How do you fix a problem like marriage? In the New York Times this week, Laurie Shrage mulls the idea of “privatizing” the institution: The state could recognize civil contracts between people who agree to care for one another and leave the moral, religious, and romantic aspects for private churches, sea captains, and individual couples to sort out.
Though Shrage admits this is an “ingenious proposal” (that is not her own), she outlines a host of “serious problems” that would prevent the government from practically divorcing itself from the moral implications of marriage vows. If we retain the legal construction of marriage, we risk powerful moral institutions exerting their influence over the law. But if we make it private, we allow those nongovernmental entities full social control over the definition of “marriage”—no matter how sexist, homophobic, and racist they may be. Either way, marriage as an institution seems doomed to fail.
In the meantime, though, we can keep fiddling with both the legal and social conceptions of marriage to try to make it a little better—to help empower spouses to fight domestic violence, facilitate parental rights in increasingly complicated family structures, and let gay couples in. I asked 10 marriage-minded people—a mix of friends, colleagues, and experts—how they would fix the institution or burn it down most expeditiously.
Axe the tax benefits: “Why do married people of any kind need or deserve financial benefits or tax breaks? Let’s just do away with those kind of breaks altogether, and then it won’t matter whether or not gay people can get married.”
— Zak Stone writes about science, business, and technology, and can’t legally marry in his state.
Make vow renewal mandatory: “Marriage is a legal contract, and contracts are the foundation of our civil society. But there is no reason why marriage should be a one-size-fits-all agreement. I propose a five-year renewable contract. This would give people the opportunity to renew, reassess, or release. A renewable contract doesn’t necessarily mean ending a relationship. This could be the chance to refresh existing marriages in conscious, attentive, lively ways. People could have renewal parties or release celebrations to culturally mark these new forms of transition. Renewable marriage contracts would establish new legal and social traditions where the old ones no longer suit us.”
Rethink parental rights: “The problem today is not so much how to ‘fix’ marriage but how to allow it to continue to evolve in response to changing economic and political circumstances. The inclusion of same-sex couples in the institution is inevitable given changing mores and the centrality of love-based rather than procreation-based marriages among heterosexuals. The increasing frequency of divorce and step-parenthood calls for a rethinking of the relationship between marriage and parental rights. Governments are going to have to figure out how to parcel out the bundle of rights that parents have among more than just the original two parents. Step-parents should be able to have parental rights in a way that brings them into the child’s life rather than excluding other adults.”
— Steven Horwitz is an Austrian School economist.
Preserve the domestic partnership: “I am, of course, in favor of gay marriage, but a dubious side effect of its legalization is that domestic partnerships and civil unions may become obsolete. I like the domestic partner idea! It doesn’t have the religious or social connotations of marriage. Some people don’t want all the baggage that comes with those titles—‘wife,’ ‘husband.’ Yuck. I’d rather just get the benefits under the radar without distant relatives and Facebook friends weighing in.
— Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist who married for the health insurance.
Appoint your “point person”: “I love the idea of the state leaving marriage to individuals, families, and religious institutions, and instead adopting a framework under which adults could identify which person is going to care for them, assume their debts, and help raise their offspring. I’d make it love-neutral. I think the government should allow every citizen to pick a ‘point person.’ For many people this would be a spouse. For young people, it might be a parent. For single people, it might be a platonic best friend. (Shout out to my bestie, Amina.) Simply changing the term from ‘marriage’ to ‘civil union’ doesn’t go far enough, because it still excludes single people from accessing dozens of benefits and protections. I don’t plan on marrying, but I’d be a fool to think I’d never have a medical crisis that required me to rely on another person. I want the employment flexibility of adding a close friend to my health insurance plan or affixing myself to hers. And I want everyone to have these rights without having to pledge undying love and sexual fealty. Because we all know how well that tends to turn out.”
