FeminismReligion and Spirituality

Marriage’s Decreasing Relevance

Atheism has some interesting overlap with a variety of topics. It’s been discussed that, since major religions systematically oppress women, there’s great reason for feminism and atheism to go hand-in-hand. Marriage is a big topic for LGBT+ activists, and overlaps with atheism because, hey, I haven’t heard a logical reason why certain couples shouldn’t get married. My question is: how much will marriage matter in the future?

I realize that much of our readership is under the age to get married (in most states you have to be 16 to get married with parental permission, or 18 otherwise). Just bear with me. I know that lots of you think your highschool sweetheart is the one you’re going to end up with foreverandever. I just hope to give you pause about your big plans. 😀

There are several reasons to get married. Many people believe that they make a spiritual bond with their partner, and some people believe it brings them closer to their deity. Some wish to get married because it’s an official, symbolic recognition of their union. (This is the main reason I’d like to get married.) There are also legal and financial benefits granted to married couples by the government.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of the ‘spiritual reasons’ people. There are individuals out there who really think they’ve met their soul-mate, and that they’re somehow achieving a higher level of spiritual fulfillment by legally and religiously solidifying their relationship. To an atheist, there’s not much ‘invisible stuff’ to a marriage, unless you count the ridiculous hormones and emotions involved. If the trends toward non-theism continue, and fewer people have religious reasons to get married, this “pro” to marriage will fade and become obsolete.

The symbolic recognition of a relationship through legalizing it is a completely subjective, feel-good reason to get married. The cultural importance that we place on marriage makes us think that it’s somehow beneficial to our livelihood to become married. Of course, it isn’t necessary to publicly declare your commitment to someone, and yet people conduct elaborate and expensive ceremonies for this purpose. I think that the pressure to marry, and the state of being married, are counterproductive to human happiness and development. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

A big part of why I’d choose to marry (since there’s no spiritual reason or need for public recognition) is that there are financial benefits. Here’s a neat summary of some of them. The ones that matter most to me are being able to pay less in taxes, be on insurance together, have joint ownership, and knowing that when I die, someone will have the authority to make sure that my body is donated to science.

According to the 2010 US census, the number of husband-wife households (because same-sex marriages aren’t recognized by the federal gov’t) decreased from 51.7% in 2000 to 48.4% in 2010. The number of unmarried couple households was 5.2% in 2000, and in 2010 went up to 6.6%. Those aren’t big changes, but it is a slight shift and might be indicative of a trend towards realizing that being married isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And now, we segue (fun word!) to the part where I say lots of negative things about being married!

Like I said: the pressure to get married and the state of being so aren’t so great. Being pressured by our parents, friends, society, et cetera, cause us to focus a lot of our attention on finding a permanent, monogamous partner. Some people spend more time thinking about how they’re going to grow old alone or not be able to have kids (which is completely illogical; it’s called a sperm bank/adoption) than they spend thinking about their careers.

This might be news to some of you, but not everyone identifies as monoamorous. It’s a new way to think of romantic identities, but I, for one, identify as polyamorous. Some individuals can’t imagine being in more than one emotional/physical relationship at a time; it would probably suit me better than sticking to one partner. That being said, a society that pressures you to get married is also pressuring you to be monogamous within that arrangement. Humans aren’t all monoamorous in nature, and expressing this (by way of cheating or what have you) destroys relationships that could otherwise have been successfully poly with a little negotiation and perspective.

In addition to identifying as poly, I’m also pansexual. Being in a committed mono relationship from a relatively young age with a guy is extremely restrictive, in that I would like to be able to experience a relationship with, for example, a woman, and can’t. (At least as of yet–the jury’s not permanently out on that one.) Point being, strictly monogamous arrangements prevent the parties within them from being able to freely experiment. TEENS: Take this from someone with real experience and don’t decide right off the bat to commit to your high school sweetheart. Be a good Skeptic and think it through, thoroughly, as objectively as possible.

Contention between you and your partner about things like what you want to do for a career, where you want to live in the world, and your opinions on political issues are all really important. I hate winter; my partner loves it. Hence, I want to live somewhere winter doesn’t exist and he wants seasons. We also don’t agree about the importance of atheism in one’s day-to-day life. Eventually we will work out these differences. Maybe. XP

Basically all I’m trying to say is that there are some pros to getting married. Many people choose this path for their own reasons, and for many people it works. From my perspective, there are more cons than pros. (Another thing, it’s much more difficult to obtain a divorce than to simply dissolve a relationship.) I will probably still end up married, partly because of the free name-change.

Take everything I say with a grain of salt. I’m certainly no expert and I’m certainly not the average homo sapien.

