With modern-day couples redefining loyalty protocol, should marriage be abolished or left alone? A philosophy professor says, it should be ‘minimised’
Divorce lawyers across India claim a 100 per cent increase in breakups in the last five years. The urban middle-class is discovering the benefits of an ‘open’ relationship; one that allows a range of sexually satisfying encounters. Monogamy, is suddenly, an irritant, not security. Perfect timing, then, we say, to exhume a decomposing idea like conventional marriage, and put it through an autopsy before laying out possible alternatives for its revival.
Marriage is hardly all that it’s cracked up to be, says USbased philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake. The fact that the union’s salient features are morally driven — whether it’s promise, commitment or care — makes it inherently problematic. “Marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the goods often associated with it,” she says in an email interview from Arizona. It’s nothing but a poor commitment strategy.
This is a subject Brake has visited in her latest book, Minimizing marriage: Marriage, morality, and the law. “As a little girl,” she says, “I was impressed by the fact that adults seemed to consider marriage of special importance for girls’ futures — and more so than for boys, who were encouraged more to think about jobs. This made marriage unattractive, and I wondered why people couldn’t simply live together for companionship, like the two widowed women who shared a home in our neighbourhood, without taking on the rigid role of wife or husband.”
Her solution is what she calls ‘minimal marriage’, a gentler, more democratic contract that may or may not have to do with romantic love.
Excerpts from the interview:
You say marriage shouldn’t be defined by religion or society. How will society benefit?
I’m saying that legal marriage shouldn’t be defined by religion or society; of course, churches or groups could define marriage however they please, but that shouldn’t be the basis for law. In North America and Europe, for instance, legal marriage involves substantial economic benefits and rights, like special immigration eligibility. What about people who don’t live in conventional arrangements? Say, two single mothers who want to live under the same roof to rear children together. The benefits of marriage ought to be extended to such people — as a matter of justice and equality. For instance, the two co-habiting widows from my neighbourhood could have benefited from marital entitlements such as tax breaks. There seems no good reason for their relationship to be considered less deserving.
Minimal marriage allows individuals to select from the rights and responsibilities exchanged within marriage and exchange them with whomever they want, rather than exchanging a predefined bundle of rights and responsibilities with only one romantic partner.
But isn’t it easily exploited? After all, who’s to say if a relationship is ‘caring’ enough?
Currently, immigration officials interview spouses to ensure there is a real romantic and sexual relationship. Similar procedures can be designed for a ‘caring’ relationship — do the parties know each other’s likes and dislikes, do they have documentation showing a history together, and so on.
Since monogamy is optional, is there a limit on the number of spouses one could have?
A spouse is, in legal terms, a member of a caring relationship. The number would be limited by the number of life-sharing caring relationships one can sustain. For most people, that’s usually between three and five.
In India, marriage is a merger of two families. Where’s family in the minimized marriage?
Ethan Watters writes that “friends are the new family,” as urbanites rely more on networks of friends than on blood families. Minimal marriage allows people to institutionalise their friendships, to create their own families. It simply refers to legal freedom to create extra kinship bonds.
What about kids?
Childrearing and marriage are separate issues that should be legally decoupled. A minimal marriage would support alternative parenting structures, allowing couples like say, two single mums, who live together, greater stability and the option to pool their economic resources. In the case of high-conflict marriages, living together rarely benefits children.
So, minimal marriage offers better and easy options to parents who want to exit highconflict marriages.
You have coined a new word — amatonormativity — that refers to special treatment for lovers…
It refers to the assumption that a central, exclusive, romantic relationship is normal for humans, that it’s a universally shared goal, and that it should be aimed at in preference over other relationship types. It results in discrimination against those not involved in such relationships. Single people are often treated as lonely, irresponsible, and immature, even if they have many friends and responsibilities. It’s stereotyping, combined with the assumption that everyone wants a marriage-like relationship.
What’s the problem with amatonormativity?
People might enter and stay in relationships simply because that’s the way to live. Or, singles might be treated with pity, as if they just haven’t found the right person yet! Their friendships might be treated as unimportant by their family, while their spouses — if they had them — will be treated as important. Dining alone by choice, or not searching for romance could be viewed as abnormal. Friendships without a sexual or romantic dimension can be just as valuable as romantic relationships, but they are rarely treated on par.