mum… or rejecting marriage, are still considered sinister and untoward diversions from an accepted status quo within Western society.

Some people may still get married because it is easier to live in many states as a married couple. Many states not only encourage marriage through tax breaks, but enforce this marital norm by placing marriage as a barrier to access support from the state. Certainly, a marital relationship is often viewed more favourably than a long-term de facto relationship when it comes to visa applications, but it can also be a barrier to accessing healthcare for a partner or child, childcare, and disability and unemployment support. Although this marital status can be hugely beneficial to ensure loved ones can be together, getting married on these grounds is still highly problematic. Doing so further supports this state power, and the systematic discrimination and exclusion marriage poses for those who do not conform to the marital script. This could include those who cannot get married, those who might struggle to be in a relationship due to health or personal issues, those who have had to get divorced from bad relationships, or simply those that have chosen a different way to live. To consider marriage (or civil union or other partnership agreement) because you feel as though you have to for legal purposes is, to say the least, a frustrating quandary – one that my partner and I find ourselves in. Particularly if you do not wish to support an institution that is by design exclusionary, discriminatory, and serves to bolster society’s gender normative expectations which assumes heterosexuality, therefore granting the nuclear family prestige. Legislation to allow for same-sex marriage is welcome (where it is occurring), but that is just the tip of the iceberg. A conscientious citizen who values equality would show solidarity with their fellow global citizens by not stepping into yet another realm of privilege that is a relic of a much more unequal world… wouldn’t they?

But more than the legal pressure from the state, there is still very much a social pressure to get married. It is easy for capitalist Western cultures to maintain and promote status quo societies where citizens willingly adhere to a traditional and predictable social/sexual script. In the case of my partner and I, given our Irish background, to choose not to get married will ensure our relationship is speculated on by family and friends forever more – “But why aren’t they married? Does he have commitment issue? Does she put too much pressure on him?”. The urge to follow the traditional marital script in order to avoid such speculations is strong, and has ignited a deep dialogue for us as a couple.

Marriage gives you an exclusive title; ‘Mr/s and Mr/s’. It is a title of ‘success’ – that screams ‘we did it’. We followed the script as we should, abided by all of the rules, and reaped all of the rewards in so doing – social and financial. In order to celebrate this achievement in the Western world, vast amounts of money are often spent on an expensive one-day celebration to showcase to the world that this person is ‘the one’. The importance of this wedding day has been apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, where #CovidBride began to trend online, and bloggers were praised for ‘getting through’ the postponement of their weddings. Although I sympathised with friends and family whose weddings had been affected, the notion of #CovidBride sat uncomfortably with me. It seemed as though the bigger picture was missing from these exclamations of poor fortune; that being able to garner attention on social media in this way was a class privilege during a global pandemic that exemplified the importance of marriage, or rather the wedding day, in Western society.  By placing such importance on marriage, and especially the wedding day, as a key event, it serves to further entrench divisions that exist for the already marginalised, for those who cannot engage with this institution.

I am beginning to question why our Western society focuses on one big day, to celebrate one person that we love. What about the love and warmth from our family, friends, communities… why the focus on getting so much, everything, from ‘the one’? Society appraises and judges those who are ‘unsuccessful’ in ‘finding the one’. Such are the pressures, that people may stay with ‘the one’ even when there is no longer any love, or settle for ‘a one’ or ‘anyone’, rather than ‘no one’. The West’s narrow definition of how we should portray love through a marital relationship play into these wider issues, in comparison with other non-Western ways of recognising love. Arguably, this Western romantic fairy tale situated around ‘the one’, apparent in Disney movies to classic novels, mocks and undermines people’s sense of independence and freedom. Of course, a relationship can give you a sense of belonging and fulfilment, but by holding marriage in such high esteem we might begin to believe we need to rely on someone else for that.

On hearing about friends’ engagements, I was surprised at how the news raised personal internal questions for me as to whether I wanted to be married, while simultaneously feeling such joy for them. I felt as though my partner thought I was trying out some reverse psychology on him as I said ‘please don’t plan any surprise proposals, please don’t spend any money on a ring! I honestly don’t want that!’.  We already know we are life partners, and so we ask ourselves, what is the bigger picture, in our deciding to get married or not? What would happen if our life together did not revolve around following the prescribed marital script, what would the imagined alternative be? Who, would benefit, and who would lose out? Disrupting hidden inequalities is vital to support those who are marginalised, and these disruptions are borne out of critical appraisal and potential rejection of traditions that preserve these practices. Of course, if the status quo suits you, then there is no need to reject it. Thus, many people who idealise and strive towards marriage are uncomfortable with this conversation, this challenge. I am uncomfortable writing about it – what will my married/ engaged friends think if they read this!

When something is normalised or a seemingly ubiquitous truth, it is hard to imagine or conjure up an alternative. However, just as we must create alternative ways of living economically and socially in order to combat climate change, mass incarceration of marginalised populations, and disaster capitalism – I would argue that it is imperative we make these efforts in order to tackle systemic and structural inequalities.

I am all for celebrating love. But there are countless examples of other ways to love, raise a family, do romantic relationships, and construct the notion of commitment. Instead of planning the ‘perfect day’ for friends and family, we could choose to focus on one another’s happiness and satisfaction long-term in a more meaningful way. Rather than spending money on a ring, we could spend time making memories with loved ones. Instead of hoarding our love and putting it on a privileged pedestal for others to envy or admire, we could spread that love to others who might need it.

At the least, this questioning of social narratives creates discussion and critical engagement with constructed social norms, which can cause social perceptions to shift – the genesis of heightened social conscientiousness about privileges and inequalities. As more people choose to question and move away from the Western pedestal of heterosexual marriage, the traditional institution will begin to crack. If the power possessed by the institution of marriage cannot be legitimatised or justified when challenged – there is arguably good reason to consider letting these cracks turn to chasms.

The question for us, as a couple in a privileged position, is: What can we do about the creation of this inequality of which we are onlookers? We think it is time to envision another way of ‘doing’ love, and pave an alternative path that focuses on giving and receiving inclusive, fair, equal, and multiple kinds of love. This alternative path is one my partner and I will continue to explore as we challenge the pressure to conform to the ‘normal’ rituals of marriage against which others are judged, seek to undermine the power of the normal moral model, and resist being uncritically swept up in our prescribed script.

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