Upon passing a bill to legalise same sex marriage, the Australian Capital Territory’s Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr called Canberra a “city of love”. If the debate over equality makes anything clear it’s that marriage isn’t just a discretionary, personal thing; rather there is something real at stake, something that touches upon our relationships and desires. But was love the winner on Wednesday? Among this fanfare, and the ongoing debate about marriage equality, a crucial question has fallen a little by the wayside. Is marriage really worth it? Whether as a way of articulating our relationships and identities before our peers or to express the potential our romantic relationships hold for us, does marriage deliver what it promises?
Ironically, one of the most honest statements on this question was made recently by Julia Gillard, almost in the same breath as she announced her contentment with the traditional role and definition of marriage. “We could come up with other institutions that value partnerships, value love, value lifetime commitment.” Others, extolling meaningful happiness over social institutions, have called for options like “wedleases”, marriages contingent upon renewal every five years.
Yet the message remains mired in contradiction, suggesting that society hasn’t yet built up the courage or imagination to seriously try such alternatives. Furthermore, the call to arms remains thwarted by the fact that, even as divorce and infidelity rates remain scarily high, and even as generations X and Y bring our new attitudes into marriageable age, couples continue to choose marriage at a steady rate.
The mention of alternatives suggests a more radical question — does love require an institution to flourish, and moreover, endure? Here I declare myself an opponent of marriage. Having never been married, I can only assume I was a jaded divorcee in a past life. I am quite traditional in my beliefs in monogamy and, deep-down, the idea of a committed relationship. Yet I’m willing to stake any dreams of “happily ever after” on the idea that love, like many other great things in life, is most itself when independent from any institutional support or validation.
This belief began to emerge when, as a teenager, I found I detested the words “husband” and “wife”, and later reflected that, as always, there might be a deeper concern behind the phonetic discomfort. Perhaps I was initially put off by the traditional connotations of arranged, political, or religious marriage. My true concern was with the idea that romantic relationships require validation beyond their everyday existence, in a symbolic order where “husband” and “wife” represent an ideal unit sustained by traditional values.
This idea has even survived the “modernisation” of marriage into some kind of contract between two people, as the idea that marriage presents a validation of love that goes further than the formal function of the state or peers’ shouts of approval. This validation ultimately comes in the form of marriage as an end-goal to romantic love, the idea that a couple’s connection, through emotional labour, crystallises and sublimates up until the glorious ceremony and the sweat on the bedsheets. But what game is left to play the morning after?
It’s not that a sustained romantic relationship requires responsibility, commitment and sacrifice; rather all of these things are inherent within it. Love is more than a feeling; it’s a container for all the things that come with devotion between sexual partners, and that includes intimacy and distance, unbridled passion and contentment, poetry and compromise. Those things may be contradictory and may produce tension and violence enough to tear at the social fabric, yet isn’t this at the core of the greatest tales of love, à la Lancelot and Guinevere, Maria and Tony (West Side Story), and Jack and Ennis (Brokeback Mountain)?
The game is in realising that the container doesn’t have any substance or existence beyond the understandings, fictions, rules and jokes that both partners freely sustain together, yet believing in it anyway. It is in its lack of fulfillment as a fixed order of virtues that love allows individuals to be free in their romantic expression. In the words of Juan Antonio from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, “only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” Marriage formalises unification, order and fulfillment within a relationship, and so gives the game away.
Much like the idea that, in order for any life to be meaningful, there must be a meaning to life itself, the idea that love must strive for a goal other than its own unfolding is self-defeating and fails to embrace its beautiful transience, breadth, and unfulfilledness. Regardless of the pluralism with which we generally approach views on marriage, these cultural attitudes hang over us all and therefore this is a soppy and messy conversation we have to have.