Can Marriage Escape Culture? Can Love? 

I have been thinking about love and marriage recently. No, I am not about to ruin someone’s life but, rather, have been trying to develop a response to a couple of recent papers which analyse the ethics of ‘(‘neuro’)enhancing’ love. The details of that need not concern us here as, in what, follows I want to discuss something Tauriq Moosa published on Comment is Free titled ‘We need to have a frank discussion about marriage’ and subtitled:

‘The reasons people normally cite for getting hitched no longer make sense. We should be asking: why get married at all?’

Of course, as autonomous and free (or ‘autonomous’ and ‘free’) individuals, and citizens of liberal democracies wedded to Mills’ Harm Principle, we do not generally need reasons to do something, as long as there is no reason – such as it will harm another - we ought not do it. Thus, one might legitimately respond, ‘why not get married?’ or, simply, ‘because I want to.’* Furthermore the article is not really a frank discussion of marriage but of four reasons we might think motivate people to get married, a quite different thing. However, given that we should not hold him responsible for the title or the sub-title of the piece - he is likely to have both placed over his work with little by way of consultation – it is perhaps best to turn to what he actually has to say.

Moosa is not against marriage per se. He is certainly for gay marriage** and he has no wish to stop people pursuing the lives they wish to pursue. Indeed by suggesting that by “rethinking marriage's importance and assumptions … [we] could help open all people up to different kinds of sexual and romantic interactions they might otherwise never experience” he seems motivated by what anthropologists would call an ethics of freedom. There is a question about whether people wish to be opened up to such things, and if such things might decrease our freedom to pursue alternatives, including ‘traditional’ marriages, but let us press on.

The substance of the piece is an examination and rejection of four ‘marriage myths’ or what might commonly be assumed to be four ‘reasons’ for getting married, assumptions that Moosa wishes us to question and, ultimately, reject. The first is that getting married is traditional. The main point here is that tradition or, more accurately, those who would seek to enforce it should not be allowed to compel or force us to get married. This is true whether we are thinking about an arranged marriage of the sort still practiced in ‘traditional’ societies*** or an overbearing weight of assumption, expectation and pressure which can result in people feeling they have been blackmailed into doing something that they did not, in fact, wish to do. However, tradition is a funny and inescapable thing. If everyone ceased to get married we would not simply be escaping tradition and therefore have more freedom. Rather, we would be living in a (re)newed tradition in which people did not get married.

We might think then that the ‘tradition’ that guarantees the most freedom would be the one where 50% of individuals are married and 50% are not. However, given the influence of what Archer calls the natal context (the way we are brought up), such thinking would be a little misguided; our families have a far greater and more specific influence on our socialisation than society at large. Anyway, we could not bring it about this distribution of married and not married without fundamentally impacting on the current freedoms we presently enjoy. Of course none of this is to suggest that the cultural traditions of society or, for that matter, of particular families are beyond critique, change and or reconstruction but it is to say that they are not easily escapable, at least not simply so. Even the ‘autonomous’ and ‘meta’ reflexive are individuals with a particular and sociologically classifiable past whose history and experiences make a fundamental contribution to the way they make decisions and lead their lives in the present.

Myth Two is that getting married is a public declaration of love. I am not sure how this can be considered a myth. Marriage ceremonies are precisely that. Even those who elope and get married amongst strangers make public declarations. Such is the nature of the oath and the legal registration of that oath. I think Moosa’s point is something like: it doesn’t matter if you go to your graduation ceremony; you will still graduated and receive your degree. The ceremonial declaration embedded in ‘graduation’ has little to do with what it takes justify the declaration in the first place. The view is correct, and my own non-attendance at any of my four graduation ceremonies was motivated by not dissimilar reasons. That and the fact that they are just massive queues. That said, I am somewhat surprised (and a little grateful) that my parents are not more put out at my refusal. It does seem more than a little churlish of me.

