Although it seems a hideously grown-up topic on which to begin, circumstances have brought the topic of marriage and all its deadly intricacies to mind. Now I am not one to be cynical nor unromantic on the topic. I am myself both happily and unhappily married in quite the normal fashion (the level of happiness varies wildly, depending on the situation – as in any relationship).
This past Friday, I attended the wedding of my younger cousin. Now while it was a bizarre and occasionally uncomfortable affair, that was less to do with the concept of marriage itself or the people involved and more to do with my lack of familiarity with bombastic Church-of-England services, whatever that freaky time signature to Jerusalem is, and the fact that there was some obfuscation of translation going on to avoid revealing to the Mandarin-speaking father-of-the-bride that his lovely daughter knows what erectile dysfunction is (the story itself was actually far sweeter than you might imagine – and actually doesn’t imply that my cousin requires Viagra). The entire nature of this marriage, though, prompted me to think on the sides of marriage that aren’t discussed so much, much to our detriment.
As you might have supposed from the hint that the father of the bride speaks only Mandarin, my new cousin-in-law is Chinese. This brings with it a set of complex legal requirements on top of the usual, such as the concept of her VISA. Until fairly recently, whether there even would be a wedding or not was left in the hands of a faceless civil servant whom, by nature of their profession, I assume to be inclined away from romance and more towards the antiquated and territorial xenophobia that goes hand in hand with defending our border from dangerous Chinese girls in their early twenties.
Now, as it turned out, it was decided by faceless-civil-servant-man that she wasn’t the vanguard of an invasion of Chinese sleeper agents, sent to steal all the jobs, NHS beds and English sparkling-wine, so she was allowed in and the wedding went ahead in joyous, if slightly surreal manner. It was certainly a stress they couldn’t have done without though. Planning a wedding is scary and difficult enough without having to answer a series of in depth questions about your partner, where even one mistake or mis-remembered fact might lead to deportation. Imagine playing Mastermind where if you get a single question wrong, your partner is dumped through a trapdoor into a huge fiery pit of doom. Stressful… at least to those still in love with their partner.
So it’s quite fair to view many of the legal aspects of marriage as simply a pain. Certainly the whole concept of having to ‘post notice’ of marriage two weeks in advance takes the wind out of those looking for any Vegas-style shotgun wedding. But again, this is due to the antiquated laws of getting married, requiring those wishing to do so to give anyone who has belief or reason for them not to to do so enough time to hear of the wedding and make their issue known. The problem with that is now people quite often travel a far distance to get married. I myself got married at almost the other end of the country. Certainly anyone who hadn’t been invited to the wedding would have no way of finding the small piece of card that was placed on the wall of Wrexham registry office, rendering the entire exercise a pile of balls. The nature of modern life has changed and if for nothing else than the avoidance of stupidity, this type of law requires changing in order to accurately reflect that.
So, with all the issues and difficulties arising in trying to get married, surely it’s no wonder that marriage rates are dropping. In fact, having one’s own child has now overtaken marriage as the most common first step of ‘adult life’. But for all these stats and complications and pitfalls and pratfalls, I simply don’t understand the person who stands before me and says “Oh, we’re never going to get married. We don’t need to define our relationship like that and our relationship is just as valid as yours.”
No, it’s not.
Now, I’m not talking in any sort of moral sense. I’m not religious and I’m certainly not a Tory. I don’t believe in some special spiritual binding that occurs when a certain combination of words are said. I don’t give a damn if anyone’s kid has sex before marriage, in fact I actively encourage it. I find the very concept of labelling ‘single’ parents as such offensive. They’re just parents, plain and simple, doing the same impossible job as any other.
But the fact is that all these legal hoops that are jumped through are there for a reason and the reward is that you then receive certain benefits that you don’t get otherwise. Of course, the ultimately cynical among you may decry that this is just some way for the government to keep tabs on you, to keep you in line or to keep you the type of person they want you to be. If you think that, be quiet and go read something else. This place is for grown-ups… apparently.
