Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thoughts on Marriage

So I got a special little present from Cousin's Mom in the mail the other day.

As an adult, it is so fun to get little unexpected packages in the mail. Maybe that's why I order books so often.

Anyway, thanks Aunt Bev!

I called her to thank her and somehow we got into a conversation about marriage.

I've been getting into conversations about marriage a lot with people over the last year or so, what I call "The Marriage Project."

My nephew is getting married this spring, another friend of mine is thinking about getting married to her long-term boyfriend, and another friend of mine is having some doubts about her existing marriage--like, what it means to be married in general, what it means to be a heterosexual couple and not have kids, etc. (all that normal stuff), and finally, I've got marriage on my mind with the Perry v. Schwarzenneger Case that is currently going in in California (see this great New Yorker article for an overview).

I never really cared about marriage. Never wanted the ceremony for myself, never really thought about it as a civil right for gays and lesbians. I never cared one way or another. I didn't really care if my heterosexual friends got married or not, or even if my gay friends got married or not.

I did "get" the spiritual part of it, and the notion of standing up in front of all of your loved ones and announcing your intention to spend your life together. I got the idea that by doing so you were also asking for support from your friends and loved ones. I also "got" the institution of marriage and I think I get that marriage is generally good for a society in that it builds communities, makes us a bit more stable and that it probably helps kids in the long run too.

But I've always looked at it from an academic's distance, with a libertarian bent: we should all be able to chose what's best for us and for the most part, we'll all be better off if we do just that.

In that sense, gay marriage for me is not unlike polygamy (in its best sense -- not the whole marrying teenage brides shennanegans). Objectively, I'm not sure I've got anything against polygamy.

So now, in the midst of all these discussions with my friends, AND it coming upon tax season again where I usually get riled up when I realize (again) that the pesky government rules limit our choices because we are not strictly speaking *married*, I find myself thinking about the issue a lot.

So I was talking with Cousin's mom about marriage again the other day and one thing seems for certain: that marriage is really different now than it was for them. My mom (her sister) was married in 1944 when she was 19 years old. Her husband (my dad) worked three jobs at the time and she very quickly had two twin boys. They didn't have much choice, both scientifically and religiously-speaking, in terms of reproductive planning, she didn't have much choice in terms of work (there weren't many options for women in terms of education or occupation at the time, and many states had laws that forbade women from working once they were married, and finally once a woman had kids, there were few options regarding day care if she were to work, if any), and most people didn't have much money, so making ends meet was the main goal.

This is all to say that drastic changes in all of these areas have allowed us (middle and upper class Americans) to make deliberate choices in our lives and that the bottom line has changed. Now we make choices that will, hopefully, make us happier. Mom made choices in the same way, presumably, but I doubt that her goal in marrying dad, having kids, staying home with kids, earning, spending and saving money was in the context of costs and benefits around life satisfaction in the way that those decisions are in our current lives.

Let me be clear: I think that this change is unequivocally good. I'd rather not revert back to hunter-gatherer days in which my existence dependent on whether or not my tribe was successful in its hunt, and I'd rather not change lives with the 19th century pioneers who had very little leisure and spent most of their days producing the necessary goods necessary for life.

No, additional time and leisure is good. And changes in culture, society, technology and productivity that have expanded our choice set are unequivocally good.

But I'm not sure that it is easier in some senses of the word. We have become more existential in some ways. How does one even make major decisions like getting married and kids without the social dictum? How and why do we stay married without a social dictum? And what if the new dictum is: do what pleases you? What happens when marriage doesn't please? What do the role of institutions play in this world of pleasure and choice?

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