Criticism of marriage

"Esposas de Matrimonio" ("Wedding Cuffs"), a wedding ring sculpture expressing the criticism of marriages' effects on individual liberty. Esposas is a Spanish pun, in which the singular form of the word esposa refers to a spouse, and the plural refers to handcuffs.

Criticisms of marriage are arguments against the practical or moral value of the institution of matrimony or particular forms of matrimony. These have included the effects that marriage has on individual liberty, equality between the sexes, the relation between marriage and violence, philosophical questions about how much control can a government have over its population, the amount of control a person has over another, the financial risk when measured against the divorce rate, and questioning of the necessity to have a relationship sanctioned by government or religious authorities.


Sylvia Pankhurst (1882 – 1960), British feminist, refused to marry her son's father, creating public scandal.

In 380 BC, Plato criticised marriage in the Republic. He stated that the idea of marriage was a "natural enemy" of the "commonwealth," aiming for its own higher unity.[1]

In the industrial age a number of notable women writers including Sarah Fielding, Mary Hays, and Mary Wollstonecraft, raised complaints that marriage in their own societies could be characterized as little more than a state of "legal prostitution" with underprivileged women signing in to support themselves.[2] Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian wrote that marriage is also found to be often at odds with community, diminishing ties to relatives, neighbors, and friends.[3] According to Dan Moller's "Bachelor's Argument", modern marriage can be compared to the act of "forging professional credentials." Over 40 percent of them fail and therefore should be avoided similar to any high-risk venture.[4]

Commentators have often been critical of individual local practices and traditions, leading to historical changes. Examples include the early Catholic Church's efforts to eliminate concubinage and temporary marriage, the Protestant acceptance of divorce, and the abolition of laws against inter-faith and inter-race marriages in the western countries.[5]

The decision not to marry is a presumed consequence of Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy. His well-documented relationship with Regine Olsen is a subject of study in existentialism, as he called off their engagement despite mutual love. Kierkegaard seems to have loved Regine but was unable to reconcile the prospect of marriage with his vocation as a writer and his passionate and introspective Christianity.

A similar argument is found in Franz Kafka's journal entry titled "Summary of all the arguments for and against my marriage":

I must be alone a great deal. What I accomplished was only the result of being alone.[6]

As a high-profile couple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir always expressed opposition to marriage. Brian Sawyer says "Marriage, understood existentially, proposes to join two free selves into one heading, thus denying the freedom, the complete foundation, of each self."[7]

Presently, the high divorce rates are leading to questioning of the purpose of marriage. Some contemporary critics of marriage question why governments (in Western countries) continue to support marriage, when it has such a high failure rate. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger wrote:[8]

"It is astonishing that, under the circumstances, marriage is still legally allowed. If nearly half of anything else ended so disastrously, the government would surely ban it immediately. If half the tacos served in restaurants caused dysentery, if half the people learning karate broke their palms, if only 6 percent of people who went on roller coaster rides damaged their middle ears, the public would be clamoring for action. Yet the most intimate of disasters...happens over and over again."

In response to the passage of California Proposition 22 and the current controversy regarding same-sex unions in the United States, a group of people have banded together to boycott marriage until all people can legally marry. The argument is that since marriage is not an inclusive institution of society, the members of the boycott refuse to support the institution as it exists.[9][10]

In the West, cohabitation and births outside marriage are becoming more common. In the United States, conservative and religious commentators are highly critical of this trend. They are also often critical of present-day marriage law and the ease of divorce. John Witte, Jr., Professor of Law and director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University, argues that contemporary liberal attitudes toward marriage produce a family that is "haphazardly bound together in the common pursuit of selfish ends" exactly as prophesied by Nietzsche.[11] In his From Sacrament to Contract, Witte has argued that John Stuart Mill's secular and contractarian model of marriage, developed during the Enlightenment, provided the theoretical justification for the present-day transformation of Anglo-American marriage law, promoting unqualified "right to divorce" on plaintiff's demand, one-time division of property, and child custody without regard for marital misconduct.[12] A Catholic professor Romano Cessario, in a review of Witte’s book published in an ecumenical journal the First Things, suggested that a solution to the current crisis of marriage in the West, could come from the possible revival of the sacramental marriage among Christians, thus counterbalancing Nietzsche's pessimism (as echoed by Witte).[13]

Symbolism of marriage

Some critics assert that marriage will always remain a symbolic institution signifying the subordination of women to men. Clare Chambers points to the sexist traditions surrounding marriage and weddings; she writes:[14]

"Symbolically, the white wedding asserts that women’s ultimate dream and purpose is to marry, and remains replete with sexist imagery: the white dress denoting the bride’s virginity (and emphasising the importance of her appearance); the minister telling the husband “you may now kiss the bride” (rather than the bride herself giving permission, or indeed initiating or at least equally participating in the act of kissing); the reception at which, traditionally, all the speeches are given by men; the wife surrendering her own name and taking her husband’s."

