Today, the majority views marriage as an indispensable part of social and personal life. We’ve been primed to think that a life without marriage is unacceptable, meaningless, and subversive. However, a look at human history and human tendencies shows that it is quite an abnormal imposition to expect marriage in life. From the structure of modern marital life to expectations from it, almost all our perceptions surrounding this custom are skewed. And this can lead to serious implications on society and on our personal lives.
Due to differing opinions on the topic, along with its long history, it is unfeasible to condense the idea of marriage into a few words. There are customary exceptions in the number of people involved, respective roles of the participants, their sex, and so on. But for most of the modern and non-tribal world, marriage is a legally, culturally, and/or spiritually recognised union between two (or more) individuals. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who are renowned economists, state that marriage is “an official licensing scheme”. This union is said to be fundamental to societal structure and balance, and other relationships are built and revolve around this union.
It could be logically derived that the institution of marriage arose from the need for mating, but that is not the case. Marriage, traced back from its current form to its roots, was a mere contract to protect wealth and create strategic alliances, first being practiced among noble classes and eventually influencing other parts of society. They are still considered contracts in the Western world, but not in Indian Hindu marriages, where marriage is viewed as a religious bond between a husband and a wife. Saudi Arabia has religion oriented marriage laws, governed by Islamic law. Some countries don’t allow interfaith marriages and some same-sex ones. Though there are myriad traditions and types of marriages like common law marriage, polygamy (including polygyny and polyandry), the ancient Indian tradition of Gandharva marriage, that is conducted without witnesses or familial involvement, monogamy is still the most widely practiced custom today.
In light of these traditions and their development, society’s perceptions on the topic, as well as those of the legal system, seem ludicrous to me. The restrictions placed on a custom that is said to be the zenith of love and commitment are born out of intransigence. Take, for example, polygamy. Most ancient societies for the longest times, allowed and even condoned the act of having multiple partners. Our closest living relatives, bonobos and chimps, mated with multiple individuals. Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist states that modern monogamous culture has been around for just 1,000 years of the 3,00,000-year history (a contentious timeline) of anatomically modern humans. Human tendency to be unsatisfied with a sole person indefinitely is evident in our proclivity to cheat on our partners. Our commitment to one partner is often limited to a requirement for companionship and a stable domestic life. There is no question that humans maintain a desire for sexual relations outside their relationship, something that evolutionary instinct declares natural, but society, immoral.
Though historically, men are viewed as being polygynous, there are some accounts in ancient India, where it was the women who had multiple partners. However, both systems were eventually pared down to monogamy. Women were extracted of their sexual freedom as a result of male insecurity (it was difficult to derive with certainty the exact parentage of a child) and men, too, were clipped, possibly for the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. The risk of contracting STDs and STIs naturally increased with population and promiscuity. This is a prominent argument to support single partnership. Though this system is widely accepted, it is rarely ever practised to the letter. A survey by Gleeden, an extramarital dating app, showed that 55% of married Indians have cheated on their spouses. Another study showed a 734% increase in infidelity, after adultery was decriminalised. In Thailand, 56% of the population admits to committing adultery, the highest in the world. I am not making a case for cheating; it is linked to higher chances of contracting an STD compared to open relationships. I am breaking down a hypocritical rationalisation of suppression and conservativeness in matrimony. Monogamy is not always actualised into its etymological definition.
I am not here to bash monogamy. It works for some, and not for most. I am trying to expose its faults as the choice structure to support institutional, obligatory marriage. Just like polygamy, there are various other aspects to, and types of marriage, but we seem to have assigned a definition to a virtually undefinable concept. Socially imposed monogamy, along with many other presupposed notions about what a relationship should be, has led to an extremely toxic culture surrounding marriage, love, and relationships. We have unrealistic expectations from a system that was not devised for love and companionship, but for strategy. Still, many have made a manageable arrangement out of an ancient business venture.
The most common reason given for getting married is to meet the need of companionship and happiness, for the rest of our days. However, marriage rarely ever makes people happy by itself. Conversely, it may be undermining the success and possibility of other relationships. One study found that “single individuals are more likely to frequently stay in touch with, provide help to, and receive help from parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends than the married.” We hinge our lives to this new relationship. Marriage isolates in a way that other forms of companionship become secondary. In nuclear, mostly western families, children are raised in this isolated environment, except this may not be entirely ideal. Various studies show that children benefit more from community-raising or at least wider, sustained interaction with a larger group of people. Or as the African proverb goes, ‘It takes a village’. Also, a marriage certificate (awarded only to eligible people) does not, in any way, ensure that children will be raised well. Marriage does not have to be the only means to create a family.
