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Can We Stop Talking about Marriage as though It’s about Love? April 5, 2013

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Food for Thought, Singled Out.
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Marriage is not about love. But most of the public conversation about marriage – most recently, the conversation about gay marriage – tends to treat marriage as the equivalent of love. Marriage, public discourse suggests, makes love official. And who could argue against that? Just as you generally can’t have a satisfying debate with a religious person about the existence of God, you’ll be booed off the stage if you say there’s something wrong with being in love. In popular rhetoric, the word “marriage” is used to signify (stand in for) the concept of romantic love.

Let’s be real; let’s stop saying marriage is about love.

In the best of cases, marriage stems out of love. But marriage itself is not the same as love. In truth, marriage is decidedly un-romantic. It is a legal, and sometimes religious, contract between two people. The contract ties the partners together – in no uncertain terms – in terms of finances, law, and kinship. These are not romantic concepts. In fact, in certain contexts, these concepts can be downright terrifying.

But public rhetoric wants us to ignore the ugly reality and focus on the feel-good. As a result, it’s challenging – almost impossible – to take a critical stance toward the institution.

The recent conversation about gay marriage, currently at the center of two cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a prime example of the consequences of our popular discourse. Our discourse suggests that the right to marry is an issue of civil rights (in the States, as some have pointed out, the Human Rights Campaign has problematically dominated this kind of discourse). While we at Onely agree that the achievement of marriage equality is an admirable goal, it does not in fact achieve the larger goals of civil rights, which would ensure that all people – regardless of their marital status – are treated equally in the eyes of the law.

As we have argued time and again on this blog and elsewhere – marriage creates and maintains a social hierarchy that grants specific financial, legal, and kinship benefits to individuals based only on their marital status. And guess who loses, precisely because they are not married? More than 50% of the population, single people.

As Scot Nakagawa puts it:

… we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.

The problem with public rhetoric surrounding this issue is that when we ask “What’s at Stake in the Marriage Debate?” (as does this article in the Charlotte Observer), the answer – “1,100 Benefits” – is meant to make us support marriage instead of question it. Readers are supposed to agree that “everyone” should have access to these benefits, when in fact we should be asking, why should my marital status determine whether or not I have access to benefits that others don’t?

Until we stop talking about marriage as though it has to do with love, popular discourse will not change. Shifting our focus to the “unromantic” realities of marriage – recognizing the various privileges that are granted through marriage – is the only way in which we can begin to deconstruct the institution and the benefits tied to it. It is the only way in which human equality, between marrieds and unmarrieds, can be achieved.

Perhaps someday, marriage will be about love. But it’s not there yet.

— Lisa

image by donobru


1. Stephanie - April 5, 2013

Thank you! I’ve been waiting for a well-written, well-reasoned article about this topic. I’m 100% supportive of equal rights for all LGBT people, but when marriage is desired mostly because of the legal benefits it bestows on those who enter into it (and let’s be honest, that’s the biggest reason we are having the marriage equality debate), then it’s time to question why legal benefits are given to people (gay or straight) just because they signed a marriage license.

2. shifting focus | thebitterbabe - April 5, 2013
3. Joe Ruby - April 6, 2013

While I agree with you, I still assert you miss the point of the same-sex marriage debate. The legal right to marry for gays IS a civil right. The Human Rights Commission is NOT dominating the discussion but asserting they have the same right to marry if they so CHOOSE that straights have and they are right. Let’s not beat up the LGBT community over this. Let us, instead, focus on what it is that Onely and UE are correctly asserting, that marriage should carry no more benefits for the married than it should for unmarrieds. The LGBT are entitled to the same treatment as straights and WE are entitled to the same treatment as marrieds. We do not need to cloud this issue.

Onely - April 8, 2013

Right Joe, thanks for your comment. I believe we agree. We aren’t beating up any community in this post — we agree that all should have the right to marry whomever they please… The reason I used the same-sex marriage debate as the centerpiece here is that this conversation is dominating public discourse right now, and it’s nearly impossible to voice another opinion because the discourse is so strongly pro-marriage (as an institution). There is almost no space within public rhetoric surrounding the issue for one to question viability of marriage as an institution, without being misunderstood as questioning the rights of LGBT people to marry. That’s the heart of the problem… Our rhetoric — that marriage is about love — clouds the underlying problem, that gaining the right to marry doesn’t actually promote equality for all. Instead, gaining the right to marry means gaining the right to enjoy marital privilege in the eyes of the law.

Although it may seem paradoxical, it is possible to be in favor of same-sex marriage, as we are, but to simultaneously articulate how such a step is limited in achieving equality for all. The reason it’s difficult to reconcile these two stances is because the very language we use delimits our ways of thinking and talking about marriage, love, and rights.

— Lisa

4. Sue Korlan - April 6, 2013

Given the high cost of raising children, I would like to see those who have and raise children get serious benefits. For the rest of us, we should be able to get by without the financial perks that at this time come with marriage. And each of us should be able to decide for ourselves who qualifies as an important person who has the right to be with us and make decisions for us, whether that person or persons is family or a good friend.

Dr. Stanley Goldstein - April 8, 2013

Good point, though likely not a popular one on this website.

5. RJM - April 15, 2013

The word ‘love’ doesn’t even mean anything. Like ‘God’ is a sort of fuzzy non-term that people use because dealing concretely and seriously with their emotions is too hard and demanding. Love is a word for use by lazy people and stupid people in order to avoid examining their relationships.

Marriage is, historically, contractual. This bullshit notion of ‘romantic love’ had nothing to do with it for most of its history, which is good for marriage, because if it depended on this magical ‘love’ nonsense it never would have survived a day.

People are not only unwilling but basically incapable of thinking logically or clearly about sex, children or politics. You’re NEVER going to get sense out of them, the average person’s evolutionary triggers are far too sensitive and his mental feebleness almost without reckoning.

The human race pretty much just sucks, and to Hell with it.

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