Towards a Critical Theory of Marriage

Marriage is the subject of endless discussion, but it is still poorly understood. Those of us who are married, after all, have far more at stake in understanding our own marriages and making them better than we do in understanding marriage itself, marriage as an institution. So much of what is said about marriage is devoted to idealizations about what it should be like for the married couple. Even so-called “real,” “honest” advice about married relationships of the sort purveyed by Dr. Phil consists mostly of strategies for “working” on the relationship to make it approach a (possibly more modest) ideal. If our marriages are good, they are good because of us, and if they are bad (or, Heaven forbid, fail), that badness or failure is on us, certainly not on marriage itself. Marriage itself can’t fail us; we can only fail it.

So says the prevalent thinking about marriage. But even before my own marriage ended last year I had begun to suspect that perhaps this wasn’t entirely true. I have come to believe that there is a vast ideology surrounding marriage in our culture that blocks access to the way marriage actually functions as an institution. For some time now, I have been struggling towards a critical theory of marriage. The fact that my marriage actually ended, and that I have come out the other side of it, as it were, has made it much easier for this critical theory to take shape. It has provided me a perspective on marriage, and a lack of investment in defending my own role in the institution, that it would be far more difficult for a married person to have. In what follows, I provide a sketch of a critical theory of marriage. The central feature of this account is that marriage is a thoroughly public institution whose aims are not necessarily, or even for the most part, those of the people who participate in it. Marriage as an institution is, as I hope to show, really the normative face of a public regime of sexual regulation that is thoroughly and inherently heterosexist. After sketching my account, I will draw some conclusions from it that strike me as especially important.

I feel compelled to say that very little of what I am getting ready to say is offered as terribly original. On the contrary, I am well aware that much of it is terribly unoriginal and can be found expressed with greater elegance, thoroughness, and precision in other authors, many of whom I haven’t read but hope to read in the very near future. The point of this post is to take a stand with respect to marriage, and in particular a critical one, so that anyone who cares where I stand can read this and consider themselves informed.



It is surprising—but maybe not that surprising, after all—that the claim that marriage is a social institution requires any emphasis. But it does, precisely because the aspect of marriage to which we seem to pay the most attention is that having to do with the private lives of the individuals who participate in it. Marriage, it is said, is something individual people do in order to solemnize their love and commitment to one another. The normative expectation is that people marry voluntarily for love (although the notion that anything done for love is “voluntary” deserves more careful analysis!), and that the people who get married derive some good from being married, in the form of companionship, emotional and personal stability, and sexual satisfaction, that they would not have enjoyed without marrying one another. I do not dispute that marriage does, or at least can, inure to the benefit of married people in this fashion, and that people are, or can be, motivated to marry by their recognizing these benefits and voluntarily availing themselves of them. However, a moment’s honest comparison of this picture against reality suggests that few people who are or have been married are related to their own marriages in this way. People marry for all kinds of reasons, some of which have little to do with any fully conscious reckoning with what benefit they may get from doing so. It is far from clear that marriage is the only way to obtain these private benefits, too; after all, partners can have companionship, sex and common living arrangements and honor mutual commitments to one another without being married. While marriage may produce these private benefits, and indeed may produce them better than other arrangements that aren’t marriage, they certainly aren’t constitutive of marriage.

If you doubt this, reflect upon the ongoing public and legal struggle over same-sex marriage. Isn’t a keystone of the struggle for same-sex marriage equality the observation that marriage confers very real, tangible benefits to married people that are unjustly denied to same-sex couples when they wish to marry but are denied the ability to do so? The answer is, of course, yes; in the United States married people derive great economic and social advantages, some of them clearly quantifiable (lower taxes), some of them less tangible but very real (the privileges that derive from the sense of recognition, respect, and normality attached to marriage). There is, to my mind, no particularly principled case to be made for granting these benefits to heterosexual partners but denying them to same-sex partners. But the important point here is that these benefits are not purely private ones that married partners confer upon one another within the confines of their relationship. These are public, social, and in some cases explicitly political benefits. All of these are clues that what is constitutive of marriage is how it functions as a public, social institution, quite apart from what good or benefit it may produce for the individuals who participate in it.

