Among the important ongoing debate about marriage equality, a crucial question has fallen a little by the wayside, or else been addressed ironically in comments like “straight couples have been able to endure the travails of marriage for thousands of years, why can’t gay couples suffer the same?” That is the question of whether marriage really is worth it, either as a way of articulating our relationships and identities before our peers or a way to express the potential our romantic relationships hold for us. If the debate over equality makes anything clear it’s that marriage isn’t just a discretionary, personal thing; rather there is something real at stake.
Ironically, one of the most honest statements on this question was made recently by Julia Gillard, almost in the same breath as she announced her contentment with the traditional role and definition of marriage. “We could come up with other institutions that value partnerships, value love, value lifetime commitment.” Others, extolling meaningful happiness over social institutions, have called for options like “wedleases”, marriages renewable every five years.
Yet the message remains mired in contradiction, suggesting that society hasn’t yet built up the courage or imagination to seriously try such alternatives. And even as divorce and infidelity rates remain scarily high, and generation Y brings new attitudes into marriageable age, couples continue to choose marriage at a steady rate.
The mention of alternatives suggests a more radical question- does love require an institution to flourish, and moreover, endure? Here I declare myself an opponent of marriage. Having never been married, I can only assume I was a jaded divorcee in a past life. I am quite traditional in my beliefs in monogamy and, deep-down, the idea of a committed relationship. Yet I’m willing to stake any dreams of “happily ever after” on the idea that love, like many other great things in life, is most itself when independent from any institutional support or validation.
This belief began to emerge when, as a teenager, I found I detested the words “husband” and “wife”, and later reflected that, as always, there might be a deeper concern behind the phonetic discomfort. Perhaps I was initially put off by the traditional connotations of arranged, political, or religious marriage. Yet behind the semantic discomfort, my true concern was with the idea that romantic relationships require validation in a symbolic order where “husband” and “wife” represent an ideal unit sustained by traditional values.
This idea of transcendence through a symbolic order has even survived the “modernization” of marriage into some kind of contract between two people, as the idea that marriage presents a validation of love that goes further than the formal function of the state or peers’ shouts of approval. This validation ultimately comes in the form of marriage as an end-goal to romantic love, the idea that a couple’s connection, through emotional labour, crystallizes and sublimates up until the glorious ceremony and the sweat on the bedsheets. But what game is left to play the morning after?
It’s not that a sustained romantic relationship requires responsibility, commitment and sacrifice; rather all of these things are inherent within it. Love is more than a feeling; it’s a container for all the things that come with devotion between sexual partners, and that includes intimacy and distance, unbridled passion and contentment, poetry and compromise. Those things may be contradictory and may produce tension and violence enough to tear at the social fabric, yet isn’t this at the core of the greatest tales of love, à la Lancelot and Guinevere, Maria and Tony (Westside Story), and Jack and Ennis (Brokeback Mountain)?
The game is in realizing that the container doesn’t have any substance or existence beyond the understandings, fictions, rules and jokes that both partners freely sustain together, yet believing in it anyway. It is in its lack of fulfilment as a fixed order of virtues that love allows individuals to be free in their romantic expression. In the words of Juan Antonio from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, “only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” Marriage formalizes unification, order and fulfilment within a relationship, and so gives the game away.
Much like the idea that, in order for any life to be meaningful, there must be a meaning to life itself, the idea that love must strive for a goal other than its own unfolding is self-defeating and fails to embrace its beautiful transience, breadth, and unfulfilledness. Regardless of any irreconcilable views that different groups or individuals may hold regarding sexual relationships, these cultural attitudes hang over us all and therefore this is a soppy and messy conversation we have to have.
An abridged version of this article was originally published in Honi Soit.