The Trouble With Marriage

Two years ago, it looked, for a time, as though Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage might have some significant consequences for me and Sarah. I was trying to get into the University of Virginia’s PhD program in religious studies; I hadn’t made the cut on my first attempt and was trying to be proactive about increasing my chances the second time around. The financial circumstances of the department were such that I would have been a more attractive candidate if I could have claimed Virginia residency. There were two ways I could achieve this: either I could take a year off of school (I was working on my MA at U.Va at the time) and try to earn enough money to owe taxes to the state of Virginia—meaning I’d forfeit a year of education and connection to the university where I wanted to continue studying. Or, I could marry and claim financial dependency from a Virginia resident.

Which, as it happens, Sarah is. It also happens that she had been offered admission to the graduate program of her choice at U.Va that year. We wanted to stay together, in the same city, and by the simple accident of one of our chromosomes, what seemed like the easiest way to do that wasn’t open to us.

At the same time, what if it were? We were serious about our relationship—we’d been together for almost four years, and lived together for two. But at that point, we didn’t think we were ready to get married. Sarah would have been willing to do it to help me get into school. But it wasn’t what we would have wanted for our relationship, and it wasn’t what we wanted our eventual marriage to be about.

As we are all aware now, thanks to the fight for marriage equality, civil marriage in the United States carries with it a significant number of tangible benefits—the ability to file one’s taxes jointly, to carry one’s spouse on one’s health insurance policy, and to acquire a green card if your spouse is a U.S citizen being some of the best-known.

The thing is, these benefits make life easier for anyone, not just coupled people, and if it is discriminatory to withhold them based on an accident of sexual orientation, it also seems discriminatory to withhold them based on an accident of singlehood. Take healthcare, for example—why does the fact of coupledom render one more in need, or more deserving, of less financially onerous and more accessible healthcare? As Emily Douglas writes, civil marriage as it exists now “privatizes a host of caregiving functions that the state ought to provide.”[1] By making vital services contingent on certain life choices, living arrangements, and family structures it prefers when these ought to be provided to everyone, civil marriage actively punishes those whose cultures, preferences, or sheer dumb luck mean that they don’t participate in the specific sort of coupledom our socio-political system has decided is most morally deserving.

The flip side of this, I realize, is that this commodified approach also can cheapen marriage as a personal and spiritual project for those who value it on those terms. Two and a half years ago, Sarah and I weren’t ready to get married. We would have done it, if it were possible, for the sake of my educational advancement and financial benefit—bad reasons to get married if you believe, as we do, that people should get married because they have reached a point in their relationship where they are ready to make a public profession of their love, and a commitment to the durability of their union. Ruth’s plea to Naomi—“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God”(Ruth 1:16) —bespeaks a devotion that’s far deeper and more complex than a need for a service society has decided you get only if you make a commitment you may not otherwise honestly need or want to make.

Scripture views marriage as a doggedly practical, legal, and property-minded institution, to be sure. But it also charges us to care for everyone in our community, and it makes special note of widows and orphans—exactly those who are without the protections of a civilly recognized family structure. Everyone requires care, and everyone deserves care. Let’s absolutely work towards marriage equality. But much more importantly, let’s build a society where we don’t systematically deny people the care they need and deserve. Then, marriage can actually be about what we claim it’s about—(certain kinds of) mutual love and devotion.

[1] “We Have to Talk About It, Someday” in Here Come the Brides, 131.

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