Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thoughts On... Marriage (old essay)

Old essay, I punched up the writing a little.

For a great many reasons, I am a rarity in the human male population. One of these reasons is that I believe in marriage. I see myself, at some point in the future, finding an insane woman, signing her out of the asylum and getting married. Granted, part of that has to do with my upbringing, since family is a core belief in the Dominican culture. But, a much larger part is based on my own ideas and opinions. Unlike most people, I've actually spent time thinking about what the word "marriage" means to me. Including things like what I'm supposed to do as part of my responsibilities as a husband, what I believe a wife should do as part of her responsibilities, when I think a relationship is at the point where marriage is a viable option, etc. That being said, I don't think that marriage is the end all and be all of relationships. In fact, most relationships should never go into marriage. It is my personal belief that the main reason why divorce rates are so high is that people are getting into marriage without any thought as to the consequences of that decision.

But the question I find most interesting is, why do so many people, both men AND women believe marriage is so important? Think about it. As a species, humans rarely agree on anything in a majority. Yet EVERY SINGLE culture on the planet has some form of marriage contract. Chinese, Latin, Muslim, Hindi, Palestinian. All of them have some way of two people bonding themselves to each other for the duration of their lives. The details are different, but all of them have it! Even people who don't personally think that marriage is for them respect the belief and give the institution itself a measure of respect. Why? What is it about the concept of marriage that carries such weight with people? And before you start trying to answer that question, think about it for a moment.

What exactly is marriage? What are the tangible facets of a marriage? For the purposes of this essay, I'm going with the traditional American wedding rituals, like the rings. Traditionally, there are three rings involved with a wedding: the diamond engagement ring and two gold wedding bands. If one listens to the typical marriage ceremony, the rings are supposed to represent the quality of the love between the bride & groom. More specifically the basic shape of the ring, a circle, is the actual symbol. With no beginning, the circle has always been in existence just like the love between the bride & groom. With no end, the circle continues for eternity, again just like the love between bride & groom. The language is usually flowery and inspirational. But there was a time when the groom did not know the bride, so their love has an origin. And given the 50% (and climbing) divorce rate just in THIS country alone, married love ends. This is also made much more interesting when one considers the fact that the rings are in fact remnants of the "good old days" when women had no legal rights and her existence depended solely upon whom she married. Not to mention that during this time marriage actually meant a man taking possession of a woman as his bride, sometimes in shackles. Over the course of time, the shackles morphed into the wedding rings. Think about it, ever wonder why the guy doesn't have to wear an engagement ring? (I'm also not going to go into the blood diamonds used in the engagement rings, that's a whole other discussion outside the scope of this essay.)

Then there's the marriage certificate, a piece of paper with ink on it. This paper informs the state and federal governments that you and your bride are now to be regarded as a single unit, much like a corporation. And due to that, the government gives this new entity some legal benefits in exchange for some other drawbacks. And speaking of pieces of paper with ink on them, there's a recent addition to the pantheon of marriage facets: the prenuptial agreement. This piece of paper is a binding promise that says if the "always existing and eternal" love stops existing and dies, the dissolution of the union will follow a previously agreed upon path. It is most interesting to consider that a ceremony which has "till death do us part" as its preferred ending, also has an insurance policy just in case the preferred ending doesn't come to pass. Plus, given that the United States prides itself in maintaining a separation of church and state, what is the logic of announcing to the state that you are going through a ritual that is almost universally regarded as a religious ceremony? And if you don't believe me, ask your nearest gay couple about the difference between a civil union & a marriage.

Last, there's the actual ceremony which boils down to rounding up a group of people, a short walk through the crowd, a lecture by some official, a conversation ending in a reiteration of a promise the couple made when they decided to exclusively be with each other, and then another short walk through the same crowd to a party. Afterwards, you're married. The only physical difference is now you're forced to wear a ring. What else has changed in your life? You're now in debt up to $30K to cover the wedding, rings, and dress. Aside from the legal benefits and drawbacks, that's it.

