With apologies to my friends who are, or are planning to, get married.
One of the most reprehensible lies we still tell children is that marriage is what you do with someone that you love. You marry them because you love them. You marry them to show your love. And to demonstrate that love publicly.
Love does not require anything like that. And marriage does not accomplish it. You stay with someone and live your life together because you love them. You support and care for each other to show love. You demonstrate that love every single day with your actions–publicly when you are in public.
Marriage is none of those things. Marriage is a legal contract, with terms that most of the people entering into it are completely unfamiliar with. If they were familiar with them, and they weren’t fed lies all their lives about how marriage shows love, they would be aghast at what this contract entails, because it is morally repugnant.
The marriage contract is a claim on resources. And an unconscionable one at that.
It is a claim on past resources. If either party owned assets prior to the marriage, 50% of any increase in that assets’ value from the time of marriage goes to the other party. Say (to use a personal example) you own a small two-bedroom townhome that you rent out on the side. You do all the required maintenance, you pay for the upkeep and the taxes, you incur any losses while it is vacant, and you do the labor of renting out and managing the place. Should it increase in value from $120,000 to $140,000 in one year, you better set aside $10,000 to give to your spouse.
If you owned 100 shares of stock you bought before the marriage, forgot about it, and after a year those 100 shares could be sold for $20 more per share than you bought them for, be ready to pay out $1000 for the privileged of holding onto those stocks. If you don’t, you are denying your partner their rightful share of the marital assets.
It is a claim on present resources. Everything earned by either party is considered joint property of both. In practice, this means that the person who earns more is effectively transferring any income earned to the person who earns less until the two of them are at parity, automatically at all times. This is perhaps the best-known and therefore least-offensive aspect of the marriage contract. Most people are fine with it. But be aware of what this entails:
* You cannot hold property separately. Even holding separate bank accounts is merely childish play-acting — both parties have full rights to all accounts. A pre-nup *might* allow you to divide up some income the way you wish to, in *some* states. Check your local laws. But for the most part, your wishes don’t matter. The state has declared that all your assets and incomes count as one, and trying to keep them separate is a foolish game.
* All debts accrue to both of you. You may think you have an agreement to split the rent. But what happens when your partner simply doesn’t pay their half? It’s your debt. The court will be confused as to why this is even an issue. You never had separate incomes or accounts, regardless of what you thought! There is only marital income and marital assets and marital debts.
** All this time you’ve been paying marital debts with marital income. Your marital assets might be in multiple bank accounts, but they all belong to the marriage, and they will be seized to pay marital debts. There is no You, there is only the Marital Income, and the court looks very disfavorably on some individual human trying to withhold some of the Marital Income because of something as non-nonsensical as which individual name is tagged to which portion of the Marital Income stream.
**** this is the most important thing to remember about marriage, and the most morally repugnant. There is NO INDIVIDUAL PERSONHOOD anymore. There is only this Frankenstein Abomination called The Marriage. I hope you weren’t too attached to that bodily autonomy thing you had going.
****** I mean that “bodily autonomy” crack literally. You can be forced into labor against your will, for the marriage. Up until a few decades ago, if you were a woman you were required to perform sexual services to the man in the marriage, and failure to do so often enough (as decided by the courts) was cause for at-fault termination of marriage. You did not get to decide what to do with your body, sexually or otherwise, if The Marriage disagreed.
(as an aside, spouses can’t testify against each other in court. There’s some rational justifications that can be made for this, but the simpler and oft-used excuse is that The Marriage is a single mashed-up person, and a person cannot be compelled to testify against themselves in a court. You are not individual people anymore.)
* You cannot loan money to each other. There are no individuals in a marriage. There is only The Marriage, and The Marriage cannot loan money to itself. That’s just as nonsensical as someone moving cash from one pocket to the other and claiming it’s changed ownership. Don’t even bother trying to help your partner out by covering their car repairs or helping with their studio rent for a few months while they get back on their feet. They already have full claim to any assets you have. You aren’t helping them at all, any more than “allowing” someone to take vegetables from their own garden is “helping” them. Their thanks, and assurances that they’ll pay you back as soon as possible, are just as incoherent.
It is a claim on future resources. Once you decide to go your separate ways you aren’t done yet. The Marriage continues into a zombie afterlife. Did you think you were doing a nice thing for your spouse, in supporting them after they got laid off while they pursued their dream job? I hope you like doing nice things, because you’ll continue to do that one well into the future regardless of your wishes.