The history of marriage in relation to women makes it an institution that some critics argue cannot and should not be accepted in the 21st century; to do so would mean to trivialize the abuses it was responsible for. Some critics argue that it is impossible to dissociate marriage from its past. Clare Chambers argues that:"(...) it is impossible to escape the history of the institution. Its status as a tradition ties its current meaning to its past".[14] Past abuses of marriage are sometimes depicted in documentaries. A documentary in Ireland presented the story of elderly women who described their experiences with repeated acts of rape in marriage and the children born from these rapes, during the time when marital rape was not criminalized, contraception, abortion and divorce were all illegal, and the marriage bar restricting married women's employment outside home was in force. Marital rape in Ireland was made illegal in 1990, and divorce was legalized in 1996.[15]

Violence against women

Anti-dowry poster in Bangalore, India. See dowry death

The United Nations General Assembly defines "violence against women" as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life." The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women noted that this violence could be perpetrated by assailants of either gender, family members and even the "State" itself.[16]

Critics of marriage argue that it is complicit in the mistreatment and subjugation of women across the world. Common concerns raised today focus on the health and general well-being of women, who, in parts of the world, have virtually no protection in law or in practice, against domestic violence within marriage. It is also nearly impossible for women there to get out of abusive relationships.[17][18] Abuses are upheld by claims of possession and entitlement in some cultures and the well-being of women is undermined by a powerful act of subordination.[17][18] According to Gerstel and Sarkisian, domestic violence, isolation, and housework tend to increase for women who sign marriage contracts.[19] Those with lower income draw even fewer benefits from it.[19] Bad marriages, according to Gerstel and Sarkisian, result in higher levels of stress, suicide, hypertension, cancer, and slower wound healing in women.[20]

Opponents of legal marriage contend that it encourages violence against women, both through practices carried out within a marriage (such as beating and rape inside marriage - which are legal in some countries and tolerated in many more, and through acts related to marital customs (such as honor killings for refusing arranged marriages; forcing rape victims to marry their rapist, marriage by abduction; or executions for sex outside marriage).[21] In some parts of the world, the extreme stigma cast on women who have reached a certain age and are still unmarried often leads these women to suicide.[22] Suicide is also a common response of women caught in abusive marriages with no possibility of leaving those marriages.[23][24] Women who are faced with the prospect of forced marriage may commit suicide.[23][25][26][27] Violence and trafficking related to payment of dowry and bride price are also problems.[28][29] Dowry deaths especially occur in South Asia, and acid throwing is also a result of disputes related to dowry conflicts.[30]

In various countries married men have authority over their wives. For instance, Yemeni marriage regulations state that a wife must obey her husband and must not leave home without his permission.[31] In Iraq husbands have a legal right to punish their wives. The criminal code states that there is no crime if an act is committed while exercising a legal right. Examples of legal rights include: "The punishment of a wife by her husband, the disciplining by parents and teachers of children under their authority within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom".[32] In the Democratic Republic of Congo the Family Code states that the husband is the head of the household; the wife owes her obedience to her husband; a wife has to live with her husband wherever he chooses to live; and wives must have their husbands' authorization to bring a case in court or to initiate other legal proceedings.[33]

Critics of marriage argue that it is an institution which contributes to the maintaining of traditional gender roles, thus preventing women from achieving social equality, and reinforcing the idea that women exist to serve men, which in turn increases the abuse of women. They argue that marriage reinforces the traditional paradigm of male-female interaction: subordination of the woman to the man in exchange of subsistence. According to Sheila Jeffreys "the traditional elements of marriage have not completely disappeared in western societies, even in the case of employed, highly educated and well paid professional women".[34] She argues that even such women remain in abusive marriages out of fear of leaving and out of duty. Even in Western countries, married women "feel they have no choice but to stay and endure and may be 'loving to survive".[34]

