the society called marriage


1. The sword cuts both ways. If men want (let us call it) a “traditional marriage,” then there are duties which go along with that concept which may not be so desirable, especially for men. In fact, when confronted with these duties, many men avoid them, making the marriage basically unfair and unstable.

The traditional (“Ozzie and Harriet”) marriage can be conceived as follows. The husband is the “bread-winner” who has a full-time job and provides all that is necessary, financially, for the family. The wife is a nurturing agent who takes care of the needs of the family --cooking, cleaning, raising the children and so forth. Unfortunately, that concept of marriage worked in the early fifties, but it won’t work in today’s world. Quite simply, most men cannot have jobs which make enough money to support a family. Their wife is required to have some kind of job, either part or full time (and this job is on top of her “normal” duties). The underlying message is that “Men whose wives work are failures as men.” For men, who value their jobs as an integral part of their identity, to be branded a failure at what you do is anathema.

That feeling of failure may be expressed in many ways: anger, frustration, guilt, and violent behavior. I would suspect that much of the domestic violence we encounter in our society today is due to the fact that the contemporary world of business renders most men failures, the psychological consequences of which are overwhelming. As hard as a man may work, unless he has some luck and is extremely intelligent, more than likely he cannot be the sole provider for his family. The guilt from such a concept of self-worth can be enormous. It may be the case that men do not have the outlets to express their frustrations and guilt as do women; many men would not admit even to their closest friends that they were failures, that they could not provide adequately for their families. The net result is that men who classify themselves as failures, but keep that concept and the associated emotions bottled up are destined to suffer from psychological trauma. How that trauma is expressed is what should worry us all.

It looks to be the case that we need to rethink our basic notions of the nature of marriage.

2. Marriage as a society created by autonomous individuals with mutual respect and admiration.

There is no doubt that men and women are different. Men cannot bear children whereas women can. Obviously, there are radical biological differences. But, in terms of personhood and a workable society called marriage, so what! Both men and women are autonomous individuals with wants, hopes, desire, expectations, and free will. It’s the free will that counts here. Why? Because persons with free will have a dignity that demands respect. By respect I mean equal consideration given the principles which are to govern any society. (Peter Singer best delivers this point in his book, Animal Liberation, New York Review, second edition (1990)) To differentiate duties based on accidental attributes (such as being female) and have those duties place greater burdens on persons in virtue of those attributes is unfair. A marriage will only succeed where there is respect for the autonomy of each individual. Social customs or prejudices which reduce the autonomy of one person in the contract are quite simply unfair and detrimental to any possible happiness.

Let me put it another way. Marriage is built on trust and love. You cannot have a good marriage unless these characteristics are cultivated. By cultivated, I mean worked hard for; trust and love are not easy to come by or retain. A person who is loved is treated as a loved person, not as a mere means to securing some desired goal for another person. People get married for many reasons, sometimes for a lot of wrong reasons. If you are in a relationship, especially a marriage, and things are not doing well, ask yourself this question, “Am I a real partner, a respected decision maker, with equal respect and power in this relationship?” If the answer is, “No,” something is wrong. What is usually wrong is that the other person does not consider you to be his/(her) equal. Decisions are being made without your considered input, maybe even without your knowledge or consent. You are not an equal autonomous partner in the society created by the marriage. Consequently, that society fails to exist or function to the extent that you are not participating. The key to staying married happily is to respect the autonomy of the other person by sharing the decision making power and necessary information for a decision with them. Not doing that is a sure road to failure.

As we may see, many traditional marriages do not uphold that principle of mutual respect of autonomy. Often the other person is deprived of information or not let in equally on the decision making process. It is a rare marriage that survives.

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