Law in Contemporary Society

The Institution of Monogamous Marriage and Alternatives

-- Original Work by YinanZhang - 26 Feb 2009, Edited by AlexHu - 15 Apr 2009


The institution of monogamous marriage has an undeniably significant impact on our society. There is a rich historical basis for marriage as primarily a matter of business between two families, but this basis has largely vanished today in modern American culture. Why, then, do people get married today? I propose that there are two major factors in perpetuating the institution of marriage: the “real” benefits of marriage, and societal expectations. As we will see, an exploration of these factors reveals that societal expectations may play a larger role than we would initially expect.

There are real benefits of marriage

Undoubtedly, marriage confers many “real” benefits. Marriage carries personal benefits; it caters to human nature because we are all social beings that desire feelings of stability and security. We want to acquire the peace of mind that when we go home from a long day of hard work, or when we are ill, someone will be there to comfort and take care of us. Marriage also carries significant legal benefits, such as tax reduction and unique property status. This is unsurprising due to the fact that society sees marriage as a beneficial institution that promotes order.

But, there are also drawbacks to marriage

Marriage is wonderful—when it works. However, we often fail to consider the disadvantages of marriage when they crumble, a dangerous oversight in light of the fact that in the U.S., approximately 40% to 50% of couples divorce.

  • Why such an indeterminate statistic? Why not a number you can give a source for?

When marriage fails, there are significant financial consequences: divorce proceedings are prohibitively expensive and often lead to the inequitable division of assets between divorcees in addition to divorce attorney fees. But just as important, there are severe emotional consequences: divorced couples feel betrayed, confused, and lost after they lose the other’s companionship.

  • I don't understand. I thought couples in unhappy marriages also suffered severe emotional consequences. What is the point here?

Marriages that don’t completely fail are still subject to a number of potential dangers. Couples who experience infidelity but decide against separation suffer long-term emotional pain and distrust. And even a stable, long-term marriage may lack passion and eventually deteriorate into a daily monotony of work, chores, grocery shopping, and child-rearing.

Thus, we see that when one considers the benefits of marriage alongside its drawbacks, marrying solely for its potential benefits is quite a dangerous gamble. So why do people, who are risk-adverse by nature, continue to undertake this gamble?

  • Um ... what? Are we asking why people get married, in which case this is not a very well-framed question, because whatever they think they are doing it isn't what you are describing, and to understand why they do what they do we must understand what they think they are doing. If, on the other hand, you are asking why people would marry who thought about life like that, you would rapidly come to the conclusion that they wouldn't do it unless they were pushed into it by the power of social convention which is (poof!) what you are indeed about to discover. In other words, the emotional logic is circular.

Social expectations may be the real driving force behind this institution

Perhaps, marriage is truly being driven by societal expectations. Society promotes the image that a life spent with our spouses until death is the only way to reach emotional happiness. The concept of a soul mate stems from the mindset that obtaining a spouse is analogous to acquiring the best good in a limited market of goods, without which our value would go to waste. Simply put, we are indoctrinated with the belief that we must find the best offer for which to exchange our value in order to produce additional value for both parties. Such a concept is so ingrained into our view that we often fail to think beyond the boundaries of societal restraints and consider alternatives.

Finding true happiness may require us to explore alternatives or modifications to marriage


The most obvious alternative to marriage is singlehood, which has inherent pros and cons. By freeing himself or herself from the obligations of marriage, the individual gains full sexual freedom. From an evolutionary perspective, this may be what is “most natural.” Males desire to pass on their genes by impregnating as many desirable females as possible, and females strive to guarantee the survival fitness of their children by receiving the genes of the most sexually desirable males while securing a nurturing atmosphere from less sexually appealing, but dependable and caring males. Singlehood, therefore, avoids the gap between evolutionary needs and the social realities of marriage. Moreover, an unbound sexual relationship has the benefit of emotional detachment, which diminishes the negative impact that jealousy could play on individual well-being.

On the other hand, singlehood’s benefits are also its drawbacks. Without a long term partner, one would face immense difficulty in raising children. After all, without two dedicated parents, it would be far more difficult to provide the stable environment, which includes a steady source of income and a certain level of parental supervision, necessary for raising successful offspring. Just as importantly, one could not acquire the emotional stability that comes with familiarity. Denying this connection may thusly leave a critical aspect of human nature unfulfilled.

Controlling the Risks of Marriage

Alternately, one who wants the benefits of marriage without the risk could simply try to mitigate the potentially disastrous effects of marriage through a prenuptial agreement. However, this only addresses the monetary issue within the overreaching contract of marriage, which involves emotional, physical, and financial commitments. Further, this remedy arguably carries the stigma that a couple already plans for future disintegration, thus undermining the major element of dedication in marriage. Therefore, prenuptial agreements, while possibly resolving the potential division of economic assets, cannot mitigate all of the disastrous effects of a failed marriage.

Other Types of Relationships

Finally, one may try to explore alternate types of relationships that would fulfill the contradictory human desires for sexual freedom and emotional/financial stability. For example, we may instead embrace a polyamory reform movement, in which individuals engage in more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved, with the communal raising of children. A handful of people in our society already embrace this legally unrecognized lifestyle. Unfortunately, it seems impossible that this solution would be recognized by the legal system within the foreseeable future, because it would be a radical toppling of our existing institution.


While a “solution” to marriage may not be easily discovered or immediately accepted by society, we have an obligation to fully consider the extent of each choice’s consequences. It is only through this inquiry that we will ever be able to intelligently explore alternatives that may, in the long run, be better for our own individual circumstances, and perhaps even societal stability.

  • Your task as an editor was to preserve the strengths, mitigate the difficulties, and improve the communicability of the central ideas through better use of language. That's always what an editor is supposed to do. I don't think this edit came out particularly well, because I don't think the second two elements got the attention an editor must always pay to them.

  • The draft from which you started raised a question: what is marriage to people like us, situated as we are socially and historically? Its most significant problem, as I said in my comments, was its failure to organize the ideas it presented into a coherent view of a crucial human life choice. The language of sterile incentives analysis was off-putting: even if the desire of the writer is to achieve a tone of dispassionate analysis, so long as the absence of emotional involvement in marriage is the result of the analysis, it appears so stunted as to be useless: if marriage isn't a psychic institution, then it is a property-based family alliance, and all analysis should be shifted out of the individualist paradigm you assume.

  • The editor's task, in other words, was to take the ideas presented in the first draft, and show how they organize a series of emotional dialogues concerning one form of human attachment. There's a fairly-extensive literature to draw on, marriage having been perhaps the single most familiar subject in the fiction of all major literatures for the last several hundred years. To spend a thousand words on this subject without ever coming close to asking what in human psychic terms marriage means was the primary fault of the first draft. I think you might want to try re-performing the edit to see what you can do, both to address the essay's weaknesses and to improve the writing, which is still flat and unengaging.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:32 - IanSullivan
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