How, then, does marriage function as a social institution? What are its public purposes? For this we have to look beyond all of the attention lavished on weddings and romance—what I call the ideology of marriage—and look at marriage as it is reflected in legal, political, and social norms. Baldly and unromantically put, I contend that marriage is about two things: who gets to have sex with whom—a sexual economy— and who has rights with respect to children. These two functions are, for clear reasons, interrelated, about which more below. First, though, the sexual economy. Marriage is, first and foremost, a regulation of sex and desire, both within the individual and in exchange with others. The primary regulator of this economy is monogamy and fidelity: If you are married to John or Jane, you are traditionally expected to have sex with John or Jane and no one else but John or Jane. For that matter, you are really not supposed to desire anyone but John or Jane if your marriage is what it should be. Of course, desire can be spontaneous and unpredictable, and if you find yourself desiring Jack or Jill instead of John or Jane, you won’t be the first. But the normative expectation is that you will of course not act on your desire for Jack or Jill and will take that inappropriate desire as an occasion to work on your relationship with John or Jane. Many people fall well short of this ideal, though. One party strays, and the other party—and the institution of marriage itself—is wronged. If your spouse has sex with someone else besides you, or your spouse simply refuses to have sex with you anymore, these are violations of marriage’s sexual economy sufficiently grave to justify dissolution of the marriage. In the past, before the advent of no-fault divorce, these were the two major grounds upon which the state would grant a divorce at all. The state now asserts less of an interest in who did or didn’t do what sexually, but the public, social norms surrounding marriage still understand its sexual economy in this way and ritually shame violations of it. If you doubt this, look no further than the phenomenon of contemporary political sex scandals, which do more than anything else to demonstrate the American public’s notion of the sexual economy of an exemplary marriage. And the state hasn’t withdrawn from the marriage bed completely, either. A clear example of this is state laws in the US regarding spousal rape. A number of states in the US deem spousal rape a lesser offense than other forms of rape, place greater reporting burdens on victims of spousal rape than on other forms of rape, or explicitly exempt spouses from rape-related charges such as sexual battery (thus, among other things, making spousal rape more difficult to prosecute). These laws are a direct way in which social norms regarding marital sex are still reflected in legislation.

The second aspect of traditional marriage has to do with the procreation of children and rights in and to them. The traditional expectation is that married people will produce children, and that the children that issue from the marriage receive a kind of legitimacy from thus issuing that children born under other circumstances lack. In turn, biological parents, especially those in marriages, are deemed to have wide latitude by right over the care and welfare of their children, and they receive a great deal of presumptive deference from, and lack of scrutiny by, the state and other people in their doing so. People who have children out of wedlock fall well outside this norm; their parental rights are abridged, and their actions and decisions are subject to greater scrutiny and criticism. Married couples who do not have children are held in higher regard, but they are nevertheless viewed with suspicion if their childless state is the result of a deliberate choice as opposed to, say, the biological incapacity of one or the other partner to produce issue. Adoption is, of course, an alternative for married couples who cannot produce children of their own. But, as adoptive parents can tell you, the prevalent social norms regarding adoption tend to view it as at best a second-class status and at worst a tremendous embarrassment. It is common for adoptive parents to hear that they don’t have any “real” children of their own, “just” adopted ones.

The operative notion at work in all of the above is that of biological parentage—being able to say just who a child’s biological parents are. Or rather, who a child’s biological father is, since the fact that women bear children makes their biological role in producing a child unmistakable. Marriage is a way of regulating biological fatherhood more closely, especially in the absence of widespread Maury Povich-style DNA testing. This isn’t to say that marriage doesn’t also regulate biological motherhood; quite the contrary. Marriage as a norm tends to view the normative role of both partners as that of producing offspring and having a special role to play in their upbringing (although the expectations laid upon each partner differ widely based on gender). This privileging of biological parentage is, in turn, clearly tied back to marriage’s sexual economy and reinforces it. Aside from the prevailing norms of monogamy and their emotional counterparts, such as feelings of security and possession and, when threatened, feelings of anger and jealousy, the sexual economy of marriage underwrites and privileges sexual activity whose outcome is the production of legitimate children whose biological parents are identifiable.

Of course, not all sex within a marriage is motivated by the prospect of conceiving a child—at least, one hopes that that is not the only motivation at work—but the logic of marriage’s sexual economy places a special privilege upon sexual activity where propagation is at stake. A marriage in which sexual activity never means procreation, even potentially, falls outside the norm. And for obvious reasons, sexual infidelity, especially of married women, threatens this regulation of biological parentage at its core, by raising the specter of another person’s issue making its way into the regulated family unit. In fact, married women bear, in my analysis, far greater burdens in maintaining the proper functioning of this normative sexual economy than do married men. If married men stray, especially with other men’s wives, this is of course a violation of the sexual economy, but it is easier (or used to be, before DNA testing) for men to evade the consequences should they father a child. And it takes two people to tango, as the expression goes: if a married man cheats with a married woman, chances are the woman will be more likely to be viewed as at fault than the man. However, if a married woman is unfaithful, there is the risk that she will become pregnant with another man’s child, and her link to the child is obvious. Plus, the sexual norms of marriage do not arise in isolation; they intersect with the panoply of sexual and gender norms that lay heavier burdens upon women to begin with (not to mention the collaborative factors of race and class that are undoubtedly enmeshed with the norms of marriage and which a full analysis would chart).

