It was a beautiful November morning in Southern Alberta. The radiant blue sky flirted with the winter wheat, magically framing the splendor of the Rocky Mountains on the drive from Lethbridge to the Mormon Temple in Cardston. In a few short hours I would marry my best friend— committing myself to him not just for life, but also for “all eternity” in accordance with Mormon custom and theology. In retrospect, I vacillate between complete awe and utter horror at my naiveté. With little forethought as to the actual legal and social obligations of marriage in general, and Mormon marriage in particular, I was about to make a sacred oath of which I scarcely understood. That day I would promise to give myself as a lawfully wedded wife to my husband, and to “keep all the laws, rites, and ordinances pertaining to this holy order of matrimony in the new and everlasting covenant.”
Looking back on this day with the seasoned skepticism that comes from the wisdom of experience, I contemplate how little I understood about the marriage contract. From a civil legalistic perspective, I did not fully consider the obligations and privileges of marriage. Likewise, from a theological perspective, the “laws, rights and ordinances” that I was committing to were never clearly articulated or catalogued for me. With complete faith, and the enthusiastic optimism of someone young and in-love, I committed myself to the institution of marriage with little understanding of what this commitment actually meant.
I don’t believe I am entirely unique regarding my under-developed understanding of marriage. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that when I married in 1992, marriage was so pervasive in the North American heteronormative consciousness, particularly within the Mormon faith, that its benefits and obligations were broadly assumed and naturalized without concise and practical consideration. In the years immediately following my wedding, advocates of same-sex marriage would shine an unrelenting light on the legal, economic and social benefits of formalized marital unions. Through the embodied experiences of those excluded from marriage, the unconscious became conscious and public discourse regarding the entitlements of marriage ensued disrupting my own naive complacency.
The benefits of marriage, which I acquired with a taken-for-granted ease, were arguably unjustly secured at the expense of those excluded from receiving the very same entitlements. In other words, marriage is more than a personal and religious commitment to one’s partner, it is also a gateway by which social benefits are imbued or denied.
Through marriage, individuals access benefits that mitigated life’s risk, such as securing access to healthcare (through spousal health insurance in the U.S.), inheritance rights, end of life decisions and parenting rights, making the legal acceptance of same-sex couples through marriage critically important. As such, marriage, as a technology of governance, cultivates subjects who become invested in managing social dangers as a couple. As explained by Whitehead, “marriage works because it provides a context for the state to economize its own function while also offering couples a set of legal provisions that allow them to manage life risks in a way that promises pleasure, autonomy, and freedom.” Within a neo-liberal framework “not only does marriage leave the management of illness, poverty, and disability to individual couples, but it also provides the legal scaffolding for private property and capital accumulation.”
Why does ‘marriage’ occupy a special moral reverence and value in society, even amongst those who do not profess religious affiliation or the belief that sex should be confined to marriage? And how does the sui generis moral significance of marriage translate into an unjust hierarchy of “care” relationships that devalues non-amorous and/or non-exclusive intimate care relationships? Marriage, after all, is only one of a long list of “care” configurations—a list that includes friendships, adult care networks, urban tribes and polyamorous groups. Yet the special value afforded marriage (or marriage-like relationships) reaffirms compulsory monogamy thus perpetuating and naturalizing the romantic dyad for sexual, psychological, social and economic completion.
Through the employment of moral and political philosophy, Elizabeth Brake argues in her book Minimizing Marriage, that the sui generis moral significance of marriage has been fundamentally misplaced and that caring relationships that do not conform to marital norms have been unfairly marginalized. Societies benefit when individuals form close, stable, caring relationships—this is one of the primary reasons Western governments have heavily invested both socially and legally in the promotion of marriage. Yet exclusively focusing on marital relationship as the vehicle by which governments support individual care has devalued and discriminated against other care configurations such as intimate non-romantic relationship or multi-party amorous affiliations.
In the consideration of care, as a moral ethic, Brake argues that current marriage laws jeopardize caring relations that do not fit the norm of the amorous couple. Like compulsory heterosexuality, a term coined by Adrianne Rich to articulate the ways in which women are obliged to focus their energies (erotic and otherwise) in the service of men, Brake has coined the term amatonormativity to articulate the ways in which the romantic love dyad is assumed a universal goal centralized in discussions of life course trajectories and typologies of care. “Just as heterosexism undermines strong relationships between women, amatonormativity undermines relationships other than amorous love and marriage by relegating them to cultural invisibility or second best.”
Like categories of race, sex and class, the social markers of “single,” “coupled,” “married,” or “divorced” all relate to one’s positioning against a romantic ideal wherein “singles” are judged as inferior in relation to those who are coupled and married. Hierarchal positioning based on one’s participation (or non-participation) in a romantic dyad is inherently discriminatory and unjustly penalizes those who by choice or circumstance create care relationships that resist culturally inscribed marriage and/or monogamy. As Brake states,
Amatonormativity does not simply discriminate against nonconforming relationships; it also precludes their formation by pressuring choice. Prizing dyadic relationships discourages the pursuit of others. Social judgments as to the possibility of fulfillment in friendships and care networks, and the invisibility or marginalization of these alternatives, make amorous love relationships “compulsory” […] Economic, legal and social incentives exert great pressure to enter amorous love relationships, especially when other options appear less appealing and salient […].