This is the really insidious aspect of Marriage. It incentivizes being callous. From a stand point of personal fiscal responsibility, you should never allow this sort of income disparity to occur. You should demand your spouse gets another job as quickly as possible, making as much as they made previously, regardless of how miserable it makes them. Regardless of the potential for future joy and earnings if their dream-job idea works out. Because the courts will look at the years that you supported your spouse and say “They have grown accustomed to being kept in that lifestyle during The Marriage. The Marriage Zombie will be kept up to similar standards for the next X years.” Whereas if you had both kept steady, middle-income jobs the courts will say “Yup, all fair here, go about your business.” You can’t even loan your spouse money for a few years while they pursue their dreams, due to the inability for The Marriage to loan money to itself, discussed above.
This grows worse if the party that earns more ever pays for greater than 50% of anything. You may have thought it was only fair that, as the person who earns more, you pay for insurance for both of you, and cover all the costs of going out whenever you go out. That is again used to penalize you at the dissolution of The Marriage.
Every Single Kind Act You Ever Did Will Be Used As A Weapon Against You.
Without fail. So don’t be kind to your spouse. (Or just don’t get married, and feel free to continue being kind instead!)
But What About The Benefits?
Like what? Tax benefits? If you both draw any sort of income, there’s no real benefit there. If one of you doesn’t draw income, the one who does can claim a non-spousal dependent on their taxes. Marriage is not a requirement. (Although be wary about doing so, it could be used against you in the future as a claim on resources, and very likely is NOT worth the $4000 credit). And the spouse who makes little/nothing loses access to all sorts of benefits that are only available to people with limited income.
Are you worried about the children? That’s sillier than trying to loan money to each other. The courts will enforce child support regardless of whether you married or not. In fact, don’t bother putting anything about children in any pre-nup (be it about child support, child custody, or otherwise). Courts immediately discard all such provisions and make their decisions independently, regardless of what you agreed to. Such things are too important to be left to individual agreements, they are matters of public policy.
Visitation rights at a hospital? Just lie. I’ve never had to produce a marriage certificate when visiting a spouse in a hospital, nor have my spouses.
End-of-life planning and estate decisions? Write a will. Give your partner power of attorney. (actually important for everyone, especially as they get older)
Health insurance? Most workplaces now cover domestic partners, and marriage is not required. However this may set up the same sort of precedent as joint-filing taxes, so should also be avoided if possible. It’s probably the most legitimate reason for actually getting married in the USA. Which is an indictment of our fucked-up healthcare system. Our method of rationing healthcare is so awful that we use threats against the life and health of someone’s lover to force them into the outrageously immoral marriage contract.
What Is It Good For?
If you want to conspire to commit a crime, and not have to worry about testifying against each other, maybe marriage will be useful. Aside from that – Absolutely Nothing. Every thing you may want to do as a loving couple (or triad, or more) you can do via personal agreement, without marriage.
One might say “But marriages don’t have to be like this! The couple can agree to keep separate accounts! The couple can voluntarily give up all rights on the assets of the other when they dissolve the marriage! They can voluntarily decline maintenance. They can split the debts in an equitable way, and keep track of loans on their own, and pay each other back.”
Yes, they can. But they can do all that without getting married as well. That’s the real kicker. Everything you want to do to make a marriage fair and equitable and not a moral abomination, you can do without getting married in the first place. If you do get married, you have to take extra steps to do the things you agreed are fair, to prevent marriage law from perverting them.
BUT! But if you DID get married, now a spouse has the option to defect and make a resource grab against the other. That option was made possible by signing the marriage contract.
That option was the only thing that the marriage contract brought to the relationship.
In short, marriage doesn’t promote any public good for any honest person. It incentivizes callousness, and strips humans of individual personhood and bodily autonomy. It served a purpose in the vile dystopia that is our past, when half the population had no property rights or any legal way to make an income. In the present, its only purpose is to enable fraud that the courts will uphold. If someone loves you they will want to spend their life with you, at least for a while. But if they want to take advantage of you, they will seek the aegis of the marriage contract. Proposing marriage is a hostile act.
