The privilege of marriage

I left a rather preachy comment on APW drawing lawyerlike distinctions between the advantages of married/partnered life and the cultural privilege attaching to marriage. I felt a bit embarrassed afterwards – it always embarrasses me to disagree with strangers – but it seemed important to me to make the distinction.

(For the record I think the distinction lies in the fact that an advantage is a benefit that arises from the relationship itself – so if you’ve got a partner you get the benefit of, e.g., a buddy to go to the cinema with whenever you want. Whereas privilege is about benefits that arise from sources external to the relationship and that are institutionally enforced/reinforced: the fact that most people regard marriage as being more significant than an unmarried long-term partnership, the tax benefits, legal rights, fact that divorce courts are used to dealing with similar cases, etc.)

Perhaps it’s difficult for someone in my position – and many of the APW commenters will be in this position – to talk about the cultural privilege of marriage. As a lady marrying a dude it was clear from the outset of our relationship that if we wanted to marry that option was open to us. But then again, since we have decided to get married, clearly we are doing so because we want to access the privileges accruing to that status.

And it’s a bit tricky to define what those privileges are if you’re just going to focus on the social and cultural privileges and not the legal or economic. For a woman, marriage is definitely a social marker of success. I know Western feminists come under a certain amount of internal pressure not to marry – there’s this view that it means settling down, sacrificing your dreams, giving up your life for a man (I imagine this doesn’t apply as much to same-sex marriages) – but all the same, if you’re talking about external societal views, failure to marry by a certain age is seen as, well, a failure. (See, e.g., Kate Bolick’s much-publicised but boring article about marriage. I prefer Hadley Freeman’s treatment of the issue. You can tell Freeman is writing in a British newspaper because all the commenters think it’s hilarious that Bolick’s name sounds like bollocks.)

So when I told my relatives I was engaged my aunt said to me, “Wow, everything going well in your life, hah? Job going well, planning for your wedding … ” The implication was that everything was ideal because I had all the boxes ticked. If my career had been going well but I didn’t have that “engaged!” stamp, that wouldn’t have presented quite as rosy a prospect. I remember thinking bemusedly that yes, everything was going fairly well (though haha, I don’t know about the career, but never mind about that for the moment). But everything had been going well before the engagement. I’d already had an awesome partner, a decent job, and an occasionally-paid evening hobby/vocation that I was having some small success in.

I think this widespread view of marriage as an essential component of the good life, particularly for women, is the reason why my friends – most of them single, high-achieving young female professionals – come under so much pressure from their parents to find a dude and eventually get married. After all my friends (and I!) have been pushed from a young age to succeed academically, collect the right sort of extracurriculars, get into a prestigious university and get a good job. So of course we are pushed to succeed on the relationship side as well. What parents often say when they do this kind of pushing is that they want us to be happy, they don’t want us to be alone when we’re older, etc. But it’s not about happiness because my friends are happy and I was happy when I was single, and there’s no guarantee that a relationship will provide happiness – it’s just as likely that a relationship will introduce chaos and despair! It’s about success.

That said, I don’t think this aspect is really about the privilege of marriage; it’s more about sexism – women being viewed as less-than if they can’t get a man. The cultural privilege of marriage definitely exists, I just find it difficult to sort out what it is. Something to keep thinking about!

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