Flutterby™! : cultural definition of marriage

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cultural definition of marriage

2007-08-21 21:18:51.060777+00 by Dan Lyke 10 comments

That thread on prenups has me fumbling for "a cultural definition of marriage". I said in that thread that though I couldn't come up with specifics, that it was related to the difference between a wife and a mistress.

The tale is attributed to Plutarch:

A Roman divorced from his wife, being highly blamed by his friends, who demanded, "Was she not chaste? Was she not fair? Was she not fruitful?" holding out his shoe, asked them whether it was not new and well made. "Yet," added he, "none of you can tell where it pinches me.

That's how I feel about the very notion of marriage, especially while it's defined as "between one man and one woman". Having been married, Charlene's even more adamant that whatever legal structure we end up with, culturally it not be marriage. And no, I think she's no more clear on what that means than I am, except that, as we discussed mechanisms, any semblance to the standard wedding vows was right out.

As evinced by the feelings brought up in that thread, the notion of marriage has power. Marriage has deep roots in maintaining the culture, of raising children, it's not overstating the case to think that, after eons of that being the structure in which we reproduce it's quite likely that those roots extend into our genes. Whether or not the couples keep their own candles lit after lighting the unity candle in a wedding ceremony, something has changed, the community now treats the couple differently. My sister told me of getting married to a friend in New Zealand for visa purposes, they made it plain to everyone that it was for legal reasons, and yet within a not terribly long time she was on a plane to my doorstep because pressures to have that relationship be something it wasn't were too strong. She's now happily married in the U.S., but it is that experience, and many experiences like that, that makes Charlene and me very hesitant to get married, despite the legal advantages.

Why else would a discussion that I thought I'd started to investigate the legal differences between marriage as recognized by the state and a bunch of separately written contracts and tax structures become a discussion about the cultural implications of it?

So how about making this a thread where all us blind folks can describe the elephant?

[ related topics: Children and growing up Politics Sexual Culture Sociology Law Community Marriage ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-21 23:06:50.714081+00 by: ziffle

this is a lot of talk about - 'the topic' - any chance you're just nervous?

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-21 23:15:13.983795+00 by: Dan Lyke

Possible, but I don't think so.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-22 00:23:38.801136+00 by: TheSHAD0W

Mawwiage, is whut bwings us togedduh, today.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-22 11:10:20.264355+00 by: meuon [edit history]

I've had three "marraiges", all different. Before Nancy and I were legally married, it was more of a marraige than any other. The legal trappings were important to Nancy and became important to me because of it. My small point is: You and Charlene need to decide what your "marriage" is, agree on it and be happy with it. It won't be like anyone elses. You'll need to understand it will evolve.

Problems occur when the married people have different expectations, and lie about them. Big things like: "I'll always be faithful to you.." (which may not be as important to some couples) to little big things like "I expect you to live on $20 a week pocket money and the rest..."

One of those magical moments was when Nancy and I discusses many aspects of our relationship and basicly told me exactly what she was looking for in the role of the man, and herself. She wanted to be a Princess, of course. :) - The important part was she knew what she wanted. Me? Somehow it all just fit.

A good marriage (or even the good times of what ends up being a bad marriage) is a wonderful thing. It should establish that the two of you are sharing a life, financials, property, goals and expectations, and are working towards then together and are enjoying the process together. It can/should establish trust boundaries...

Legally. That one is up to you and the State of California, your insurance companies, your employer. Wills, home loans and other legal documents may not make that as important.

As long as Charlene and you are -both- happy with what you do and any consequences. Do it. (And I'll be there for the wedding!)

I do know that, being married to Nancy has been the second greatest thing in my life. Being in love and loved back has been the first.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-23 16:01:54.002353+00 by: petronius

Eternal faithfulness may not be so important to some couples, but that's the way to bet. While the patterns may change from one generation to the next (ie, early mariages for our parents, later ones for us), the general form has been time tested. Each generation may think they invented a new format, but in the long run they discover that something like the old format seems to work better. Certainly I wouldn't describe our 50% divorce culture a rousing success. PS, I'm 30 years into my first and only marriage.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-23 17:41:05.777136+00 by: ebradway

Actually, I think the 50% divorce culture says volumes about "Each generation finding a new format" but for divorce rather than marriage.