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Lux is a female genderqueer weirdo, writing from Kansas. They happily identify as a militant atheist(+), feminist and liberal. Their time is consumed with Doctor Who, reading, and playing WoW with a cat on their lap. If you're lucky, you might catch them smithing jewellery or cleaning something.


  1. July 1, 2012 at 8:52 am —

    Hi Elly,
    I am not of the age group of your normal readership but felt the need to say that there are many marriages that work. I have been married for 30 years and my husband and I have grown and developed as individuals. I did not feel suppressed at all. I was encouraged to pursue my love of art and then my career along side motherhood. During this time my husband supported me in many ways with child care, housework and finance. I was still a teenager when we married and one of my closest friends is also still happily married from a similar age. I have no religious beliefs and had a very low key marriage. We chose to be together and although there were many diifcult times, working through these, learning to compromise on both sides I feel we are as strong a couple now as ever.

  2. July 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm —

    I’m glad you’re happy with your choice, but as Elly’s article describes, your experience is hardly universal. Marriage is far from an ideal institution. It’s loaded with culturally conservative ideas of what a ‘proper’ relationship should look like, ideas that map poorly to the needs and desires of many people – even those who identify as heterosexual and monogamous.

    My partner and I got married when I was in my early twenties. I was following a script – marriage had been drummed into both of us as the natural progression of a relationship, and I wasn’t yet mature enough to question whether that institution was a good fit for me, him or our partnership.

    It wasn’t. Though I have no regrets about the relationship itself, I have come to despise the external social expectations imposed on us by our possession of a single piece of paperwork. He’s not my husband any more than I’m his wife – those terms are loaded with role expectations that poorly reflect the reality of our relationship. Years of experience and exposure to other models have convinced me that marriage as currently constructed is an outdated, poorly examined model, one that is actively holding people back by reinforcing restrictive gender roles and notions of what constitutes a meaningful relationship.

    Consider, for example, the heavy pressure put on women to change their names. Today, many women have careers, degrees and other accomplishments by the time they’re ready to consider marriage. Yet, they are still expected to trade the identity they’ve spent their entire adult life building upon marriage, and to switch their priorities to fulfilling the role of wife. Calling a woman’s birth name her ‘maiden’ name implies that it’s something to be outgrown, while taking on a man’s name and the title of ‘Mrs’ signifies adulthood and maturity. Her history and sense of self are, in a real way, disposable – how many women marry and then divorce, changing their names after each, and rinse and repeat for each successive relationship?

    The expectation that a woman will be first and foremost Mrs. Hisname, wife and mother above all, with the valiant husband as primary (or sole) earner supporting the whole endeavor, is alive and well. Men are pressured to work long hours under the assumption that someone else is taking care of things at home and bombarded by advertising built around the conceit that men are helpless domestically, children are still considered vehicles for passing on his family’s name, and mothers are told they’re bad parents if they don’t cut their hours or quit work outright and commit to the domestic sphere.

    There’s a conflicting message. Girls are on the one hand encouraged to follow their interests, to pursue an education and a career, and on the other to be the first to make sacrifices, whether of their identity or their personal aspirations. Boys are taught to measure their worth in their earning potential, that women are just as capable as them, but that upon heterosexual marriage, she’s rightfully the party primarily responsible for the home front.

    It’s interesting that you say that you were ‘encouraged’ to pursue art and a career, and feel the need to add that “my husband supported me in many ways with child care, housework and finance.” You should have been able to pursue those things without needing his endorsement. Furthermore, it should not be noteworthy that your husband stepped up the way he did. The very idea that these kinds of activities require permission or are tacitly a special degree of involvement is part of the problem.

    And this is just speaking to a small fraction of the issues inherent to this overwhelmingly heteronormative, monogamous cultural ideal. As Elly eloquently describes, it’s far more problematic when you consider that not everyone is heterosexual, can be happily monogamous or identifies neatly with the gender binary.

    • July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm —

      First of all, myriadwords1 is a great username for you, lol. I love it!

      You make a lot of really great points that I didn’t even think about. I tend to write a lot about specifically female oppression, so I shied away from it in this post. (Okay, I honestly just didn’t think about a lot of the things you pointed out because I don’t identify as a woman. Hard to completely empathize.)

      It really is a messed up standard to expect someone to give up their identity in marriage. It’s very important to my partner that I take his last name when we get married. I didn’t have a problem with this until a few months ago, when I realized that I like my last name, and the connection to my dad that I feel through it. Alas, my dad is changing his anyway, so it matters much less.

      Regardless, the whole problem is expectations. If there wasn’t the constant expectation to get married and to be a certain way within that arrangement (which you have more than adequately described), the whole thing would be much more appealing.

      Hah, I often feel like I need to ask permission for things. Or that I need to notify my partner after-the-fact if I buy something that might cause waves if I don’t proactively bring it up. (Like cigarettes, since we don’t smoke very often.) That’s got more to do with being with someone who might be bipolar than simply being in a monogamous relationship, but it still sucks.

