Marriage is problematic. That is not a controversial statement to make. Its long history is mostly a history of oppression and treating women like they are property. It was a business deal and a way to manage money and inheritance, and it was not a decision made by the participants, it was a contract arranged by the parents. Only in the last 150 years or so has marriage had anything to do with love and passion, and yet redefining a marriage as an emotional bond rather than a legal one has not fundamentally changed its nature. The rules remain the same (if you give me your sexual fidelity I will give you access to my bank account), the legal arrangement remains the same, and the institution drags its ugly history behind it like a diseased tail.
My first thought when reading Bruce Benderson’s chapbook Against Marriage was, FINALLY. Finally someone is clearly and passionately attacking this arrangement, from an historical, political, and philosophical angle, as a gay rights activist and a feminist. Because marriage, despite looking for a while like it might be tossed aside to let in new ways of arranging families, participating in romance, raising children, has actually gained power in the last few decades. The pressure to marry is enormous, especially for women. And then the whole self-help culture wants to make sure your relationship is arranged exactly like everyone else’s — any deviation (polyamory, triangles, communal living, even long distance relationships) are seen as expressions of childhood trauma or low self esteem or some other form of madness.
While interviewing Benderson, she adds:
It’s the same from the feminist angle. I don’t understand, having read the last 200 years of feminist theory, and I don’t understand how we got to this point, where we are just commenting on the culture, blogging about the television shows we like and don’t like, rather than hacking away at the structure with a fucking axe.
Speaking of history, isn’t it depressingly predictable how often these Enlightenment-inspired visions of a rational reordering of social mores, when met with rejection or even a polite lack of interest, end up in accusations of false consciousness? “Hacking away at the structure with a fucking axe”? Well, first of all, points deducted for the hackneyed metaphor, and secondly, what do you mean “we”, paleface? I dunno, maybe we’re not doing that because — oh, how it pains me to state the bleeding obvious — there are such things as happy, monogamous marriages, and it is entirely possible that people have had enough time to look at hippie communes and rationally decide, “Eh, not for me, thanks.” I mean, if you want to be a nomadic, literary bohemian on society’s fringe, more power to you, vaya con dios, but before you start urging the masses to yank the wedding manacles from their fingers, you might want to consider that some people actually want comfort, stability, routine, and a reliable partner to raise kids with, and it doesn’t mean they’ve been brainwashed. (Let’s not even get into the role biology and psychology might play in all this, lest I add to the reactionary charges being prepared against me.)
True, obviously, most people these days do not marry till death does them part. I’d say you could file that one away under the paradox of choice — when given the ability to endlessly customize the details of one’s life, people tend to have trouble sticking to a decision, whereas they tend to adapt and settle soon enough when such decisions are taken out of their hands. (Amusingly, this fact leads Benderson to advocate a return to arranged marriages if we must retain them at all, which, to me at least, sits rather awkwardly among all the fulminations against the ways in which the institution has stifled and strangled our romantic imagination and creative potential. Seems like a textbook false dilemma there.) And you’d get no argument from me over the suggestion that many people have unrealistic ideals in their love lives that condemn them to avoidable misery. But I’m jaded enough to agree with Schopenhauer — many if not most people spend their lives vacillating between boredom and despair. I mean, here’s a current group of patriarchy-smashing feminists, several of whom seem to espouse some type of open-relationship ideal, and judging from what I’ve seen, they’re just as confused and neurotic and generally fucked-up as anyone, with extra drama to boot. People, as a rule, are unhappy wherever they are with whatever they have, always judging the grass to be greener elsewhere. Pessimistic? No, just the human condition.