In various places, men have sexual authority over their wives, in law and in practice. The men decide when and where to have sex, and wives have no power to stop unwanted sex. In certain countries marital rape is legal, and even where it is illegal it is infrequently reported or prosecuted. Often, married women also cannot stop unwanted pregnancy, because in various countries modern contraception is not available, and in some countries married women need legal permission from the husband to use contraception (and even in countries where the husband's consent is not legally required in practice it is asked for), and abortion is illegal or restricted, and in some countries married women need the consent of husband for abortion. Therefore, marriage leads to a situation which allows not only forced sex, but also forced pregnancy, and in some of these countries pregnancy and childbirth remain dangerous because of lack of adequate medical care. The effects of sexual violence inside marriage are exacerbated by the practice of child marriage; in 2013 an 8-years-old Yemeni girl died from internal bleeding after she was raped by her 40-year-old new husband.[35] Sheila Jeffreys argues that the very institution of marriage is based on the idea that heterosexual sex is the absolute right of the man and the absolute duty of the woman; that men are entitled to demand sex on their terms and to coerce sex, and women are not allowed to ever refuse it. Lack of economic opportunity means that wives have no choice but to "allow sexual access to their bodies in return for subsistence".[34]

Violence related to female virginity is another problem. In many parts of the world it is socially expected for the bride to be a virgin; if the husband has sex with his wife after marriage and she does not bleed (it is possible for a woman to not bleed when she has sex for the first time [36]), this can end in extreme violence, including an honor killing.[37][38]

The common view of marital life as "private" and outside the sphere of public intervention allows violence to flourish. Elizabeth Brake writes that "“privacy” protects unequal divisions of domestic labor, domestic violence, and exclusion of health coverage for abortion and contraception."[39] Mary Lyndon Shanley writes that police often "ignore complaints of domestic violence because they do not want to “intrude” on the private realm of the married couple".[40]


A criticism of marriage is that it gives the state an undue power and control over the private lives of the citizens. The statutes governing marriage are drafted by the state, and not by the couples who marry under those laws. The laws may, at any time, be changed by the state without the consent (or even knowledge) of the married people. The terms derived from the principles of institutionalized marriage represent the interests of the governments.[17][18]

Critics of marriage argue that it is an institution based on control, domination and possession, and that attempting to exercise control over another person's life is immoral and dangerous, and should not be encouraged by the state. Claudia Card, professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes that:[41]

"The legal rights of access that married partners have to each other’s persons, property, and lives makes it all but impossible for a spouse to defend herself (or himself), or to be protected against torture, rape, battery, stalking, mayhem, or murder by the other spouse... Legal marriage thus enlists state support for conditions conducive to murder and mayhem."

Criticism of cultural attitudes relating to marriage

Some commentators criticize government authorities for promotion of marriage. They also criticize the romanticized image that marriage is given in films and romance novels. Over 40% of books sold in America were romance novels.[42]

Some critics argue that people cannot form an objective image of what marriage is if they are from early childhood indoctrinated into believing marriage is desirable and necessary.[43][44][45]

Discrimination against certain groups of society

Critics of marriage argue that this institution represents a form of state sponsored discrimination, in a generalized way against people who do not marry, and in a particular way against certain racial or ethnic groups who are less likely to marry and more likely to have children outside marriage, such as African Americans in the US - by stigmatizing such individuals, presenting their lifestyle as abnormal and denying them rights.[46] Dean Spade and Craig Willse write that:[46]

"The idea that married families and their children are superior was and remains a key tool of anti-Black racism. Black families have consistently been portrayed as pathological and criminal in academic research and social policy based on marriage rates, most famously in the Moynihan Report."

Feminist approach

Feminist activists often point to historical, legal and social inequalities of wedding, family life and divorce in their criticism of marriage. Sheila Cronan claimed that the freedom for women "cannot be won without the abolition of marriage."[47] "The institution of marriage – wrote Marlene Dixon of the Democratic Workers Party – is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women; it is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained".[48] Andrea Dworkin said that marriage as an institution, developed from rape, as a practice.

