Why Marriage Matters

Image courtesy of Hammer51012

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has an interesting post about why he and his partner aren’t married (this is an older post; I found it because of a more recent post by Ross Douthat):

As much as I can recall, there were basically three reasons for us to get married. 1.) I might leave. Marriage would force me to do the right thing. 2.) To declare our commitment to each other before a community of people whom we loved. 3.) The business reasons–the legalities of your estate and guardianship. I found–and still find–the first two reasons were utterly unconvincing. The third held some sway, but with the help of a lawyer we’ve managed to take care of that. The first turned marriage into a kind of insurance policy, and I just believed that if you felt you needed insurance for the person you were having kids by to stick out, you needed to reconsider the whole proposition. The commitment and community reason held some appeal. But I believed, and still believe, that long-term romantic partnerships are between the two people entering into it.

I hated the idea of public declarations, because the life blood of the relationship–what bills to pay, how to raise your child, your love life–all of that happened when no one else was around. Kenyatta knows more about me than any human being walking the earth–and this is as it should be. No one knows more about my strengths and my weaknesses, my failings and my successes. I trust her to the end. But that trust was worked for–it was not declared or conjured by the presence of other people …

That gets at the essential truth for me–a relationship couldn’t be about talking to other people. It couldn’t be about telling other people what I was gonna do; it had to be about the actual work. From that perspective, a wedding was abominable to me.

While I agree in principle that a spousal relationship depends far more on the relationship than on any legal fictions surrounding it, Coates’ view strikes me as
unnecessarily purist and counterproductive.

The fact is that human beings are predictably irrational. You might think that keeping your options open is the best move, but research consistently shows that you’re better off reducing the number of options facing you.

Marriage does several very useful things. It’s a public statement of commitment (which tends to reinforce that commitment). It imposes clear penalties for defecting (which tends to discourage cheating). It’s a social norm that provides a positive penumbra (marriage is highly correlated with a lot of things, including increased sex and improved happiness–probably not a coincidence).

I don’t think that love is something that is cheapened by marriage. Saying that a wedding is abominable because it distracts from the real work is like saying that we should ditch seatbelts because they don’t help us be better drivers.*

* Yes, I realize that safety advances tend to make drivers less risk-averse…but they still save lives. Similarly, marriage might make you more complacent about your relationship…but only because it actually strengthened it.

4 thoughts on “Why Marriage Matters

  1. Marriage matters more and more once you are married because it is the greatest form of commitment you can show to your partner.

  2. The only thing marriage has other than legal implications is its symbolism- the social effects and so on are due to the symbolism other people attribute to it.

    If you look at somewhere like the UK, where marriage has been declining alongside religiousness, and recently hit an all time low, it’s clear that public pressure fades along with a decline in belief in the symbolic importance of marriage.

    I hate to sound like a religious reactionary, but religion and belief in marriage do correlate on the public scale. And I for one don’t want to live in a place where marriage doesn’t count for anything- because I do think it’s better for most long-term couples and families.

  3. Alice:

    Marriage in the UK is probably also declining – and in fact the correlation is pretty strong – because there is institutional chipping-away of the 3rd reason provided by the blogger Chris quotes. The business reasons. OTOH parents/ married couples get practically no tax breaks and on the other, people who have or haven’t children but never marry are better off due to the tax advantages they enjoy severally. Add to that a welfare culture that effectively rewards having children out of wedlock e.g. by awarding council houses to single mothers has led to a proliferation of teenage pregnancies mostly in girls breaking away from their mothers who have been in a similar state (I worked with a charity that helped kids from single parent families). Biologically a mother is a greater need for a neonate and has a greater need to help the neonate which means the mother is left holding the baby – and alone.

    As more and more people remain single or otherwise not married, the social symbolism too wears off which you point out. I see 2 kinds of ghettos in London right now – people with kids, and people without kids. The marital status does not seem to matter much.

    Which means for those married, it really _is_ back to the old hat about marriage being ‘to the exclusion of everyone else’.

    I disagree however that belief in a religion and belief in marriage go hand-in-hand. Some 40% of British marriages happen in a registry office but equally the published data does not reveal what % of the 60% who married in a church – and I do not know what they do about people marrying in temples and other religious institutions – actually did it for the ambience and the location. In my 10 years here, I have only ever attended 2 church weddings and both were for ambience in old-fashioned churches in Chester and Gloucester. So I suppose I am allowed some scepticism 😉


    I think it is a test of values. Just as they say – character is what you are in the dark, when no one is looking. When do we do things that do not have express rewards attached to them? When our values tell us that it is the right thing to do. Commitment to a cause or to a person is in the same basket in my view.

  4. It is quite interesting to do some research in which social / religious / historical context monogamy, “marriage” and the trend to nuclear family structures have been invented.

    Forcing people to live in opposition to their natural needs was always a favorite instrument of control, just as “divide and conquer”.

    Giving men ownership / “responsibility” for “their” partner/kids made them more vulnerable to blackmailing of many sorts – way more than someone who had a tribe as his backup and where a few dozen people were “responsible” for each other.

    And… so… on…

    Nope, a free form of polyamory and neo-tribal structures will survive the current wave of religious fundamentalism and political control, errr, “security” freaks.

    Maybe one day a more free, responsible and loving humanity will develop from this.

    Marriage and ownership won’t be part of it.

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