In summary, then, the prevailing social norms surrounding marriage regulate sex and desire via the imposition of a sexual economy whose primary goods are monogamy and biological reproduction. Those who participate according to the sexual economy’s dictates are rewarded with benefits both tangible and intangible; those who do not so participate either fail to have those benefits or (especially in the case of women) actively punished for their failure to participate appropriately.

There are two further points needed to elaborate this conception fully. One is that the sexual economy of marriage does not just attempt to organize and regulate the sexual activity of those people who choose to marry. In other words, if one finds that the rules of the sexual economy are too oppressive, or that its implicit economics of scarcity doesn’t track the reality of one’s desire, it isn’t quite as simple a matter as just opting out of marriage. This isn’t to say that one can’t avoid getting married. Plenty of people do. But the entire cultural apparatus of sexual attraction is organized around a notion of romantic love constituted by the kind of exclusive sexual commitment and emotional intimacy encountered in “ideal” normative marriage. Countless movies, TV programs, novels, and pop songs reinforce this cultural norm in blatant and subtle ways. Cultural attitudes towards people who remain sexually active outside of marriage on a long-term basis prove this point: Either their lifestyle is glamorized as a form of defiant hedonism, or it is lamented that they are missing something important about mature adult life. And people in long-term monogamous relationships who aren’t married can sometimes be so much like married couples that we might almost consider them functionally married. In fact, depending on the place where the couple lives, their relationship might constitute a sui juris or “common law” marriage.

However, “common law” marriage is an exception, and one that proves the rule: Marriage is something that generally has to be solemnized in front of third parties other than the couple themselves in order to count. In the majority of cases, getting married involves some agent of the state signing a license granting the marriage, and the license must be executed in front of witnesses, who are presumably there to guarantee that the people entering into the marriage contract are who they say they are and of basically sound mind. As the old saying goes, it takes three to marry: the bride, the bridegroom, and the state. (Maybe more than that, if the couple is religious: God may need to be there, too.) The point is that two people just aren’t married absent this kind of recognition from political authority, no matter what they may feel for one another. Political authority’s right to marry those who it will and confer explicit political and economic benefits constitutes a kind of exchange between the married couple and political authority. In exchange for the political realm granting the benefit of legitimacy to their relationship, the political realm retains its sovereign right over marriage and the ability to steer it towards its own ends. This steerage is, at least in contemporary America, not blatant or obtrusive; not like the “one-child” policy of the People’s Republic of China, for instance. But the political realm even here takes an active interest in the reproduction of society and of biological reproduction itself being an aspect of good citizenship. Just because in our time no one person or group is clearly holding the reins of our sexual lives doesn’t mean that we aren’t all harnessed in one way or other, whether tightly or loosely.



Of the numerous conclusions one can draw from the foregoing analysis, two deserve special elaboration. The first is that, if the foregoing analysis holds up, it problematizes the “private” dimension of the relationship between married partners. In the normative conception of marriage as sexual economy, there is very little about it that is inherently private. Marriage itself is instituted via a public act and is not permitted absent state sanction. But even within the politically-instituted boundary separating marrieds from singletons, the sexual economy of marriage is hardly private. The state sanction of marriage does not exactly create, as in liberal theories of marriage, a private sanctuary. The details of a married couple’s sex life may not be something the public wants to know under normal circumstances. However, in situations where one partner rapes the other the state may suddenly demand a staggering amount of detail and pass judgment upon the partners’ respective sexual performance according to the obligations the sexual economy outlines. And partners who start to pass normal childbearing age without having a child have some explaining to do. Either they have to prove that they tried to have a child but couldn’t, or they have to live with the social judgment that their marriage was either not about sex at all or was about nothing but sex. The existence of children in a family (or lack thereof), a fact that would be difficult to hide even if people wanted to, publicly thematizes marital sex.