      • July 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm —

        Glad to amuse. 🙂 It’s the legacy of being an on-again off-again academic with a hot button for these kinds of issues.

        My bias is admittedly showing here. I probably gave this away already, but I did keep my own name. I’m really glad I did, but it has coloured how I conceive of myself as a woman and as half of a relationship in strong, tangible ways. Among other things, it’s been a serious eye-opener – I’ve been able to see firsthand the really interesting ways people react or push back when they realize I’m Ms. Me not Mrs. Hisname. It’s astonishing how many are genuinely threatened by the idea! To diverge briefly into anecdata, one guy I worked with even told me, with pride, how he and his mother-law had pressured his reluctant wife into changing hers. The choice, or lack thereof, is strongly tapped into some deep underlying attitudes.

        In part thanks to this experience, I have a hard time looking at institutions like marriage and not seeing the tremendously sexist relics of past centuries being acted out (additional bias alert: I’m also a historian by training). That said, the issue for me is of power imbalance, regardless of gender – I’m just as distressed by husbands changing their names or the role-reversal of breadwinner-wife/homemaker-husband, and have sugarplum fantasies of a future where a person is a person first, gender second and don’t come under pressure to define themselves in relation to another, all in a society where childcare isn’t any one person’s responsibility. Until we can actually redefine marriage in ways that leave the gender/role baggage behind, and have a larger social structure that supports it, these issues are going to continue to perpetuate.

        You mention that you like your current name, but that your father is changing his anyway. I’m compelled to ask: it’s yours too; do you feel you’ve made it your own? If so, your father changing his is about him defining himself, while your happiness with your current name is about defining who you are for yourself. Your father is where your name came from, but his was passed down to him just as he passed it on to you. It’s part of a joint legacy, and him changing his doesn’t alter your connection to it.

        If you’re not comfortable with marriage, or changing your name, give yourself permission to explore why before committing. If capitulating on either would compromise something you like about who you are, are you doing it for you or to make someone else happy? Will doing so truly improve the relationship? If you do both or either even with reservations, how will that affect the dynamic between you? As importantly, would your partner hesitate to change his name for you?

        It’s okay to ask, and reasonable to expect your partner to respect whatever decision you reach – after all, it will have a direct and lasting effect on your life.

        At any rate, thank you for a truly excellent article – it’s a hugely important question, and you’re one of the few I’ve seen dare to take a closer look at it! It’s also hugely important that you’re looking at it from outside the gender binary; it’s a perspective that isn’t explored nearly enough.

  3. July 2, 2012 at 7:28 pm —

    I am married to my very best friend in the whole wide world and if I could I would keep him in bed with me all day every day.

    But that’s what I wanted. If someone wants something different, they should by all means be able to pursue it without societal pressure to conform to the norm. Mandated conformity makes for unhappy people, which makes for unhappy marriages, unhappy kids, and just all-around unhappiness.

    Furthermore, the pressure to get married and conform can force people to marry the wrong people. If they’re lucky, they can get a no-fault divorce and move on with their lives. But I know a startling number of women who are trapped in unhappy or abusive marriages because they can’t afford the cost of filing for divorce. They don’t have credit that isn’t tied up with their husbands. They’re terrified about losing their kids, being socially shunned, having to start at the beginning with a minimum-wage job and tons of social stigma barreling down on them. But they’re terrified that if they stay, they’ll go crazy… or be killed.

    Marriage can ruin lives. Marriage can end lives. Even though I conformed and I’m (supremely) happy, I still can’t help but be wary of an institution that can do so much harm to an innocent human being. Until the institution changes so that both parties receive equal rights AND equal protections… I’m really, really leery of it.

  4. August 16, 2012 at 11:51 am —

    This is a really late comment, but I think there’re a few points that haven’t been mentioned here yet. With the fight for non-strait marriage in the forefront recently, it’s prompted a whole reconceptualization of ideas of family among some people that, unlike many previous feminist critiques of marriage, acknowledges it as a societal institution with a purpose that can be reclaimed as non oppressive. Modern society has given us the first time in history we can truly choose our family as recognized by the state, within limits. When we break those limits down — ie. allow not only non-strait marriage but multiple marriage, with any gender spectrum combinations — you can also allow differently defined family roles. Many youth empowerment activists have suggested making adoption legal without current parents’ consent — only the child’s and the new parent. Such fluidity — a culture of family based on consent alone — would allow for a much healthier, freer society than we currently have. You could define entirely new family relationships based on custom contracts. Negotiation and consent would be built into the fabric of society instead of entitlement, nepotism and limiting conceptions of a “natural order”.

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