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Holy Matrimony: You, Me and the State

Nothing says love quite like signing a legally binding contract preventing you from leaving each other. This is marriage in its most simplistic form: a merging of you and another into one unit for the state to conceptualise. It is this imposition that I object to: the state should have no role in defining the relationship between two people.

Given the origins of marriage as we now conceive it (monogamous and a somewhat formal process of recognition) in the West as a religious practice, it seems odd now to reflect on the long process of its adoption by the state. Rather than a recognition of a union under God and a reflection of the specific cultural values of a religion, it has become a political tool with which to influence and organise the population. Perhaps this takeover was inevitable given the slow decline of religion. Yet the multicultural nature of the UK means there are significantly different religious conceptions of what marriage should be. There is no way that a state can fully encompass all these ideas of what marriage is, and so the institution becomes devoid of meaning — a collection of compromises whilst still being inadequate for everyone. I am not ranting against marriage as a concept, but rather a disagreement that it is something to be encouraged or encompassed by the state itself.

We have seen over the last half-century a drastic change in marriage laws: the increasing allowance of equality and autonomy for women within marriages, the easing of divorce, and the expansion of the franchise to include same-sex marriages. All of these changes have fundamentally altered marriage in a way that has been campaigned for and demanded, but despite these changes it remains an institution rooted in tradition. Same-sex marriage’s only being legalised in 2014 in the UK despite same-sex relationships’ being decriminilised fully in 1982 is indicative of the ineffectiveness of the state in liberalising or modernising the institution. Its fundamental origin in religious basis (particularly the enduring influence of the Christian whereby people conduct relationships.

The Gay Rights Movement made a conscious decision to pursue marriage equality rather than take down marriage as a whole — it is easier to add to an institution than to dismantle it. However, there will always be ways in which marriage does not align with the ways in which people engage in relationships. Romantic and sexual relationships are increasingly diverse in nature and the traditional man-woman dynamic is no longer the only way in which people can be linked. The growing prominence of polyamourous relationships is a clear example of the way in which relationships are not catered for under the state.

More importantly, though, different cultures and beliefs on what marriage should be mean that you cannot lump everyone into the same institution. If one religion is strictly monogamous, for example, it is unfair to force them into the same institution as those who are polyamourous. There are too many compromises to be made.

The obvious answer to this problem would seem to be to simply have those who do not identify with the state conception of marriage to just not get married under the state. Christian marriages remain under the Christian Church, Muslim marriages remain under Islamic law, and so on and so forth. Yet what prevents this from being a viable solution is the persistence of marriage incentives.

There exist tax breaks, medical privileges, and inheritance laws predicated on the assumption of marriage as a default. Not only do these serve as active incentives to get married, but in so doing they actively disadvantage those who choose not to or cannot get married. Therefore the construction of a large part of our society is on the basis of encouraging or forcing people into marriage. This demeans individuality under the state: You are only allowed these privileges if you are married, therefore you are worth more to the state when you are in this paired unit.

Moreover, the high rate of divorce is indicative of the fact that marriage is merely a way to delay or prevent individuals from leaving each other. To suggest that legally entrapping two people together is a means of showing the ultimate expression of love is simply not true. When the majority of marriages end in divorce, you begin to question whether such an institution is really worth the financial investment.

Therefore, it would be much better if expressions of love and commitment were made on the terms understood and preferred by the individuals entering into that promise. Whether religious or irreligious, different people need and want different things from relationships, and so there is no need for a broadly compromised institution that fails the majority of those that enter into it.

Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva

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