This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
“Why should anyone get married?
“Why,” the argument goes, “should the state be involved in people’s private romantic and sexual relationships? Why should personal commitments be a public matter, something people throw big expensive parties for so their friends and families can watch? Why should people make promises to stay together for the rest of their lives — promises with legal responsibilities attached, no less — when they know that so many marriages end in divorce? Why are we spending time and energy fighting for same-sex marriage? Why aren’t we abandoning the institution of marriage altogether?”
As someone who is married (Ingrid and I are among the roughly 18,000 same-sex couples in California who got our weddings in after the courts legalized same-sex marriage and before Prop 8 eradicated that right), I’d like to try to answer that question.
I need to start by saying: I am not — repeat, not — evangelizing for marriage for everyone. Quite the contrary. I do like being married — I love being married, in fact — but I am passionately opposed to marriage by default. I am passionately opposed to the way our culture treats all romantic relationships as if they were on a single train track to a single, ideal destination… and as if they’re failures if they never reach that destination, or have a different destination entirely, or get derailed from that track. I don’t think marriage is right for all couples. I don’t even think it’s right for most couples. (And I don’t think couplehood is right for all people.) In fact, while my value for the institution of marriage has gone up in the years since I’ve been married, my feelings against marriage by default have actually grown stronger. Partly because I’m more aware of what a serious, life-changing decision marriage is… and partly because I feel like “marriage by default” trivializes the decision for those of us who actually gave it serious thought.
But I do like being married. I love being married. I think marriage, while certainly flawed, while certainly steeped in a troubled history, has great value.
So I want to try to answer the question: Why? Why do thoughtful, non- default- decision- making people get married? Why is marriage valuable?
Or, to be more accurate: I want to answer these questions. Because I think the “Why marriage?” question isn’t one question. From what I’ve heard and read from opponents of marriage, it’s at least three questions: Why codify a private romantic relationship with a legal, state-sanctioned contract? Why make explicit, spelled-out promises about the nature and future of said relationship? And why throw a big party to celebrate the first two?
Why do I want my relationship with Ingrid to have the force of a legally binding contract, with a sizable collection of legal responsibilities and rights attached to it? Why do I care whether the governments of the State of California and the United States of America recognize that relationship?
Because Ingrid and I are family.
And we want that fact to have legal recognition.
Ingrid is my family. As much as my blood relatives are. More so, in fact. Our lives are more intertwined, our thoughts and feelings are more mutually understood, than my life and thoughts and feelings are with any of my blood relatives.
And without marriage, Ingrid and I would be, as far as the law is concerned, strangers.
I’ve seen opponents of marriage dismissively say things like, “Well, sure, of course you want the right to visit each other in the hospital, and the right to inherit from each other without a heavy tax burden, and the right to not testify against each other in court, and the right to make medical decisions for each other if one of you is incapacitated…” As if these things were trivial. They’re not trivial. As much as I love my blood relatives, I don’t want them making medical decisions for me if I’m unconscious in a hospital bed. I want Ingrid making those decisions. Ingrid knows me better than anyone has ever known me in my life. She is my family. I bloody well want the state to recognize that fact.
(And yes, you can get powers of attorney and living wills and whatnot, to address some of these legal issues. The unfortunate reality is that these are often ignored if they go against the wishes of blood relatives. Besides, if I’m unconscious in a hospital bed, I don’t want Ingrid to have to root through our boxes marked “Important Papers” trying to find our powers of attorney, just so she can give instructions about me to the medical staff.)
Family is more than a personal relationship. It’s a legal relationship: it has an impact on society, and it has a sizable collection of legal responsibilities and rights attached to it. Ingrid and I are family. We want that recognized.
This one seems like a no-brainer to me.
Why do people want to make promises to each other? Why do people want to think carefully about what their important relationships mean, to make decisions about them, to spell those decisions out in words?
Why wouldn’t they?
Of all the events and decisions connected with our wedding, writing our vows was probably the most intense… and the most meaningful. Sitting down for hours talking about what our relationship meant, how it would be different once we got married, what exactly we were and weren’t promising each other, which bits of the traditional understandings of marriage we agreed with and which bits we rejected, etc. — and putting these conversations into precise, carefully chosen words — that by itself, probably transformed our relationship more than anything else about our wedding. (Weddings, I should say. Due to the shifting laws about same-sex marriage in California, we’ve now had three.) And I think that would still be true, even if these vows had never been recognized with any sort of legal standing, and even if we’d said them completely in private.
I’m frankly baffled when marrying couples don’t write their own vows: when they personalize every aspect of their wedding, from the font on the invitations to the bridesmaids’ hair ornaments, but leave the actual promises they’re making about their lives together up to social convention. In fact, there’s a part of me that thinks we should do this with all our important relationships: that we should sit down with our close friends and family, and talk about what we expect from them, and what they can expect from us. And when it comes to the single most important relationship of my life, I feel even more strongly about that. By several orders of magnitude.
This one seems like a no-brainer to me as well. But for an entirely different reason. Having an excuse to throw a huge, extravagant dress-up party, where the food and the drinks and the music and the decorations and our dresses were all carefully chosen to be special and meaningful and wonderful, and we got to be the center of attention for hours… who wouldn’t want that?
But I realize that not everyone likes throwing parties as much as Ingrid and I do. So more seriously, and more to the point: There is something about not only making a promise, but having that promise witnessed by the people closest to you, that makes it more intense. More powerful. It’s like putting your money where your mouth is.
And there’s something more. Like I said earlier: Ingrid and I are family. And getting married meant more than just making a private commitment to each other. It meant blending our families. It meant, as we said in our vows, taking each other into our families, and taking each other’s families as our own.
Our blood families… and our chosen families.
So it made sense that these families — blood and chosen — should be present when we made that promise: to witness it, and to celebrate it, and to be part of it.
Our relationship isn’t just private. It affects the people around us. It changes how we interact with the world. It throws people together who would otherwise be strangers. So when we decided to take this step, to think carefully about what we wanted to promise each other and to put those promises into precise words, it made sense to involve the people affected by those promises. Our blood families, our chosen families… yes, even the State of California.
I say yet again: I am not evangelizing for marriage for everyone. Marriage is a big deal, and it’s not something to do just because everyone else is doing it and it seems like the next thing to do.
But if you’re wondering why some people do it — other than because everyone else is doing it and it seems like the next thing to do — I hope this helps you understand.