To get on the psycho-soap-box, I wonder how much the divorce rate is attributable to:

  1. Life is much easier for us that it was for prior generations - so, being dramatic beings, we over-inflate the trivialities of our relationships.
  2. Our parents were of the generation that seemed to think that hiding emotional stress was a "good thing" - so we didn't really see the challenges in their marriage.
  3. Divorce doesn't hold much social stigma anymore. In some circles, it's a rite-of-passage.

And to provide answers to my questions:

  1. Marriage can be challenging. But the hardest part, though, is deciding when it's gotten too difficult.
  2. Expressing emotions is a good thing. Yell and scream at one-another when the mood fits. Maybe put a hand through the wall. Makeup sex is great and Ace Hardware sells easy kits for patching drywall.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-23 22:20:40.913805+00 by: Dan Lyke

I'm with Shadow... "Man and wife! Say it!"

On the divorce rate, I'd bet that that "50% of all marriages end in divorce" is skewed, that many people who get divorced get divorced multiple times, and what you're really looking for in a "how many people are served by marriage" sort of number is how many first marriages end in divorce. I think that's closer to a third.

But that still means that one in three people who choose to get married aren't well served by the institution, and from my own observations and talking with various people, I'd guess that the numbers are quite a bit higher than that; there are people who suck it up and stick it out because duty must be done. At first it's "for the children", then it's because they don't know what else to do.

The other thing that I wonder about, and I've no idea if there's a good way to actually track this, is that to most people the public notion of marriage implies sex only inside the marriage, in practice I'd bet that's more often not the case than anyone will admit. I'm pretty unshockable and I've been shocked by some of the places I've found it.

The other fly in the ointment there is that we're living dramatically longer than we were a hundred years ago. There was a time when marriage didn't last a whole lot longer than it took people to get the kids out of the house because people didn't last a whole lot longer than that.

As to what it is culturally...

We can start with law, because often the law reflects the culture. In California (and AZ, ID, LA, NV, NM, TX, WA, and AK if the couple makes special provision), it's an economic partnership. In other states property is individually held, many sources consider this an offshoot of "common law" considering the wife as property of the husband. In some states in the event of a dissolution of the marriage (divorce or death) this thing that used to be called "dower and curtesy" and is now called "statutory share" kicks in. Then there's alimony...

And it just gets more complex after that. So, for most people, getting married is a matter of signing a contract they haven't read the terms of, and that will definitely change if they move.

The parts culturally that bother me and Charlene? It's a long list, but it starts with any notion of "forever", "'til death do us part", that sort of commitment. We're both "I'm enjoying being with you right now" sort of people. It continues through any use of the phrase "man and wife" (thanks for that reminder, Shadow). It includes the guys at Home Despot asking a woman if her husband will be around to help with this project (Jeanne and I had a giggle over that when we were doing some work here on Tuesday evening, not the least of which because Jeanne has gotten married to Janine in several jurisdictions...). And it goes way into the current political statements of "one man and one woman".

Which is why I asked the previous question that veered off into this subject as specifically as I did: If we're going to use this as a shortcut to save some money, how do we write the contract that modifies this huge nebulous thing as specifically as possible so as to account for whatever issues might come up, like a family history of mental illness that might turn things ugly, and to not support most of the cultural trappings of marriage.

It seems like we can do that, but it also seems, and is reinforced by that other thread, that we should do everything we can to not reinforce any of the standard notions of marriage.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-24 00:20:02.762046+00 by: Diane Reese

Hey, Home Despot sent me a $50 gift card after I complained about their contractor asking if my husband would be available when the water softener sales person came to call! (And I handed said gift card to the great guy who drove his trailer up into the Santa Cruz Mountains to tote my son's motorcycle back to our house after he crashed it in July, so it went to good use.)

I've never said the phrase "man and wife", that I know of. Stupid phrase. Really, it's not all that hard to get around the stupid stuff, but if the whole concept is something you abhor, don't do it. "Reinforcing standard notions of marriage"? Who cares? I ignore the stuff that doesn't apply or that I don't care for, and just live an honest life the way I see it.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-24 04:53:40.93826+00 by: Shawn [edit history]

one in three people who choose to get married aren't well served by the institution

Interesting. This isn't what I take away from that observation. I tend to think that most divorces happen not because the institution fails, but because of pre-conceived assumptions (along with a lack of successive communication). Or, to put it another way; the social image of the institution fails.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-08-24 15:36:38.152239+00 by: Dan Lyke

Woot, Diane, I'll mention that to Jeanne!

Shawn, yeah, I could buy that view of it too.