Who put the government in charge of marriage? Why do we need a license to marry? Why do we need a judge to divorce?
In the US and quite possibly every other country, the government decides who is married and who is not. And it really doesn’t care whether you love each other, only whether you make a commitment that benefits your fellow citizens. In return, it offers you two some benefits and rights not granted to other couples (or multiples, in this country) who love each other or share a home.
Why? Because if you keep that commitment, the two of you and your kids are less likely to commit crimes, which is good news for your neighbors. You are more likely to save and invest money, which happens to be good for the economy. Your kids are more likely to complete at least a high school education, to stay healthy, and to avoid aggressive and high-risk behaviors, all of which benefit your neighbors and fellow taxpayers.
The two of you are less likely to need government help with paying for housing, food, internet access, and health care in a committed relationship. If you are seriously injured or disabled, you are less likely to need government-funded care. As you age, you are more likely to be cared for by your spouse instead of Medicaid-funded caregivers, who are in very short supply these days.
“Likely,” of course, is about the overall odds for married vs. unmarried couples, not about any particular couple. But legislatures need to play the odds. They cannot create unique laws for every couple.
In return for your contribution to society’s odds, you get some benefits. You’re treated as one unit instead of two for things like decision-making in a health crisis, for income taxes if one of you agrees to forego their own income to assist in the other’s career-building, and for taking the fifth when your spouse breaks a law. In the absence of a will (and, in some cases, in spite of a will), the surviving spouse keeps all the dead spouse’s assets under $12 million or so without paying any taxes.
There are more benefits, like the one that automatically makes both of you the legal birth parents of a child born to a woman impregnated by someone other than her spouse, unless you chose to prove paternity. And the ones that grant speedy citizenship by naturalization to a non-US-citizen spouse living in the US for at least 18 months of a marriage of at least 3 years. And the ones that give your kids US citizenship without ever setting foot in the US and your grandchildren a speedy path to US citizenship if your kids live here long enough.
It’s a big package of incentives, all in exchange for improving the odds of lower government expenses and greater benefits to US society.
These days, plenty of people write their own marriage vows, but it’s worth noting that most church vows and city hall vows (where services are prepackaged and last two to five minutes in most cases) include a vow of a lifetime commitment. Even ultra-liberal San Francisco uses these words in every case:
Do you _______ , take ________, to be your lawful wedded (spouse)? To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish as long as you both shall live? Do you _______ , take ________, to be your lawful wedded (spouse)? To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish as long as you both shall live?
And yet, every state in the US allows divorce. No one should remain married to someone who regularly threatens their life, health, or mental health or someone who has abandoned them. Most states have given up on trying to tell these marriages from the marriages where a couple has “just drifted apart” or “moved on.” If you want a divorce, you can have one.
For those who don’t understand the reasons for the government package of goodies offered to induce people to marry for life, divorce can be a shocking experience. The divorce laws seek to minimize the impacts of your marriage dissolution on society. They will usually insist that you make whole a spouse who gave up income and career-building for your benefit. They will define what a fair split of the money, goods, and intangible assets accumulated during your marriage looks like. And they will protect the children you had together, which usually also means protecting their primary caregiver. Most of all, they will protect society from picking up the bill for anything you vowed to take care of for the rest of your life.
If you are aiming to do right by the person you married, the children you’ve created, and the society you live in, I hope that you will find lots in this blog of mine to make keeping your commitment a lot easier and more enjoyable. I think there is a lot to be said for a commitment to something bigger than ourselves. It brings meaning and richness that freedom from commitment and pursuit of hedonic pleasures just can’t.