eM has a post that hit really the spot.

A recurring theme on this blog has been: why marriage? eM has some good points on the lines of why bother. It prompted me to go back and think about why I got married in the first place.

I was never that into the idea of marriage. Up to the point I turned 18 or so, I regarded the whole institution with a mixture of skepticism and distaste. All the marriages around me seemed mediocre at best, pathological at worst. The few shining examples were so few and far between that I regarded them as as unreal as the American Dream (which I now realise as quite an accurate assessment).

Then, when I was 17, I fell properly albeit reluctantly in love. Nevertheless, for at least two years of the four year relationship, I was convinced that I did not want to marry my boyfriend and rebuffed all such suggestions, with good reason because even as a love-addled teenager I possessed the ability to see when a person was just not right for me in the long term. Nevertheless, after two years, I was resigned to it and appropriated the fantasy. I started naming our kids. Ugh.

By the time I was 23 and met V, I had grown up a bit. I had accepted that I was probably going to get married, mainly because I didn’t have the strength to cop out and forge my own path but also because I largely enjoyed being part of a couple. The fact is that the path of the unmarried was and probably still is so vague as to be non-existent. The marriage fantasy dominated popular culture and there weren’t any alternatives or I wasn’t imaginative enough to hold on to them. I guess I wasn’t that rebellious after all. I distinctly remember V asking me what I thought about marriage and I shrugged and said: “It’s inevitable.”

When V asked me to marry him, yes, was my instinctive answer. I never really wanted to marry anybody before. But he seemed to be the right person to do it with, that is, the right person to hitch my star to long-term.

At the core, though, my reasons for marrying were pragmatic:

  1. Due to our life situations, we were essentially condemned to a long-distance relationship unless one of us took the leap and moved. V hated Bombay, but to his credit he tried to stretch out his time there. I loved Bombay, but I was open to other places. I’m not sure whether it was before or after we decided to get married that I agreed to move cities to be closer to him, but I know that I would not have been comfortable moving without some sort of serious commitment.

For me, marriage represented a declaration of seriousness and willingness to commit because it’s a legal contract. It is also a public social acknowledgement of partnership. I needed that in order to be comfortable making a big emotional leap like moving cities. (Of course, later when V moved to Hong Kong there would be no question of the option of me moving without getting married due to immigration restrictions. More on that later)

About needing the marriage commitment at the emotional level though, I don’t know why this should be. Recently, a girl moved to Hong Kong to be closer to our friend here who she was romantically involved with. They decided they needed to be in the same place to see if it would work out and she was in a position to make the move. The understanding though was that it was a trial, she is not even living with him (which I find a bit crazy considering HK rents). But she was willing to take that risk based on what she knew of him. And why not?

At that point in my life, at leas, I don’t think I would have been willing. I’m not the most trusting person, and while I’m a special case in my level of mistrust, I now realise that in general marriage is a demonstration of lack of trust rather than the reverse. You need the contract because you don’t trust the relationship without the box and the neat bow and everyone standing around in a circle clapping and saying “hear hear, we acknowledge you two as one”. We need the contract and the public declaration as much for ourselves as for other people. And that need is not a demonstration of strength and confidence but the reverse.

2. To have children: Right now, this seems to me like the most convincing reason to get married (and it’s possible my views on this might evolve). Assuming that both parents want to play as big a possible role as they can in their children’s lives, it makes sense to maintain one household and merge assets. Children require the melding of assets and lives to an extent that it may be wise to govern the relationship with a contract. Though I guess, it’s possible without. Again, in my case, with that much melding, I’d prefer some legal thingamajig. The larger point is that if not the actual contract, the traditional marriage-like relationship of parents living in the same house with their children for 20-odd years seems to me like the most suitable arrangement, all other things being equal (like the ability of the parents to get along).

3. To shut up society: Basically, if you’re pretty sure you want a long-term thing with someone, it’s just easier to get married and not have to endure your parents black faces when you decide to live or move cities or buy a house with your partner. Like recently, my friend in office was asked by her special friend (she never calls him her boyfriend, god knows why, I’m dying of curiosity) to go to Taiwan with him to visit his dying mother. She felt compelled to go but mentioned it was going to be a pain to explain first to our boss and then to her parents why she needed to suddenly depart for Taiwan. If she was married, this would not really be a big deal.

Admittedly, this is a pretty trivial reason, but it’s one of those “okay whatevs”, if your relationship is already serious. Should not be the primary reason to get married.

Practically speaking, the real reasons to get married, which are related to all the three points I mentioned in a concrete way, are the institutional ones. The legal system in many countries confers certain privileges on married couples because they are deemed as ‘family’ in a way that other non-blood relations are not. The very obvious one is immigration. Hong Kong at least would not grant a dependent visa otherwise. Then, there’s spousal healthcare benefits (my husband’s bank recently approved nomination of non-spouse for healthcare benefits but generally planet is far away from such a conception.)  There’s a question of who gets to visit and take decisions in case of serious illness. There’s the question of inheritance and property rights.

Frankly, all these things make it easier for states to govern relationships than anything else. There is no reason why people should not be allowed to nominate whoever they are close to at the time (like ‘buddy benefits’ some airlines offer their staff for free flights) for special benefits and privileges and also will their assets to whoever they wish. Moreover, the presence of marriage contracts does not make parting any less acrimonious. But it is easier for the legal system to standardize, thus we must all fall in line. We can lobby for change, but in the current system, most of us have no choice in the matter unless we want to give up all these benefits and sometimes necessities like living with the person you love (Here is where we spare a thought for people who are not allowed to get married and thus denied these benefits).

More and more, I’m coming to see both the marriage contract and the institutionalized fantasy of long-term partnership as similar to religion. It’s really not necessary anymore, and doing away with it as a norm would be a step towards imagining other forms of partnerships and relationships.