Furthermore, the sexual economy serves not only to forbid sexual exchanges between married partners and people outside the marriage, but it also regulates individual partners’ desires as a psychological matter and prescribes obligations of sexual performance to one another. The sexual economy regulates how people feel about their own desire, especially their desires for people outside the relationship, prescribing guilt and shame for desire that strays out of bounds (even if one does not act on it). It also dictates that, regardless of actual desire, married partners owe each other some amount of sex, the particulars of which may be negotiable but the overall quantity of which leaves both partners basically satisfied. If one partner routinely fails to perform for the other, or refuses to perform at all, he or she has failed as a marriage partner. The publicly prescribed nature of the normative sexual economy forbids one or both partners remaining in the marriage and seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere, and so one either has to seek satisfaction in secret (adultery) or simply break the marriage completely in divorce. The larger point here lies less in the particulars of how the intramarital sexual economy functions (though they are of great interest) and more in the fact that they represent governing strictures, with the accompanying threat of social sanctions at their violation, which are not in principle private. To put it bluntly: The details of your marriage are not really all that private; it’s just that for the most part the public doesn’t find them all that interesting, since your marriage is normal, or nearly enough. Should your marriage become other than normal, though, and subsequently attract attention, all bets are off.

The second conclusion deserving greater elaboration is the fact that the normative conception of marriage as sexual economy outlined here is thoroughly and seamlessly heterosexist. I say “thoroughly and seamlessly” in order to underscore the extent to which it is heterosexist for reasons that go beyond its (not inconsiderable) intersection with other oppressive social norms tied to gender, sexuality, race, and class. Marriage’s normative sexual economy is inherently heterosexist. This is so for the simple reason that it regulates sex and desire with respect to the end of (actual or potential) biological reproduction. And, as the above account indicates, this end of (actual or potential) biological reproduction has as much to do with controlling the reproduction of society and the coordination and consolidation of human capital as it does with anything else individual married people might want. Calling this dimension of marriage “heterosexist” is not a knock on individual or married heterosexual people or heterosexual sex. Heterosexism names in the first instance a constellation of social power.  Thus heterosexism is woven inextricably into the underlying politics of the normative sexual economy of marriage.

I draw this conclusion explicitly in order to express a certain amount of critical caution and distance with respect to the debate over same-sex marriage. As a matter of positive law, same-sex marriage appears to be a simple matter of equality: straight people get to be married, so why shouldn’t LGBTQ people get to marry people of the same sex if they want? And it might have been that simple, if the liberal conception of state-sanctioned marriage conferring social benefits while protecting a zone of inherent privacy was tenable. However, I see sufficient reasons to doubt that this liberal conception is tenable. It presupposes a superhuman ability to insulate and purify political power from other forms of social power (a problem I have with liberalism generally). I want to clarify that I think that the fight for same-sex marriage may carve out a zone of relatively protected space for same-sex relationships, although the concern I have is that it may just turn them into heterosexual relationships that just happen to be between same-sex partners. Speaking optimistically, legalized same-sex marriage may open up a space for a different understanding of marriage that isn’t governed by a heterosexist sexual economy, one which would be less oppressive to heterosexuals as well as queer folk. A lot will depend on the extent to which heterosexism is woven into other social and political institutions beyond marriage. The struggle for social sexual norms that are not oppressive to queer folk (and straight folk!) faces far more serious challenges, though, than simply legalizing same-sex marriage. It is a struggle over broad-based social norms that elude the reach of positive law.

A final thought. Note that throughout this long discussion I have barely once mentioned the one ingredient the ideology of normative marriage would deem most important: love. What if people sometimes just marry because, gosh darn it, they love each other and that’s what people in love do? However, my omission of love from this discussion is deliberate. My critical judgment—take it for what you will—is that much of what people mean by “love,” and experience of it in their own lives, is desire refracted through the lens of the ideology of normative marriage. This is not to say that such love isn’t, or can’t be, good; it’s just good because desire is good, and when it ceases to be attached to desire it stops being good. Is there such a thing as love between people that isn’t at bottom ideologically refracted desire? I don’t know, but I like to think that there is, or could be. I think that it is rarer than we imagine, and I don’t really know what to say about it. And so I shall let that pass in silence to another day.

7 thoughts on “Towards a Critical Theory of Marriage

  1. Steve Cuzner

    I think you’ve left out a critical component, that being the domestic contract. I believe that the primary function of the marriage is to provide for the establishment of a joint household which reduces costs and and grants security to the parties involved. Certainly this can be achieved through roommates, but a marriage grants rights and responsibilities that cannot, or at least are not currently, given to roommates or domestic partners. The sexual component comes into to play to secure the domestic contract such that no partner is forced to provide resources to children that are not theirs and that intimate relationships that might threaten the domestic contract are prevented. So while the sexual controls of marriage are a major part of the private and public part of a marriage, I believe they are there to support the basic domestic contract which is the primary purpose of a marriage.