From this perspective, the establishment of same-sex marital rights within Western legal jurisprudence is not liberating but rather reinforces amatonormativity with subsequent harm to those lacking conformity. Embedded into our cultural consciousness is the persistent message that a fulfilling and worthy life requires a promise of amorous monogamous commitment. When access to entitlements of citizenship hinge on one’s participation in a conforming romantic dyad, liberal principles of a “just” government are violated. Extending marital rights, as in the case of Western absorption of same-sex couples into the institution of marriage, presupposes the exclusion of others who continue to lack “rightness.” As Amy Brandzel, and other critical theorists have argued, “the fight for same-sex marriage has caused extreme harm to already vulnerable populations and is a violent enforcement of colonialnormative and whitenormative citizenship.”
Building upon the critiques of marriage from feminists, queer and anti-colonial theorists, Brake argues that within a liberal philosophical paradigm, marriage need not be abolished, but minimized in terms of entry requirements and the benefits associated with marriage. Minimizing marriage “is a legal framework that supports monogamous relationships as well as the rich diversity of adult care networks that do not fit the amatonormative mold.”
The principles of minimized marriage support multiple variations of intimate caring relationships based upon mutual concern and welfare including traditional relationships, same-sex marriages, polygamous unions, friendships and urban tribes. Individuals are empowered 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 amatory partner.” This minimally restricted law of marriage would allow individuals to have “legal marital relationships with more than one person, reciprocally or asymmetrically, themselves determining the sex and number of parties, the type of relationship involved, and which rights and responsibilities to exchange.”
Brake proposes an interesting paradigm that could potentially de-center the romantic relationship as the prima facie union for government entitlements in Western liberal democracies. Imagine the possibilities when “care” entitlements can be shared by choice in configurations beyond the romantic dyad.
A retired friend of mine who co-habits non-romantically with two other women in a committed, caring relationship has recently been embroiled in efforts to secure residency for her non-Canadian born living companions. If she were romantically involved with one of them and willing to commit to a monogamous marriage, Canadian residency would be extended to her partner. “What if” she could extend the same benefit of Canadian residency to her friend(s) presenting the opportunity for the three of them to continue their caring and committed friendship? It is mutually beneficial for all three women to live together caring physically, emotionally and financially for each other, yet in the hierarchy of caring relationships such typologies are overlooked, disempowered and discriminated against in favor of the misplaced moral superiority of amorous monogamy.
This conundrum of care entitlements associated with marriage is more than an intellectual curiosity for me—it is also a practical consideration in my personal life. My marriage lasted twenty-one years, and in my early forties my husband and I divorced. I do not feel particularly inclined to re-marry. As a feminist and queer theorist, I have specific objections to the institution of marriage, and for practical reasons I love the freedom, tranquility and extra time for personal interests that my single status secures. Yet this does not mean my heart is immune to love—on the contrary, it facilitates a deeper capacity for me to love. Nor does my single status release me from the need for relationships of care—a need that was glaringly obvious in recent weeks when I was hospitalized for kidney stones requiring surgery. Nor does my single status mitigate the economic concerns that married couples face—I too must worry and plan financially and physically for an uncertain future. Yet unlike my married counterparts, I am systematically excluded from accessing entitlements that manage risk in a neo-liberal society.
A comment from my ex-husband in an email discussion about extended health benefits encapsulates the issue nicely. With the intention to belittle and shame, he said he felt “pity” for the “situation I had found myself in”— the “situation” being my “single status,” and my corresponding need for the inclusion of nursing care in my extended health coverage, in the event of a major illness. Embedded in his comments is an underlying assumption of moral superiority for being coupled (he entered a heteronormative committed monogamous relationship within weeks of our separation) that typifies Brake’s notion of amatonormativity. Not only was I supposed to feel shame for being single, but the inequality of resource entitlements, and my need to plan for alternative care arrangements, was seen as a personal problem reflective of deeper personal shortcomings.
The disproportionate focus on marriage and amorous love relationships as the site of legitimized entitlements is arbitrary, unjust and ratifies the compulsory nature of monogamy. I am quite compelled and rather excited to imagine a world where marriage is minimized and other forms of relational care is legitimized.
- Whitehead, Jaye Cee. 2012. The Nuptial Deal: Same-Sex Marriage & Neo-Liberal Governance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.at 11. ↑
- Ibid at 15. ↑
- Ibid at 38. ↑
- Sui generis is a Latin phrase that means ‘of its (his, her, their) own kind; in a class by itself; unique.’ ↑
- Brake, Elizabeth. 2012. Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality and the Law. Oxford University Press.
- Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. ↑
- Brake Supra note 5 at 98. ↑
- Ibid at 97. ↑
- Ibid at 100. ↑
- Brandzel, Amy L. 2016. Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative. University of Illinois at 71. ↑
- Brake Supra note 5 at 5. ↑
- Ibid at 7. ↑
- Ibid at 156. ↑
- Ibid at 157. ↑
- A Canadian Blog exists documented the financial discrimination against singles: http://www.financialfairnessforsingles.ca ↑
- Personal email correspondence. May 21 & 22, 2016. ↑