Nobody thinks twice about having to pass a test to be legally allowed to drive. You innately have the right to drive, having to pass a test in no way removes that right. You have the right to be a doctor, having to go to med school in no way removes that right. What right have I accessed by being married? I’m exempt from inheritance tax, bitches! Just on my wife’s property, obviously, but still; I get that and a whole host of other benefits that unmarried couples simply don’t have to access to.
Now if this sounds slightly mercenary for a column on the concept of marriage, its not. It’s smart, mature and fundamentally a good idea. And if you would get married without thinking about the legal aspects, then you’ve watched too many rom-coms and you’re likely not ready to get married in the first place. Life is not a movie, it is not the beginning of ‘happy ever after’ where your life is suddenly shot in soft-focus and lit by naught but crepuscular rays shining through the tree branches of the garden of Eden you are now frolicking in. It’s hard. Nobody with a successful marriage would say otherwise.
But I’m not one to be down on it, either. Because it will provide you with the most utterly wonderful moments of your life. Can those without a marriage have these moments as well? Of course they can. But if their pure, true beloved is then knocked down by a drunk bus driver or wins the cancer lottery, then you’d better make sure you’re named in their Will. If you’re not, then I hope you’re on good terms with their parents or other family? You’re not? Wow. Suddenly you’re staring an absolute lack of rights, right in the face. And you still just lost the love of your life.
Even if you’re on good terms with the family, or are a named party in a Will, you’re still on unstable ground. What if her family are taxidermist enthusiasts and are just crazy enough to have your partner stuffed and put in the living room. What if your partner’s brother got a good lawyer because he was astounded that you were left the family house (that’s completely ignoring that unwed, you’re still going to have to pay a ridiculous amount of tax on the house, if it’s worth anything)? In-laws can catch you off guard, just like anyone.
That’s not even getting to the concept of what happens with children or with the naturally higher stakes that come with them.
Conversely, it quite often seems to be all these legal bindings that makes people shy away from marriage. You’re always met with the same questions: “What if I feel trapped?” “What if we fall, out of love, it’s harder to break up?” “What if (heaven forbid) one of us makes a mistake and the other wants to leave?”
You act like an adult an deal with it.
Seriously, that’s all I can possibly say in answer to that. I’m not going to promise you that your marriage will work out, or last forever. I would say that if you’re thinking that much about how and under what circumstances you’re going to break up, then you probably will break up, but that’s another issue.
No one ever really promises you, when you’re growing up, that things are going to go all your own way. Life has hardships, setbacks, surprises both good and bad and we accept those. The thing is, though, there is still this romantic lie about marriage being utterly perfect, that it’s about finding ‘the one’ and that if you can’t declare that as assuredly and straight-facedly as Channing Tatum or Rachel McAdams in a Valentines Day movie, then you must not get married. Under any circumstances. Ever.
Fuck you, Channing. I love you, but fuck you. You’re ruining our society for the sake of a $100m. grossing movie every year. Stop it.
It’s as childish to realise that your relationship isn’t romantic perfection every second of the day, but then to assume that that means you shouldn’t get married, as it is to assume that marriage is ‘happy ever after’ to begin with. It’s the inverse side of the lie. We can bring ourselves to believe that marriage won’t bring perfection… in our heads. But in our hearts, we’re still transfixed by Channings lop-sided grin, pectoral muscles, listening to his beautiful words of romance and love. Which he’s probably delivering on a beach somewhere, the dick. So instead of engaging with marriage as what it is, we shy away from it altogether, or blindly jump in and get disappointed when we’re not met by a pink unicorn.
Marriage is the primary and most intertwined relationship consisting uniquely of two adults that exists in our culture. It’s a mature relationship, from the very beginning. No-one’s ever a child at the beginning or it, nobody is going to predictably die 30 years before the other (not usually, anyway). A marriage is uniquely built around two equally complex, balanced and intelligent people. There should be no imbalance of power, no domination, no unicorns and no running away from things that are big and scary. Those are childish pursuits and childish actions.
Marriage is the one honest-to-God mature pursuit and mature action out there.
It should be about time that we, as a society, start treating it as such.