Posted by: emjb | November 5, 2005

I must respectfully disagree

Over at I Blame the Patriarchy, an angry feminist blog that I generally love, a discussion over Maureen Dowd’s latest claptrap took a strange turn into an attack on the idea of marriage. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, that marriage began as basically an economic transaction selling a woman off to the highest bidder, and is therefore irremediably tainted forevermore.

I’m sympathetic to this; certainly, marriage hasn’t been much to look forward to for women for most of human history, and it’s still pretty much institutionalized servitude in many parts of the world. But it seems like a failure of imagination…and a denial of what appears to be a pretty strong instinct for human beings to pair up…to declare it universally bad. And especially, to deride anyone who participates in it as a tool of the patriarchy.

And it irks me no end to be told by someone who thinks this that my marriage is somehow oppressing me, or that the love that we have together is some sort of short-lived illusion based on a naive understanding of human nature. I’m perfectly accepting of the fact that some people shouldn’t marry and don’t want to. But of all the major decisions in my life, this one was probably the easiest. If marriage didn’t exist, we would have had to invent it.

Look, I understand cynicism when it comes to marriage, especially for anyone who pays attention to the history of male/female relationships. It’s easy to see the compromises of marriage as capitulation (no matter who’s making them) and to find that repulsive and strange. The idea of taking another person into account in your decisions for the rest of your life can seem inherently wrong, especially if you’ve fought very hard for your own personal liberty. And the burden of doing that has fallen way too hard on women in our history, to the point of denying them any liberty whatsoever.

But it is possible, though I know I can never prove this to hardcore cynics, to have this sort of compromise be both equally shared and not oppressive. Every time you make a decision in your life, after all, you have to take many factors into account that limit your choices. Your financial resources, your education, your family obligations, your physical abilities, all limit the choices you make. And not all of those are beyond your control; you choose to live in a certain place, to pursue certain careers, to live a certain lifestyle, and all of those choices have consequences. Marriage is no different; you decide whether its benefits outweigh whatever sacrifices it might demand of you. Some people believe it can never be worth the sacrifice. I don’t happen to be one of them. But it’s not because I was brainwashed by reading too many women’s magazines.

The strange fact is, Matt and I are ridiculously, ludicrously, well-suited to one another. When we were dating, this actually unnerved me quite a bit, because I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. But we’ve been together some 7 years now, and so far, no shoe. We’ve had plenty of tests: we have lived together for over a year in one tiny room, no more than 10×10; we have taken long, grueling roadtrips; we have seen each other through multiple episodes of poverty and unemployment. We have forgiven each other multiple times for the stupidities that everyone is prone to. We have fought and had some major disagreements, and either learned to let things go or found a compromise. And things are still very very good between us.

I expect having a child will be a big challenge for us like it is for everyone, but I don’t expect there to be anything about it that will threaten to break us up. And there are always the things you can’t foresee, but most of the things that would force us apart would require major personality changes from one or both of us. Basically, we’d have to become very different people for this to stop working.

Because this marriage works. Not because we’re such wonderful people or have a magic secret, but because we’re best friends and a good match for one another. We need each other, but are strong on our own too. We get each other’s backs, and we just, generally speaking, like having the other one around. For two people, who, left to their own devices, would probably become hermits, this is a miraculous thing.

So to the marriage-is-an-evil relic idea, I would posit the following. Before there was marriage in a formal sense, there were, here and there, men and women* who sought each other’s company because they genuinely liked one another. Unless they were interefered with, it was perfectly natural for them to stay in that relationship with each other and raise a family and go through life together. This reality existed right alongside–and maybe even prior to–the woman-as-chattel-for-men idea. The rise of one did not erase the other, though it made it more difficult for it to occur.

And when the idea of companionship and love as a basis for marriage actually eclipsed the idea of marriage as slavery, then our culture gained something important. Even though the forces of patriarchy tried to ensure that “love” was twisted and misused to preserve women’s servitude, the idea itself continues to be revolutionary. The idea of marriage as something that is about love and friendship, and only love and friendship, is still making waves in our society. Not least because that in principle allows it to become something that gay and lesbian couples can participate in, if they choose to.

As I commented over at IBTP, there’s plenty of room for discussion in how we treat marriage as a society; how we determine what rights couples have or don’t, whether civil marriage is necessary, etc. But whatever form it takes, when two people in a good relationship commit to sharing their lives together, there is no need to assume that one of them is oppressing the other, or that both of them are oppressing the non-committed. A stable, happy marriage of equals is a positive force, in the lives of the people who are in it if nowhere else. And if we’re really fighting the patriarchy, it’s just the kind of weapon we need.

*and men and men, and women and women…



  1. If I wrote all of the ways I agree with you, all the experiences I’ve had that support your argument, all the related concerns that sprang to mind as I read, this comment would be ridiculously long. Instead, I’ll just say that as an artist working in NYC who gets tired of explaining how I can be married and still be a feminist, I applaud your post.

    Oh, and I’ll add a Rilke quote:
    “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

    “This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another… And this more human love… will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”

    (I guess this is still a long comment– sorry!)

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