The conclusion we might draw is that ceremonies are not entirely, perhaps not even primarily, about those graduating or getting married. It can be about giving other people an opportunity to celebrate a milestone in your life and to do so with you. The point brings us back to the idea of traditions and makes clear that it can be a good thing. I have personally observed lots of people enjoying them or at least appearing to do so. That said Moosa’s concern might be less with the public declaration part and more with the love – or the one true love – part. This idea is, I agree, rather insidious, but this fact makes it clear that it is not so much an idea as a cultural trope, a guiding totem of modernity. It is everywhere from all Disney films ever, and the idea of high school sweethearts, it is central to most American sitcoms and every single romcom ever, and even Star Wars is marred by it. I blame Shakespeare; Romeo and Juliet clearly provided the original template; at least they had the decency to end in tragedy.

The idea of true love and of the one true love is an interesting reflection of modernity. Our freedom and individuality is reflected by an anathema, an interdependent fatalism. Across her career Illouz has analysed modern love, and our search for it, seeing it as a high water mark of capitalisms’ ability to colonise not only our lives but also our inner lives, the very ways we think and feel, and to do so at the very point we think we are most ‘ourselves.’ Whilst this gives you a sense of what might be involved in challenging the idea of true love the real surprise lies in the increasing diversity we do, in fact, find in the world. I am sure we could analyse ‘alternative’ romantic and sexual practices as function of neoliberal capitalism and (post)modernity but the point is that as powerful (and as heteronormative) as the Cinderella complex or something like it is for both (hetero and, it appears, homo- sexual) men and women reality is far more diverse. Moosa wants to see more diversity and sees challenging the idea of ‘the one’ or ‘true love’ as a step towards this end. Regardless of whether or not he is (or we are) successful there will always be a mainstream and a not mainstream. The human being is a cultural, which is to say conventional, animal. At best we might be able to create a culture that has a range of conventions.

Moosa’s fourth myth is that married couples make better parents. Interestingly this ‘fact’ is used as part of the ethical justification for drugs that will ‘enhance’ love and marriage. At least, I suppose, those marriages that happen to function as parental and familial units. I agree with Moosa that this is highly liable to change in the future, if indeed it remains the case today. We have seen this before with arguments about gay parenting. Having well-adjusted children is not simply a function of whether the parent is married, gay, co-habiting or single but the broader social context in which these families exist. Single parents used to be stigmatised thereby generating greater challenges for such families. Thus, if current trends continue, I would expect the different outcomes for children of cohabiting and married parents to disappear. That said, we might make one point. As with love and marriage, raising children is a culture bound practice surrounded by convention and norm. Furthermore what constitutes a ‘well raised’ or ‘adjusted’ child is aslo normative. It may well be that those who (naturally) conform are at an advantage when it comes to such measurements. If we value diversity, both for its own sake and for the sake of raising interesting children, the very idea of ‘better’ parenting and the developmental benefits children derive from it might be put under pressure.****

Moosa’s final marriage myth, and the one he spends most of his time discussing, is the fact that ‘You get better legal and financial benefits.’ Again, and as Moosa points out, it is not a myth, but a reality. Furthermore, those with even a passing knowledge of marriage and its history will be unsurprised to learn it is an economic institution. We might question the degree to which state benefits are targeted at couples who are married and we might point to the existence of contract law and, as Moosa does, suggest it could be used to replace the civil and economic functions played by the modern marriage contract (and it is, of course, a contract). To a degree this suggestion is correct. Where it falls down is, first, in the face of death taxes and, second, in the face of what is and is not pragmatic.

