What is the purpose of marriage

As part of Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project I have been following both Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism and Daniel Fincke at Camels With Hammers as they curate conversations on values development.
I've had an inclination to stick my oar in on several of the previous questions, but my thoughts have remained sufficiently abbreviated to fit as comments on the original post.
The latest prompt though, I had a few thoughts. More than a few, in fact, because it strikes fairly close to my heart. The question is "What is the purpose of marriage?"; having been married for most of a year and spent some time before that preparing for and considering marriage, my personal interest should be obvious.

I could go on and on about my marriage; about how our relationship functions...but that's not the key point. Not only is our relationship, like all relationships, idiosyncratic but equally most of our day to day interactions could just as easily take place between boyfriend and girlfriend as between husband and wife. I need to look at a slightly higher level to see where the differences come in.

I'm going to start with a few things that marriage is not, before going on to lay out what I think it is; I feel that setting a few boundaries is useful, especially when dealing with terms as loaded as marriage.
For one thing, marriage is not religious. Religious people can get married, and they're welcome to involve their religion in their wedding or even their marriage as a whole, but they don't own marriage. I have repeatedly seen it suggested that we ought to end the current fights going on over marriage by giving up - granting control of marriage to religious groups, and offering the legal benefits of marriage as civil unions or civil partnerships to everyone. This is nonsense. The whole point of fighting over marriage is that it has both a legal and a social meaning, and divorcing (!) the two would be difficult and somewhat pointless. In England and Wales there has been civil marriage available since the Marriage Act 1836. We have the best part of two centuries of experience of this now, and I'm not entirely clear on why that should change just to appease the minority of people who really hate the idea of two men marrying one another.
Besides, I will be damned if I permit anyone to boil down marriage into "God says you can have sex now."
What else is marriage not? Well, it isn't necessary. It isn't something everyone will do at some stage - and nor should it be. You don't have to get married to have kids together (either naturally or by adoption and fostering). You don't have to get married to live together. You certainly don't have to get married to have sex! Making it obligatory devalues the commitment of marriage, by re-fashioning it into a hoop you've got to jump through on your way somewhere else. Again, if some people want to wait to get married before moving in together, why not? As long as they're not trying to make it expected for everyone to do that.
Marriage is also not just about the wedding; this is something that I became aware of because my wife spent some time frequenting wedding forums in the build-up to our own wedding. A marriage isn't a one day thing that only affects the rest of your life because you've got a ring to wear and a nice photo album. How much more trivially can you treat a commitment?
And another thing - admittedly linked to the religious thing, but they probably are distinct - marriage isn't about child-rearing. A couple without children are just as married as one with a dozen. You don't become more married on the day each child is born.

Alright, that's probably enough on what marriage isn't; now what is it? It isn't about the children; it isn't about the wedding, it isn't necessary, and it isn't about god.
Logically enough, I asked my wife, who said that she would define marriage for a child thus:
"Marriage is a legal contract by which two people who love each other become family."
Definitely a good start. It has limitations, but so would any one sentence definition of something important.
I think what distinguishes a marriage from a serious, long-term relationship is that getting married makes an explicit statement that you intend to be together for life; that the two of you are family and wish to be recognised as such; that you are entwining the courses of your lives together to the extent that it will be difficult and messy to separate them.
At this point I think it is important to note that I stated "intend". People make mistakes, people change, and life can really spin you for a loop sometimes. Being able to end a bad marriage with a divorce is hugely important, and asking which partner in a relationship is at fault for its failure can be invidious. However, I feel that you shouldn't enter into a marriage unless you think your relationship is going to last for a lifetime. This is one place where emphasising my point that marriage is not necessary is important. You might not meet someone you really want to spend the rest of your life with until you're 60; you might never do so; that should not shut you off from many other things you might be ready to do but which traditionally are bound up with marriage. The more carefully chosen marriage is, the more likely it is to actually last a lifetime.

Getting married is one of the most significant decisions that you can make in your life. We only get so much time in life, and declaring that you wish to bind yourself to someone for all the time that you have is huge. Family is significant, and bringing someone into your family, joining theirs, and binding the two together is another big deal.
Declaring to your family and friends that you intend to, expect to, and will work your arse off in order to be with this person for life is a massive commitment, in my mind second only to bringing a child into the world.
And then add in all the legal aspects to it, the time and expense devoted to getting married in the first place (well, you can have a quicky Registry Office wedding for £100 or so, but most people don't want to do it that way...) and you begin to get a sense of how much of a big thing it is to get married.

Do you want to tell me again that I should just have a civil union?


  1. Quite agree. I started of my wedding speech with the words 'I don't believe in marriage' because there were many things that marriage wasn't to me, especially including the transfer of property from father to husband, the blessing of a mythical being, and a licence to have sex. To me, marriage is a public expression of a private commitment - a public voicing of the fact that you are no longer available or interested in being with anybody other than the person you are with, and, like with having a child, a public comment that you are no longer the only person who you have to take into consideration. As you have said, compared to these statements, the traditional functions of marriage pall into insignificance. Nice one.

  2. Thanks jlpaw; I think starting your speech with "I don't believe in marriage" may have been a little harsh to your guests, but I love the mental image.