With an ever increasing majority, by the time a couple is ready to get married, they have been living together for several years. They have been intimate with each other and have promised to keep those activities reserved exclusively for themselves and no other people. And the couple has agreed to stay together. After the marriage ceremony, they're still living together. They're still exclusive to each other in terms of physical intimacy. The agreement to remain together is also still in effect. So, what has actually changed now that the marriage ceremony has taken place?

Some of the defenders of marriage talk about how marriage is a promise to be together forever, choosing someone as your partner for the balance of your life. Where before the ceremony, the promise was just to be together unless something changes. The promise made within a marriage modifies the original promise by locking the union down permanently, making the promise be "together forever" as opposed to "together as long as we can stand it". The problem with that particular argument is the concept of divorce. Think about it, you get married and then if things aren't working out, get divorced. Which essentially changes the promise in a marriage from "together forever" BACK to "together as long as we can stand it". Where's the change that getting married brings then?

Others say that marriage is about being placed together in the eyes of God. (The existence of God is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will stipulate for the purposes of this essay that God exists.) Here is where things get extremely interesting. For all the religious and spiritual folk out there, go back and re-read the part of your bibles about marriage. You'll find there that the exchanging of rings isn't important to God. The same goes for the marriage certificate, prenuptial agreement, the wedding ceremony, the vows, or the kiss at the end. The act that places a couple together in the eyes of our Lord and Savior, is the sex the couple has on the wedding night. Everything else is just trappings for the people. And the wedding night isn't necessary either. The FIRST TIME the couple have sex, they are married in the eyes of God. So, did you take your lover for a test drive last night? Well, guess what, you're now married in the eyes of the Lord! Congratulations!! Again, the question: what is the change that marriage brings? Why is marriage necessary and important? Why is the ceremony needed?

Still others say that marriage is just an end to the relentless and draining world of dating. My question is: if you don't want to keep dating people because of the stress... WHY NOT STOP DATING? Don't pick someone and get married. Take some time for yourself! Enjoy being alone! Plus, there are many folks out there that, for one reason or another, jump from one failed marriage to another, which brings marriage down to another form of serialized dating. Still no real changes that can be attributed to marriage.

While a portion of those reading this will attribute my questions to typical male hesitance to being married (despite the first paragraph in this essay), the part that is really interesting is that is seems that society may start to be seeing things in a different light. In my reading on the internet, I have come across several studies that show that marriage rates are starting to drop in this country (presumably, with a corresponding drop in divorce rates) in favor of just living together. Most of the studies have attributed the drop to changing views on the roles of men and women in society and the subsequent shift in how they relate to each other in every part of life. The blurring of the borders and erasing of gender roles has dropped the importance of marriage significantly. It is my belief that in addition to the societal changes, a great many people have been witness to failed marriages, and the confidence society has had in the institution of marriage has been shaken and is crumbling.

With all this, one might ask why I believe in marriage. The fact that I could write this essay is conclusive proof of my disillusionment with the institution of marriage. So, how could I be so disillusioned and still maintain belief? That's easy. I value marriage for different reasons than most. I value the choice. Most people believe that when the bride and groom say "I do", the choice of marriage is over. That is not true. Every day, when you wake up in the morning, you make the same choice. You choose to stay, to deal with the problems, to suffer the hardships, to enjoy the rewards, and to reap the benefits. From the moment you choose to ask that special someone, you made a conscious choice to alter the future of your life. Through a sheer effort of will, you are altering not only your future, but the future of one other person who agreed to join you on this path. This is an amazing thing for me. I am a big proponent for free will and I am always awed and humbled by the power that choice has over the lives of people.

And wearing the wedding ring is a silent sign of that choice. I see someone with that ring, and it's a token of personal power for the wearer. They made the choice. They had the strength to take life into their hands and wrest from it what they want. That's why I believe in marriage. That's why I take it seriously. And that's why I am so critical of it. Something with that much power is worth examining and should be constantly scrutinized. Thoughts?

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