Whilst some argue for the abolition of death taxes I believe they have an important role to play. That, however, is an argument for another time. The difficulty is that if you have death taxes you have to be able to distinguish between an inheritance, which is taxed, and one spouse taking full control of an estate, which is not. Marriage, or civil partnerships,***** are a simple way to do this. If we are to avoid the avoidance of death taxes there is an an inbuilt imperative to limit the number of civil partners one can have (and those to whom it can be applied). Managing the competing demands of institutionalised death taxes and the avoidance of death taxes means that replicating this benefits of civil partnerships elsewhere in the legal system is challenging if not impossible. Furthermore, the idea of standard legal transactions suggests that, pragmatically speaking, we should have standard legal contracts and processed. The contracts of marriage and civil partnerships are the standardised and pragmatic solutions that people require.

As I suggested in the beginning of this overly long blog post Moosa is not against marriage (or civil partnerships), particularly not if that is what people want. What he is against is the ‘sanctification’ of marriage, something that he sees as contributing to the hegemony of marriage and, therefore, to a restriction of our freedom to do otherwise. I do not disagree but what I find interesting is the degree to which an alternative ‘morality’ is implicitly taking the place of marriage in perspectives such as Moosa’s and, I might add, my own. Certainly we have the aforementioned morality of freedom but we also have a morality of love that has a distinctly modern inflection. Love, and particularly romantic and sexual love, has taken many forms; it, and not just our ideas about it but our actual emotional experiences, has been constructed in different ways at different times. In Victorian morality it was imbibed with a good deal of duty, the duty of a husband to his wife and of a wife to her husband. These duties were, at least for some, emotionally felt as well as culturally demanded. Today things are quite different. Today such love is meant to be personally, emotionally and sexually fulfilling in ways that would make little sense to even the most in love of Victorians. The same can be said of marriage. For many people getting married today is less about community, family and cultural tradition than themselves, their own desires and fulfilment. Many people (re)construct the marriage ceremony to make of it what they, and not anyone else, will. The most obvious example are those who write their own vows. Moosa would, presumably, celebrate such individuality and, certainly, it is worthy of celebration. However, we might also wonder who amongst us would dread ever having to ‘perform’ and ‘give voice’ their love in such a manner!

We might call this the tyranny of individuality and emotional expression and Moosa’s ready made response is evident throughout his piece: well, if you do not like it, do not get married (or do it in a manner that you do like). Whilst the point is well made it remains the case that this call, to practice your love as you see fit, is, one, a normative demand – modern love is such that we ought to practice it as we see fit, in a manner that reflects our true and authentic selves – and, two, something that will always and unavoidable be subject to some degree of social and cultural norm. At its most basic we might point out that, at least in the UK, it is not a celebration if there is not a cake. This is not to say all UK celebrations do have cake but all celebrations in some way exhibit the fact that they are celebrations by having at least some of the culturally indicated things that make a celebration and celebration.

In short you cannot remove culture from marriage, or even love, and replace it with the authenticity of the individual. Marriage, love and (authentic) individuals are all cultural institutions.

* This seems to have been my sister’s motivation for getting married last summer. Or, perhaps, the fact that one of my brothers happened to be visiting from Australia. That, and the small matter of my sister and her betrothed being in love with each other. 

** I am not sure about his view that, as a cause, gay marriage is “about undermining marriage assumptions and norms.” Certainly it is not solely about this and there seems to be strong sense in which it is about reinforcing such norms.

*** Before you start I am not suggesting the practice of arranged marriage is a form of forced marriage, clearly many, even most, arranged marriages are conducted with the consent of those getting married. Nevertheless most forced marriages are obviously ‘arranged’ in the sense that they are not brought about by those being forced to marry. 

**** This is not, of course, a justification for bad or abusive parenting, no matter how many artists it may have produced.

***** Consistent with my previous argument about being against gay marriage I think the state should get out of regulating marriage entirely and instead focus on civil partnerships. People could then redesign marriage at a remove from state control but connect it with civil partnerships as they see fit (and it is clear that they do see fit). People who have no intention of getting married or, indeed, are not in relationships that resemble marriages could also benefit from the legal arrangements facilitated by civil partnerships if they so chose.