Dash The Happy Ever Afters


Emma Goldman’s insightful analysis [1] has clarified a few basic facts about marriage: that a) marriage, “like most popular notions […] rests not on actual facts, but on superstition”, b) “Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact”, c) “from infancy, almost, the average girl is told that marriage is her ultimate goal”, d) marriage is not a prerequisite of love and happiness. For anyone who may dismiss the above arguments as Marxist ramblings aiming to explain everything away in financial terms, suffices to point at all kinds of traditional marriage which, long before Marx’s time, were primarily a form of financial arrangement as anthropoligical research has shown. Goldman was bold enough to see marriage for what it represented: an institution founded on prejudice, the (financial or cultural) regulation of sexual relationships and the disregard of basic human needs. The feminist perspective in her analysis is central but is not dominating the discourse. Since repressing norms against female (and often male) sexuality were strongly embedded in society at the time Goldman was writing – the dowry, arranged marriage, complete economic dependence of women, condemnation of sexual relationships outside of marriage – a bold commentary in favor of women’s liberation was imperative. Many decades later, and after the experience and achievements of the women’s liberation movement of the late ’60s onwards, which resulted in the overcome of the sexual prejudices of previous centuries, a feminist critique of marriage appears to have lost most of its arguments [2]; it cannot be claimed any more that women are considered “child rearing machines” or pieces of “merchandise offered to the highest bidder” [3], and a number of legislative Acts have given equal rights to women in the public and private sphere [4]. Although the obstacles to free sexual relationships and cohabitation have been eliminated, marriage as an idea and as an institution persists for a number of reasons which will be discussed below.

A truthful answer to the question why marry? cannot contain any of the following often-cited, distastefully predictable arguments: a) to have children, b) to show love, affection, commitment, c) to make the parents happy. These pseudo-arguments, when not followed by existing financial or bureaucratic demands (i.e. marriage may settle inheritance or citizenhsip problems), can be easily disproved by a simple blow of logic. That it is impossible to secure happiness, love and commitment by (flamboyant) ceremonies and by the signing of contracts, is more than evident. Also, marriage is not required for the legalisation of children as the joint recognition by the mother and father is sufficient [4], and, finally, the “satisfaction of the parents” argument is just another expression of the main reason for the popularity of marriage: the subliminal or express need for a feeling of safety and belonging – in a tradition, culture or historical continuum. The attachment to this archaic institution emerges as profoundly problematic as it sheds its veils of magic, romance and illusion of a new beginning, revealing a deeply-rooted ineptitude and possibly fear for the clean-slate re-evaluation of ideas that is necessary if social change is the desired goal.

That marriage is not actively questioned or put under scrutiny by the majority of the population nowadays, despite the abundant feminist critique it has undergone, is alarming not only for the effectiveness and resonance of feminist theory, but most importantly because it is an indication of how poor is the response of the popular sentiment towards social ills. It looks like feminism has given women many tools and outlets to claim their self-disposal as physical and psychological entities, it has however contained itself as a theory within a field of political traditionality sufficing to demand equality with men but not the emancipation of both, as mates and partners, from the wider social contraptions that surround them. Our fundamental concern, therefore, appears to be not patriarchy, sexual repression, domestic violence or homophobia; these can be considered as symptoms or consequences of a much more problematic issue: the lack of deep, unconditional questioning of all institutions, all given ideas of what is right or wrong, acceptable or not, normal or abnormal. The lack of ability to question given norms or institutions amounts to a limited or non-existent ability for critical thinking and often a subservient behaviour towards all sorts of traditions. Just as most people don’t ask themselves “why marry?”, they never consider similar questions such as why accept the need for a government, religion or bureaucracy; in short, for everything that maintains injustice and repression. And if marriage as such does not any more maintain repression, it is beyond doubt that it represents a strong tie with some of the most obsolete traditional elements.

If the wedding ceremony can be considered as a show of social and personal commitment, a form of representation of the duties and rights exchanged in married life, a few comments on the nature of the act of representation are of some importance here. It is characteristic of human imagination to rely on representation to express what is otherwise inaccessible. All forms of art (theatre, painting, literature etc) are based on representation to an aesthetic and/or educational goal. Art often does not directly reveal, but implies or indirectly describes sentiments and ideas. The psychological, emotional and intelectual merits of poetry could not have been achieved without the capacities of the artist for imaginative representation through words and images. However, one must not loose sight of the goals of representation, which in the case of art are the exploration of the human condition and psyche, but in the case of marriage are yet to be recognised as null. As said above, marriage does reinforce the sense of belonging in creative and emotional terms, nevertheless this sense remains an illusion, since, as experience and the study of human behaviour have shown, is irrelevant to commitment or loyalty. What remains to talk about, after we have gotten rid traditional gender roles, is the remnants of the institution of marriage, that is to say the contractual and legalistic aspect of it which still binds couples into wedlock for the sake of financial and social security.

A number of obstacles have been set up, by custom and/or by State intervention, in the way of unmarried couples [6]. A simplification of legal codes and the abolition of unnecessary bureaucracy would have been the answer to this, as well as to much of social complexities and impasses. But before we vaguely blame the omnipotent State for the bureaucratic maze it has weaved around us, we must consider how self-imposed customs, habits and superstitions hold the State and its institutions together. So far as marriage is concerned, there is no reason whatsoever to celebrate the signing of a contract and there are several reasons to attack it on all sides for what it represents.


[1] Quotations taken from “Marriage and Love”, in Anarchism and Other Essays (1910).

[2] Postmodern feminists would vehemently disagree to this as they base the perpetuation of their theory on discovering inequalities where they don’t exist. That free sexual relations are now the norm and that women participate in many parts of social life of their choosing, makes a score of postmodern feminist claims sound at least out of place (it is absurd to strictly measure equality, for example, by the number of women in Parliament or in discussion panels – we should be able to distinguish voluntary from obligatory participation). This is not to diminish the need for action in other areas such as domestic violence, rape and trafficking, which nevertheless can be considered as human rather than female issues, as victims include a percentage of men and boys (link)

[3] From Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World (1990), by Jonathan Beecher.

[4] The introduction to the contraceptive pill, the Married Women’s Property Act, the Abortion Act and many more took place in the 1960s in Britain (link)

[5] As in Britain where “since December 2003 an unmarried father can acquire similar rights if he registers the birth of the child jointly with the mother” (link)

[6] See link in note 5.

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