    1. bcubbage Post author

      Steve: I wonder just how much we disagree here. Most of what you describe as the “domestic contract” is contained in my account: the granting of rights and responsibilities and security. I think a lot depends on what you mean by “security”: if it’s emotional security, I would contend that the only aspect of that that manages to be of interest to anyone outside the parties involved is that part of it tied to sex. (My account of the “sexual economy” isn’t just about sex acts, but also reproduction, which is caused by sex but not the same thing as sex.) You may mean something else by security, though, so I don’t want to presume. The rights and responsibilities are there in my account too: they are extended to married couples by virtue of their participating in the public sexual economy in the appropriate way.

      The one thing my account of marriage as institution doesn’t include is the notion of marriage as reducing costs. I have to say that I certainly miss that about my marriage! However, I am not sure I see how this plays much of a role in marriage as it currently functions as a social institution– in other words, why society thinks that people’s getting married is morally and socially exemplary and that the marriage bond is worth recognizing. Imagine a couple who, when asked why they were getting married, answered “It helps us pay the rent and that’s literally the only reason”. Wouldn’t that be rather odd? Also, if this were a major component of institutional marriage, it seems to me that the notion of domestic partnerships– like miniature corporations– would not sound so thin and/or so radical. Imagine a gubernatorial candidate of a state proposing that, if elected, his legislative agenda would include replacing marriage with domestic corporations. I would be comfortable with that– you might be too– but such a person would never get elected in contemporary America.

  2. Steve Cuzner

    By security I was actually thinking about physic and economic. You can certainly have a roommate and gain some of the cost saving benefits, but you would never expect your roommate to come to your bedside when ill and participate in your treatment, recovery, or death. You also gain economic benefits in the case of the death of your spouse in terms of inheritance. Of course there are recent high profile examples of men (Newt and John) who forgot that part of the equation.

    I think the key difference in our positions is that you state that rights and responsibilities are granted as a result of an agreement by the couple to follow the sexual norms, where I state that the sexual norms are placed on the couple to protect the security needs of one or both parties.

    Men who play the field have the potential to have children with another partner, reducing the economic benefits of the wife and her biological children. Women who play the field have the potential to have children that are not biologically related to the man, and he may be stuck supporting them. So each party has an economic interest in the fidelity of the other. And as can be seen by John Edwards and Newt Gingrich, their playing the field prevented them from providing emotional support to their wives in time of illness, so that sexual behavior is frowned upon.

    But there are other cases where more sexual liberties are allowed. Case in point in swing couples. While this lifestyle may be frowned upon, as long as both individuals in the couple agree that this is what they want, society generally leaves them alone, at least in terms of legal action. Other couples also allow the men to have mistresses as long as they are discreet and it doesn’t impact the economic status of the married spouse.

    1. bcubbage Post author

      Steve, I need to think more about the issues of conceptual priority you raise. I don’t want to dismiss those issues entirely. But part of me wonders what difference it makes in light of my broader critical aims. After all, on your account (and the account I thought I was giving) the sexuality of monogamous marriage is thoroughly political, related as it is to concerns of economic and physical security. That the state may justify these concerns by appealing to the economic and physical interests of the parties strikes me as more than a little paternalistic.

      More broadly, I don’t feel hung up on questions of conceptual priority for what really interests me, as if social norms existed in logical space somewhere. They don’t, at least as regards how they function as a regulator of people’s conduct generally. What matters more is that we seem to think that there is some sort of deep linkage between sexual fidelity within the confines of a monogamous marriage and important political aims. Why is that? Do the political aims really justify the sexual regulation? Are the aims even worth it? And why is sexual behavior even an issue at all in this?

      These are questions that don’t seem to get seriously asked. Instead we are treated with facile jokes about Newt Gingrich’s marriages, as if that obviously told us something about whether he is fit to be President. I don’t think he is, but it’s because of his actual positions, not whether he would like an open marriage.

    2. bcubbage Post author

      In fairness, Steve, I know it may seem like I am shifting my positions rather than engaging with your substantive point. In all honesty I am really exploring here and am not completely certain of where I will come out as I feel my way through all this. To the extent that my thinking is headed somewhere, I am taking your point very seriously. I’m just trying to make sure that I relate it to my aims.

  3. Pingback: The Love of the Queer God « Thought Required; Pants Optional.

  4. Pingback: Devil Take The Hindmost: A Rant on the Politics of Marriage Equality « Thought Required; Pants Optional.

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