Law in Contemporary Society
This is a rewrite of Yinan Zhang's paper.

Introduction: Marriage as a social norm

The institution of monogamous marriage has an undeniably significant impact on our society. Most people undergo the process at one point or another. (In 2004, 93.5% of men and 94.6% of women over 50 had been married at some point.) But do people really consider the full consequences of a legal union? Many people marry simply because society holds them to an expectation and subconsciously instills the ideal of marriage into their minds. As children, we are taught to think of marriage as a natural and essential stage in life. As we grow older, relationships have a natural course—we expect couples that stay together to get married. Society requires marriage to legitimize relationships as serious. If people are unmarried, we tend to assume that they have yet to meet the right person, rather than consider that the person simply has no desire to be in a relationship. Unmarried parents, even if living together for years, also face social hurdles.

The institution of marriage provides social values of an older time that are not necessarily needed in today’s world. In an earlier society, men could not be sure of paternity without marriage. Women could not find adequate employment opportunities to provide single-handedly for families. While marriage is idealized as a romantic affair, in reality, marriage is a social tool that has to an extent outlived its necessity. While marriage may still be a useful legal tool for some—it is problematic as a social default.

Advantages of Marriage

Marriage undoubtedly confers many benefits upon its participants. This is unsurprising since our society purposely promotes legal union to further order. Indeed, monogamous marriage caters to certain aspects of human nature because we are all social beings that desire feelings of stability and security. Many of us derive comfort in knowing that we have a partner to share in our experiences. For those of us that want families, marriage provides aid in child-rearing and surety in full-custody. Furthermore, under our monogamy-oriented society, married couples enjoy unique legal advantages such as tax reduction and unique property status.

Disadvantages of Marriage

The risks and disadvantages of marriage are often not realistically considered until such unions crumble and fail. People tend to assume that they will marry, and, having married, will remain so until death. Regrettably, statistics paint a different picture. In 2006, approximate 30% of people in both genders had been divorced at least once. Not only are divorce proceedings expensive and time-consuming, they often lead to inequitable division of assets between divorcees in addition to attorney’s fees. There are emotional risks to marriage as well. In divorce, inevitable at least one former-spouse will suffer extreme emotional upset—feeling betrayed, confused, and lost after they lose the other’s companionship. Among the still-married couples who experienced infidelity but do not separate, unfaithfulness results in long-term emotional pain and distrust. Aside from emotional and financial risks, divorce comes with several coordination issues. Even the most agreeable custody arrangements sharply contrast with life before divorce.

Marriage has disadvantages aside from the risk of divorce, as it entails the loss of freedom. From an evolutionary perspective, human biology inclines toward embracing several sexual partners simultaneously. Freud suggested that monogamy was not a natural state, and as much as we idealize marriage, it goes against our natural instincts. Marriage not only comes with the loss of sexual freedom, but the freedom of independent decision-making as well. Important financial and life decisions affect both parties of a marriage, and thus marriage inevitably involves a good deal of compromise.

Alternatives to Marriage

There are many alternatives to marriage—from complete singlehood, to long-term relationships without a legal document. Any lifestyle comes with its own benefits and disadvantages. Co-habitation without marriage may expose people to financial risks if they provide non-economic benefits to the relationship and depend on the continuing economic support of the other. Raising a family without a partner comes with financial burdens and numerous other difficulties. Being single without a family can lead to uncertainty about the future. Each option has its own unique benefits and risks, however, and it is not clear that marriage is the best option for most members of society.

Conclusion: A Realistic Approach to Marriage

Perhaps one of the reasons for high-divorce rates is the unrealistic expectations we have of marriage. When we fail to consider that marriage is not always the best option and comes with many disadvantages, we may be disappointed that we are not living out hall-mark cards. A realistic approach to marriage could lead people not only to consider more fully marriage as the natural course of a relationship, but also address the possibility of divorce upfront. Pre-nuptial agreements are often shunned although they can address many of the financial risks of marriage. For many, this remedy arguably carries the stigma that a couple already plans for future disintegration, thus undermining the major element of dedication in marriage.

Marriage is obviously a life-altering decision, and even with the perfect partner, comes with disadvantages. When we view marriage as a natural stage of life, we may be disappointed in the extent of the disadvantages it entails, or lose out on the possibility of achieving greater happiness through an alternative lifestyle. In the end, whether we choose to maintain a complete sense of self through singlehood or strive to merge our identity with that of a life partner through marital union depends on a balancing of the benefits and risks of each lifestyle. Most choices that we make in life are fully considered. Before deciding to go to Columbia, we had to decide to go to law school at all. When we accept marriage as a social norm, we rule out numerous other lifestyles that entail their own benefits and risks. We have an obligation to our own happiness to ponder the full extent of each choice’s consequences, instead of blindly following the social norm.

  • Your view of the required edit seems to have been that the piece needed clearer writing and some basic facts. Not only the subject and viewpoint but the structure of the argument you seem to have accepted as given. Within those confines, I think your editing was mostly successful. You improved flow and made the language clearer. You provided some slight support for the propositions put forward.

  • But I don't think this is an easy piece to edit, and I don't think merely smoothing the workmanship is sufficient. The more you live inside the argument, it seems to me, the more urgent it becomes to transcend. Issues of culture and society are too complex for us to treat this schematically. Why do we in this society in the post-Pill world marry unless we intend to have children? In the US, it is pretty evident that children do better in families with a strong marital relation at the center in substantial part because the society provides so little support to children that without two working adult caretakers they are in danger of suffering deprivation and harm. But in the post-marital European societies people do not have to marry in order for their children to have a secure safety net, and there are, among my Dutch or Icelandic friends, for example, many people raising children alone and many couples raising children and intending to be together for a lifetime who see no reason to get married. It appears from this perspective that in the US we force working people into marrying by threatening otherwise to impose poverty and hopelessness on their children.

  • Where societies have decided to recognize that children have an equal right to housing, health care, education and training regardless of whether their parents are poor, marriage is no longer extorted from people in this way, and most of those in the present generation who marry seem to do so largely for reasons of religion and family tradition. Similar, though less voluntary, reasons underlie the behavior of their peers outside the West, whose cultures often place less emphasis on individual self-determination and more on family and other group interests. Separating the cultural strands and accounting for social policies differences without indulging in culture-specific rhetoric is difficult; it isn't accomplished by taking a "false neutral" stance and ignoring the particulars of social and cultural context as they operate just now, just here, with whomever is speaking.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:52 - IanSullivan
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