Marriage is not about church bells and white dresses. It’s not even about love. It’s a public statement and a political act, regardless of whether you stage a five-star blow-out wedding reception or settle for the registry office, two witnesses and a bus ride home.
You don’t have to wear a ring. You don’t have to change your name. You don’t have to swear to honour and obey. In fact, if you’ve been living together before you married, there’s basically nothing you have to do that’s any different to before. If you’re a woman, you can carry on using the title Ms and get precisely the same level of half-hearted derision that you got before. You don’t even need to use the words “husband” and “wife” (although people will then think that in using the word “partner” you’re practising some ill-defined form of deception). Life goes on as it did before. Relationships don’t become harder or more morally edifying. Nevertheless, what you think you’ve got – legal formalisation of a union – and what you’ve actually got – involuntary membership of the Superior Relationships Club – are two different things. You and the rest of your family unit will be co-opted into the next Tory Party Conference speech as statistical proof of “what works” before the registry ink’s gone dry.
Opposition to same-sex marriage has demonstrated the passion with which certain groups view marriage not just as a personal commitment, but as an endorsement of one very particular type of family unit. Their circular argument (man + woman = marriage because marriage = man + woman) is both mind-numbing and deeply dishonest. Bigoted value judgments shouldn’t hide behind claims to linguistic purity. Yet even those who are not opposed to same-sex marriage can end up privileging an institution which is exclusive and culturally oppressive. The same circularity that governs same-sex marriage opposition governs pro-marriage rhetoric (married people are more likely to stay together because people who are more likely to stay together get married). All the same, it’s got to be worth it for an extra £150 a year, right?
Before we all rush to the altar perhaps the most important thing to remember about David Cameron’s proposed tax breaks for married couples is that they’re not actually for married couples. Transferable tax breaks work for a certain type of married couple, in which one person – ooh, let’s say he’s the man – earns more than the other – hey, she could be the woman, possibly at home with the kids. I’m not suggesting this type of couple is worse than any other, nor that it’s not possible for a couple with a different domestic set-up to still benefit from the proposal. But let’s be honest: this isn’t a benefit for married couples, it’s a message, and an expensive one at that. It says “married couples are better, and especially these ones”. It has little to do with care or need, still less with supporting children. It’s another way of harnessing resentment, disapproval and feelings of superiority. This government might be woeful at managing the economy but they’re masters at manipulating the worst impulses of our lesser selves.
Last week George Osborne announced that lone parents with children aged three or four would be obliged to “prepare for work”. On the face of it it’s confusing. Stay-at-home parents rock as long as they are married to working spouses. Working parents deserve tax breaks as long as they have stay-at-home spouses. Parents who are both earning, married or unmarried, won’t get tax breaks but will get frog-marched into the “hardworking families” category (where you’re allowed to feel bitter, as long as you remember to blame the poor). Single parents, meanwhile, regardless of whether or not they’ve been married – regardless of their beliefs about marriage, and regardless of the consequences they may have otherwise suffered by staying in a damaging relationship – are left to struggle alone. I don’t know, perhaps if the rest of us concentrate hard enough the sheer force of our disapproval will raise up wonder spouses from the mystic reals of 1950s Conservatoria. But then again maybe we shouldn’t try too hard. After all, who would we be able to feel superior to then?