Marriage is definitely on the list, along with religion, of institutions where the defenses of it tend to only make me more suspicious. (This invariably causes people deep into the gay marriage issue to give me the stink eye, but I’m going to just refer them from here on out to this essay by Richard Kim on the issue instead of tediously rehashing it all over again.) That is certainly the case with Jessica Bennett’s recent Modern Love entry where she, heartbroken at the end of a long relationship, appears to walk back a piece she co-wrote in 2010 arguing that marriage is an outdated social norm. While I’m all for changing your mind, she was right the first time, and her essay in the New York Times just reinforces that.
A quick recap of the piece, though you really should read it: Jessica dated the same man throughout most of her 20s. When she was 24, he sprung one of those ostentatious and coercive proposals on her, replete with fail-safes such as asking her parents first and drenching a hotel room in flowers, making it nearly impossible to say no or ask for more time without looking like The Most Ungrateful Bitch Ever. She said yes….and then changed her mind and said no, mostly because she had concerns about marriage derailing her career. (I’m a big fan of listening to your heart when you have those concerns; they don’t come from nowhere.) They continued to live together for 6 years, and he begrudged her that “no” the entire time. When she came around and started to talk about marriage, he decided to get his revenge by putting her off and eventually dumping her. Her conclusion is not, as I would expect, “Ah, fuck that guy for his apparent obsession with always having the upper hand.” Instead, she now is rethinking her original hostility to marriage, saying:
As I tried to make sense of it all, I had a glimpse into why that sheet of paper had been so important to him. Sure, it may well be a jaded tradition, an antiquated ritual. But it’s also a contract.
When he was packing his stuff, I remembered a conversation my Newsweek co-author had had with her mother about our article. “I’ll tell you why you need marriage,” she told her. “Because it makes it harder for the other person to leave.”
At the time, we snickered at her words. Legally requiring someone to stick around? It was desperate, pathetic.
But would it have worked? I’ll never know. What I have learned is this: While “happily ever after” may indeed be a farce, there’s something to be said for uttering “I do.”
First of all, it probably wouldn’t have worked. A man who needs to have the upper hand in relationships is never going to make it stick long term with a woman who has a will of her own, and drawing out the eventual break-up doesn’t strike me as good news for anyone. But more importantly, I’m put off by trying to sell marriage by saying, “Look at this marvelous cage! The locks are so hard to break and we have steel-reinforced bars. When he tries to escape, he’s really going to have a doozy of a time!” I can’t get past wondering why you’d want to put someone you supposedly love into a cage.
I mean, I love my cats and I do trap them in the house, so I guess there’s that. And of course, small children need to be locked down and controlled to an extent. But grown adult people are different from domestic animals and children. I realize that a coercive model has been put onto romantic relationships throughout most of history, but one of the great insights of feminism is that this is morally wrong, and frankly, not that romantic. We’re often sold the idea that coercion is “romantic”, of course, from romance novels that feature a terrifying rape at the center to romantic comedies that try to establish stalking behavior as romantic to the recent Twilight series that also tries to codify controlling and stalking behavior as romantic.* While not as serious or potentially violent, I think the romanticization of the coercive elements of marriage is part of this same continuum. Most people, for instance, think the big public surprise proposal is romantic. But I look at it as a power trip, since any woman who says no to that proposal is going to be shamed by the audience for it. You see that same problem in the proposal scenario in this story; by telling her parents first and arranging an engagement party, he made it impossible for her to say now with humiliating him. That she went through with it anyway is kind of amazing, actually.
I often hear people defend marriage by extolling it as a well-constructed trap that’s hard to escape. This is justified, as in the comments at Jezebel, by claiming that it’s merely creating incentive to work through the hard times, though again that assumes that maintaining a relationship is good in some way beyond just serving the needs of the people in it. If you read those comments, you’ll realize this argument, by necessity, only works if you assume that people in non-married relationships take their relationships casually and bounce at the first sign of conflict, instead of doing heavy risk/reward assessments where they try to weigh the pain of the occasional fight against the pleasure they get out of the relationship. Having been in a fair share of unmarried relationships, including my current one, I can assure you that is not the case. Merely having a door on your room doesn’t mean that you always have one foot out of it.
This all points to why marriage, even if it’s constructed in more egalitarian ways, still strikes this radical feminist as a problem. It’s still got a coercive element to it, and is rationalized precisely because it’s coercive. This essay shows how that plays out so often in real life, with power plays and people struggling to “win” the relationship by being the one who caves first or sets the marriage schedule or whatever the struggle is over. The logic and framework of marriage seems to tip a lot of people into this power struggle mindset. Deliberately choosing against marriage has opened up the door, for me at least, to rethinking a lot of ways that romantic love is constructed as a power struggle, and trying to find ways to not do that. Instead, it’s replaced with a more complex and ultimately rewarding attempt at trying to live out egalitarian values.
*I got into a discussion over drinks last night with friends over the 6th season of “Buffy”, where I took the side arguing that the Buffy/Spike relationship was an examination of this trope, where we’re supposed to see how the romanticization of obsessive, controlling love leads Buffy directly into a situation where she’s nearly raped. Not only that, but we’re meant to realize that it’s only her superpowers that allow her to escape, and that ordinary women in that situation actually just get raped. I realize that sounds victim-blamey, but it’s not, because it’s also played as perfectly understandable that Buffy would get into this situation in a culture that romanticizes male coercion in the name of “love”.