Small Concession – Due to the mythology we’ve built around marriage, and the extreme ignorance most people have as to the reality of marriage, they may not realize what it is they are asking for when they hint at marriage. It might be an innocent mistake. But every such proposal should be viewed with extreme prejudice, and anyone who suggests marriage to you should be flagged as a potential enemy.
added: a reader pointed out another potential good reason to get married: visas. If you want to get someone from Country A to Country B, and let them stay in country B, a marriage visa can be, depending on the country, one of the more effective ways of accomplishing this.
I’m sorry you’ve had such rotten experiences with marriage. I’m guessing that this post was prompted by my comment on your last post. I didn’t realize I was going hit a raw nerve, I’m sorry about that. I hope things improve for you.
Nah it’s OK, it’s actually the other way around. I was planning on posting this (or something very much like it) for a number of months now. I kept silent until all the legal stuff was finalized, and the house sold, before I said anything.
I’d argue that the purpose of marriage is to enter into a permanent monogamous relationship and that it is ‘good’ for giving you incentive to choose carefully and not change your mind ever.
I’m inclined towards thinking that wanting a permanent monogamous relationship with no option to ever back out is bad goal, but if it is your goal then marriage does kind of make sense.
Having to fight with someone you were or are close to is always a tragedy. Best wishes for you moving forwards.
I’ve never read anything that takes a harder swing at marriage. You’ve honestly caused me to give some reassessment to my thoughts on marriage. It goes without saying that I’m sorry for all the bullshit you endured because you didn’t know your ex was secretly a monster.
There’s one thing you didn’t mention in this article that I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on. Marriage isn’t just a contract between two people in love, but also a powerful signal to each other and, importantly, their friends and families that they love each other (or something, I’m not feeling very eloquent). I can imagine being able to convince my partner that marriage is pointless (though that might be difficult since they were raised with the cute version of marriage in their mind) but I can see it doing real damage to my relationship with their family.
I wouldn’t say she’s secretly a monster. She just has a small circle of humans she cares about. Everyone not in that circle doesn’t count as a person, and she assumes that they are out to exploit and take advantage of her as much as possible. She sees a *very* hostile world. And the best thing to do in that case is to fight back, and use exploit them before they can do it to you. I knew all this before, but what it means didn’t really sink in until I switch from the trusted in-group to the non-person out-group.
I honestly don’t know what to say about your SO’s family, or your own family for that matter. My hope is that they already know who you are, and how you think, and you have a decent relationship. If so, it could be possible to simply sit down and have a conversation like adults. Me & my ex did this with her mother, and while she never really *approved* of our five-year-marriage-then-divorce plan, she did come to understand and accept us and our choices.
Of course that’s coming from a position of privilege and rather reasonable in-laws. This won’t apply to everyone. I don’t have any other advice I can give, I’m sorry. :/ If you do figure it out, let us know how it goes?
In Canada, if you shack up for a year, you’re married, with all the responsibilities for your partner’s future support.
Well that’s terrifying. I guess there is one bad thing about Canada. :(
It seems to be more complicated than that (what legal issue isn’t?), but apparently they are not technically married but have most of the properties you mention and are legally considered “unmarried spouses”.
Representing yourselves as married, even without going through a formal process, does count as legally getting married in some states, including Colorado, so you might want to be careful with some of the stuff you mentioned like claiming marriage for hospital visitation purposes.
Most of this comes from Wikipedia, specifically this bit for Canada and this page for the US. IANAL etc etc etc.
Just listened to the podcast on this topic and wanted to throw in my experience to the counter argument.
My husband and I had basically equal assets and equal income when we got married. When we had a kid, we both decided it would be better for “the marriage” if I stepped down from my position to work part time to spend more time caring for our child. I now make a quarter what I used to make.
The marriage contract allows me to make choices to better “the marriage” without fearing that if we separate I would be left with no compensation for my contributions.
I hear your arguments and agree the state involvement is flawed, but wanted to share.
There’s certainly a need for legal protections for stay-at-home parents. Marriage does a decent job of that, though I still think it over-reaches. It’s better than nothing, but worse than the alternative that I think would exist if the state got out of the marriage business (ie: private contracts that people look at, at least once, and that are entered into for express purposes rather than to prove you’re really in love). It’s hard to argue for a world that doesn’t exist, of course, and while we’re still in this one we often use what we have. In either case, I’m glad it’s working for you. :) I’m hoping to push things towards that better world, at least in the realm of “things people can seriously think about.”