There may be other factors that influence one’s decision to get married. For instance, there are many financial incentives for getting married. There is always economic stability when there is income from two sources; it is much easier to meet basic needs and pay bills. In America, car insurance tends to be cheaper for couples than singletons. Spouses get benefits that single people and people in unrecognised marriages/relations. If you can’t have kids, in some countries, it is much easier to adopt as a couple than alone. Inheritance without paying taxes and recognised fiduciary relationships in some countries are other advantages. People who are in more committed relationships than married people, don’t get these benefits.
In addition to this, it is expensive to raise a child. This should mean that more women should enter the workforce to help support the family. However, the opposite seems to be happening in India, where Female Labour Force Participation rates are falling; they are now lower than the 1990 rates. There is a correlation between married life and employment in India. Analysis of NSS data shows that as household incomes rise and the economy betters, women are paradoxically, pushed out of the labour force. With rising education levels, a woman’s productivity at home is greater than their possible contribution to the labour market, where demand for primary-educated women is low. Women contribute 6 hours of unpaid work to their household, while men contribute a parsimonious 52 minutes. Married women from rural areas are more likely to be pushed out, mostly because of the cemented role of women as primary caregivers. A woman’s work is considered expendable. This can be exemplified by the Maternity Benefit Act, 2017 which provides for 26 weeks of maternity leave, whereas the men can opt for only 15 days of paternity leave. Maternity leaves and the roles of women in households are also major reasons for the wage gap in more developed countries. What does that have to do with the failing institution of marriage? It shows that our laws and perceptions surrounding marriage are structured in a way to be detrimental to most women. Couple that with a social obligation and a fear of being deemed “flawed”, and you have a redundant institution commanding self-sacrifice for familial obligations that is unhelpful to individual empowerment. Of course, that is not to say that being single makes you instantly more employable and self-satisfied, but marital norms certainly don’t help to those ends.
The process of divorce is reflective of a society’s customs as well as the changed opinions on marriage. In countries where a divorce is acceptable and easy to obtain, divorce rates are high, whereas in more conservative societies, divorce is only filed for in extreme cases. Studies show that divorce rates rise with a lower patriarchal hold in the cultural environment; in the northeastern states of India, where matriarchal societies prevail, divorce rates are higher than in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The divorce cases that do reach Indian courts usually end in attempts at reconciliation and moral policing. The procedure itself tends to be arbitrary. Women also find it a lot harder to remarry compared to men. A forced marriage, or one undertaken as a perceived necessity and not out of an informed choice, will more likely face a tumultuous end. So much for that coveted partnership.
So, how do we get out of this state-sponsored mess? The institution of marriage is certainly not going to break down any soon. Richard Thaler, a Nobel awardee, and Cass Sunstein, in their lionised book, Nudge, propose privatising marriage to make it more liberal. In short, they believe that the title of marriage should be assigned by private institutions, not the state. You could even get a book club to marry you. The state would stop endorsing marriage, and each institution (religious or otherwise) would decide rules for a union sanctioned by them. You choose what’s right for you and your partner(s). They believe that the state’s seal of approval is unnecessary in the modern world.
Privatisation of marriage is not the panacea for the disgraces ailing a regressively structured system. Polygamy was outlawed chiefly because it led to exploitation of women and non-consensual extramarital affairs. Indians are not ready for privatised marriage. The state’s approval for inter-caste couples and criminalisation of child marriage has been crucial in India. If privatised now, the government would still feel obligated to place regulations and restrictions on people or, at least, on what an institution regards as marriage, which would be counter-intuitive. Even if unequivocal consent was a universal requirement from all such institutions, it is facile to manipulate someone into providing the same. For this, Thaler and Sunstein propose nudging people in the right direction, default rules, consideration of subjective instances and enforcement of explicit promises.
One thing that I believe privatised marriage would certainly achieve is a transformed idea of what marriage really is: an option for companionship and to create a family in a way that suits the individual. It will be the beginning of a conversation around making marriage inclusionary, permissive, and not a sine qua non.