Keep your name: “I’d like to undo the remaining traditions and legal structures that carry forward the idea that women are men’s property and are passed from the ownership of their fathers to their husbands on their wedding day. The biggest offender in my mind is the symbolism of fathers ‘giving away’ their daughters at the altar, a practice that’s become a bit less common but still happens regularly (and totally creeps me out). There’s also that tradition that’s far more widespread: Women changing their last names to their husband’s.”
Take a cue from divorce: “The thing we need to change most about marriage is the idea that it is a goal, a sort of finish line. It’s not. When my ex-husband and I married, we vowed to love and support each other until our last dying day. After 12 years, it became clear that the best way to do that was to divorce, because we wanted different things.
“The divorce process is so weird. I did it all online: 20 minutes, $250, then just wait 90 days. The questionnaire has so many assumptions built into it, all of which assume anger, manipulation, and a need to control. The first thing that caught my eye was a box that said, ‘Does the wife want to return to her maiden name?’ You had to check either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I never changed my name, so I didn’t know what to check. I said ‘yes,’ just in case, and then had to enter my name (the only name I’ve ever used). The saddest part for me was the section that dealt with our daughter. They wanted a detailed plan as to what days she would be with whom, including all holidays, vacations, and life events. They went so far as to ask for a transportation plan for getting her between our homes. Who can plan a carpool four years in advance?
“We just don’t micromanage each other, or our daughter, that way. We are adult humans who communicate with each other as we go about what we need and want. We don’t need the government enforcing these things for us through a legally binding contract. Actually, I think this kind of minutia needs to be front-loaded at the beginning of a relationship, not the end. Before a couple gets married, they need to think about the relationship, not the wedding. I wish the process of applying for a marriage license were as detailed as the process of getting divorced. I bet it would stop a lot of marriages.”
Legitimize marriage alternatives: “We need to recognize that marriage is not the bedrock of society, but one vehicle among many for personal growth and happiness. If we frame lifetime monogamy as an option rather than a default, we liberate people to explore alternatives, and allow marriage to be about joy and fulfillment and mutual support rather than fulfilling a social obligation. I think it’s education that’s needed: ‘Marriage and Its Alternatives’ would be a great high-school program to give young people the sense that they’ll be picking from multiple goods with equally valid paths to happiness. No-fault divorce and marriage equality for all are critical. The next frontier is more social than legal: legitimizing alternatives.”
— Hugo Schwyzer is a Jezebel columnist and professor at Pasadena City College.
Make education a priority: “Yes, marriage education is important and has been shown to be very effective, but traditional college education is important, too. The National Center for Health Statistics found that a woman with a bachelor’s degree has a 78 percent likelihood that her marriage will still be intact in 20 years, compared to just 41 percent who just have a high-school education. For men, their rate of marital success is 65 percent with a bachelor’s degree and 47 percent with a high school diploma. … I believe more affordable college might be a creative way to “save marriage” in America. … Many studies have shown that happily married couples live longer, make more money, spend more money, and the impressions are passed on to their children. The institution of marriage is a good investment for the economy and we might be able to begin with affordable higher education for all.”
— Steve Cooper is the editor of Hitched.
Chart the polyamorous union: “Many Americans have a very unhealthy relationship with marriage as it stands right now. We’re obsessed with weddings, but marriage is hard. You’re taking two people from different families and traditions and asking them to live together for 50 or so years. You’re asking them to be monogamous to only one person for the rest of their lives, while offering them endless opportunities for sexual stimulation elsewhere. And the system isn’t working. Expecting monogamy from every single partnered individual is unrealistic and sets many people up for failure. We need to learn to accept and respect both monogamous and polyamorous relationships. But legally, that presents a bind of who gets to marry whom. Perhaps we could create a form of civil union that would embrace all sorts of families. It wouldn’t look like marriage. It would have to be carved from scratch. But the legal recognition of different types of families—from LGBTQ families to poly families to couples who choose to partner without ever getting married—is crucial.
— Joanna Schroeder is a writer and editor at The Good Men Project.