Early second wave of feminist literature in the West, specifically opposed to marriage include personalities such as Kate Millett (Sexual Politics, 1969), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch, 1970), Marilyn French (The Women's Room, 1977), Jessie Bernard (The Future of Marriage, 1972), and Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, 1970).[49]

Men's rights movement

Some men's rights writers say that marriage in the West is unfavourable to men as well, particularly in the financial consequences of divorce. For example, the father's rights advocates point out that there is a continuing societal bias favoring women as custodial parents in the face of "no-fault" divorce laws, and that divorce is routinely unjust to men when the marriages fail. Some claim that this trend leads to men avoiding marriage, calling it a "marriage strike".[50][51]

See also

Religious views


  1. Sue Asscher, and David Widger (2008), The Republic by Plato. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  2. Jessica Spector (2006), Prostitution and Pornography. Stanford University Press, p. 51. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  3. Naomi Gerstel & Natalia Sarkisian, Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy, in The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz.
  4. Dan Moller, An Argument Against Marriage in Minimizing Marriage by Elizabeth Brake; also in Philosophy, vol. 78, issue 303, Jan., 2003, p. 79 ff. doi:10.1017/S0031819103000056 (author of Princeton Univ.), responded to in Landau, Iddo, An Argument for Marriage, in Philosophy, vol. 79, issue 309, Jul., 2004, p. 475 ff. (commentary) doi:10.1017/S0031819104000385 (author of Haifa Univ., Israel), the latter responded to in Moller, Dan, The Marriage Commitment—Reply to Landau, in Philosophy, vol. 80, issue 312, Apr., 2005, p. 279 ff. (commentary) doi:10.1017/S0031819105000288 (author of Princeton Univ.).
  5. Philip L. Kilbride, Douglas R Page (Aug 31, 2012). "The Monogamous Ideal in Western Tradition and America". Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option?. ABC-CLIO. pp. 14–22. ISBN 0313384789. Retrieved 7 August 2013.
  6. Kafka, Franz. Summary of all the arguments for and against my marriage: From Kafka's Diaries, 12 July 1912...
  7. Sawyer, Brian
  8. Readings in Anthropology 80/81 at Google Books
  9. Eric Rofes, "Life After Knight: A Call for Direct Action and Civil Disobedience"
  10. Brandi Sperry, "Support queer friends—boycott marriage"
  11. Witte Jr., John (1997). From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 39–40. ISBN 0-664-25543-4
  12. John Witte (2012). From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. p. 215. ISBN 0664234321. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  13. Jane Williams-Hogan (Bryn Athyn College) (June 11–13, 2009). "Marriage in Christian History". Marginalizing Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage. CESNUR. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  14. 1 2
  16. United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993)
  17. 1 2 3 The Need to Abolish Marriage. Feminism & Psychology, May 2004.
  18. 1 2 3 Feminism Liberalism and Marriage. University of Cambridge, 2010.
  19. 1 2 Gerstel, Naomi, et al., Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy, op. cit., p. 16.
  20. Gerstel, Naomi, et al., Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy, op. cit., p. 17.
  22. Interviewees explained that societal pressures [to get married in Tajikistan] lead to suicide. A lawyer reported: "They try to quickly get their daughters married. There was a twenty-seven year old girl from the region, no one married her and the neighbors were laughing at her. She burned herself a month ago. Society makes fun of her because the first goal of the woman is to get married"
  23. 1 2
  28. Ash, Lucy (16 July 2003). "India's dowry deaths". BBC News.
  32. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 21, 2012. Retrieved October 21, 2012. Iraqi Penal Code, Paragraph 41
  34. 1 2 3 The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade at Google Books
  35. The Star. Toronto Missing or empty |title= (help)
  39. Brake, Elizabeth (2012). Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199774135.
  40. Just Marriage, by Mary Lyndon Shanley, 2004
  42. Thurston, Carol (April 1983). "The Liberation of Pulp Romances" (PDF). Psychology Today. Retrieved 2007-05-24.
  43. , p. 257, at Google Books
  46. 1 2
  47. Sheila Cronan, "Marriage," in Koedt, Levine, and Rapone, eds., Radical Feminism, p. 219
  48. Marlene Dixon, Articles%20Semester%202/8%20Dixon.htm "Why Women's Liberation? Racism and Male Supremacy."
  49. Why Congress Should Ignore Radical Feminist Opposition to Marriage by Patrick F. Fagan, Robert E. Rector, and Lauren R. Noyes. 1995. The Heritage Foundation
  50. Glenn Sacks; Dianna Thompson (2002-07-09). "Have Anti-Father Family Court Policies Led to a Men's Marriage Strike?". Retrieved 2008-09-30.
  51. Wendy McElroy (2003-08-12). "The Marriage Strike". Fox News - Opinion. Retrieved 2008-09-30.

External links

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