Monday, 4 April 2016

Love and Marriage: ritual in an age beyond horse-powered carriages

Love and marriage, love and marriage

Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother, you can't have one without the other

Love and marriage, love and marriage

It's an institute you can't disparage
Ask the local gentry and they will say it's elementary

'Love and Marriage' lyrics by Sammy Cahn, 1955

The jaunty, catchy tune 'Love and Marriage' rollicks along in this Frank Sinatra recording, its rhythms mimicking the sounds of the trotting horses it references. The first time I heard this song was nearly 10 years ago, at my Saturday job stacking shelves in a bookshop, where I nearly fell off a ladder. It was so old-fashioned in its attitude and straight-forward declaratory lyrics, it was absurd. Peggy Lee's version is no more palatable. There's much to love about the 1950s, but the era's attitudes towards gender and social roles are not one of them.

And yet today, as three of my friends have recently gone through divorces whilst others continue to announce their knot-tying, I find myself wondering if we really have come as far as I thought from the institutionalisation of love within marriage. A large part of me has always wondered why people still get married in the 21st century, especially in the UK where the law now recognises 'common law' partners, at least when it comes to applying for things like grants and social benefits. But since I left university aged 21, every year I've seen a flurry of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances get married - gay as well as straight couples, nonconformist as well as traditional.

The romantic concept of a soul mate for life has only recently been tied to the spouse; marriage has for centuries been a social transaction, trading on connections as well as the always-important dowry. Societies developed whereby people's individual lives have been lived according to politics, with little notion of choice. Considering the statistics on divorce, as well as the negative history of marriage as a direct form of social control, I have frequently found it very surprising that in our presumably more liberal and secular societies, so many people still choose to go through it. I am clearly not alone in this questioning; the queer dissent towards marriage looks to change society's bias towards favouring the married state to the detriment of singles, polyamorous and other configurations of love and families.

I grew up planning not my wedding day, but my lovely attic flat filled with books and travel mementoes - where I imagined I lived alone, at approximately age 35. I never dreamed of a husband, and it's surprising - considering how far the LGBTQ+ rights movements have come since I was a child - that this idea of a life is as unconventional as ever. It's not entirely a queer state, but singleness and spinsterdom is still a feared concept.  The sanctity of the couple, the traditional family unit (even with same-sex parents) continues to be revered and pushed, despite the fact that nearly 100 years of Freudian analysis has proven how difficult and unrealistic this form of living really is. And amazingly,  as I enter my mid-twenties, I have even found myself feeling the societal pressure of marriage  - something I always thought I'd manage to be immune to. The wedding industry has a a lot to answer for, and it's easy to blame my pet hate, Capitalism.

However, it's not entirely as simple as that. As well as the social, institutional benefits that are imparted via a marriage license, it's important to recognise the deeply personal effects that marriage has in peoples' lives. Philosopher Alain de Botton reasons the importance of rituals in social lives, which indeed is a large part of why all the liberal people I know have got married. Although this is still a monogamous and heteronormative standard, it remains the dominant motivation in society, and is quite complex as it embodies contradictions. People still pay homage to this tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has a long history of subjugation and control, whilst those living outside of the system have been penalised in forms ranging from stigma and mockery (see: Sex and the City, any Hollywood rom-com etc) to outright punishment (see: the witch trials which targeted  single women living alone). Michel Foucault's theory of power goes a long way to understanding why concepts are embraced despite us knowing that they are problematic and a form of control: because it is enforced from below, and embraced by people, enjoyed as a form of pleasure:

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body… 
(Michel Foucault, 'Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977', p.119)
Knowing this, I think I can forgive myself for feeling the sway of the big rock, big frock, and party. My partner, thankfully, has yet to be convinced.


1. Do go and read A Short History of Love over on the philosophy site, The Book of Life. It's really very enlightening.

2. I wanted to add that as well as the basic state of resisting marriage by simply not getting married, there are other, historical forms of living with people and having sexual relationships that seem very progressive, but are barely discussed. The first is the brilliantly French set-up of having a husband (who pays for your amazing wardrobe and house) and a lover (who writes you poetry and takes care of the rest). This has traditionally, publicly and very frequently been adopted by French kings (see: the various Louis); but surely the time has come for the boot to be on the other foot.

Secondly is the concept of having multiple husbands who take care of various things together, with a First Husband running the household, Second Husband doing the cooking, down to the Fifth Husband being the favourite; all simultaneously competing to share the wife's bed and sire the first female child. This is an inversion of the Confucian-Chinese household.

The Amazonian idea of the male sex slave within the all-female island society seems a bit too much of a porno fantasy story-line to be realistic. Of course, both the French and the Chinese systems require both inherited wealth and property, which is of course a difficulty; but I just wanted to make some suggestions for alternatives to marriage which still operate within a (loosely) heterosexual framework.

Please make more suggestions in the comments! 

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