Peter McGraw welcomes Laura Grant and Amy Gahran into the Solo Studio for the first ever Solo book club. They discuss Elizabeth Brake’s book: Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law.
Listen to Episode #167 here
Solo Book Club: Minimizing Marriage
Welcome back, Amy.
It’s good to see you again.
Welcome back, Laura.
Thanks for having me.
You two know that I’d like to experiment with Solo episode concepts. For example, I now make Truth or Truth a regular part of my offerings with the show. I once in this very room, in the Solo Studio, played the Game of Life with two friends, and we taped it and people seem to like it.
There is a little nostalgia in there.
We’re doing something new in this episode. We are doing a book club and let me tell you why we’re doing the book club. I stumbled on this book by Elizabeth Brake, who is a Philosophy professor at Arizona State. She wrote a book and here’s the first critique. It’s called Minimizing Marriage and then the subtitle is Marriage, Morality, and the Law.
There are many things to say about the editorial issues in this book.
I reached out to Elizabeth Brake and offered to have her be on the show, but nothing. I was then like, “How am I going to dive into this book and present the insights from it?” I thought, “Who are two people who can read this book, at least most of it, and then have a cogent conversation.” You were the first two I decided.
He’s not even providing tequila here.
Unlike my actual book club, I might add.
I want to formally apologize for this idea to the two of you.
You are lucky we love you, Peter.
It’s a testament to my esteem for both of you that I didn’t drive ice picks through my eyes two pages in. I say that knowing how much work it probably took to do this book. I have respect for anybody who puts that much work into a book. I know it’s a lot of work, especially with academic publishing, but this book.
Before we get into what the book is about, we’re going to take care of all of this stuff. For someone who’s never read a book written by a philosopher, it feels like this was built on a dissertation, I think in all likelihood. How many pages is this thing?
It’s a 200-page philosophy paper.
It’s not a big font.
It’s not one of those nice big middle-aged fonts.
This is a very challenging read.
You’ve read philosophy. You studied Philosophy in college a little bit.
No, I took one undergrad Philosophy course.
I took one undergrad Philosophy course and I took it because I thought it would be easy. It was so dead boring and I think it’s because we just had a professor who was mostly disengaged, but with the readings for all of them, I had the same reaction as with this book. It’s my allergy to philosophy since I’m a very practical person but I would get a couple of pages into it and it’s like, “No. I’m not going to do that.”
The final exam came by. This is a true story. I sat down and said, “I’m going to read some of this stuff for this final exam because I was getting good grades in all my classes. I wanted to get a good grade on this one.” Twenty minutes in, I’m like, “No, I can’t.” I had a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I said, “I’ve always been meaning to read that.” I pulled an all-nighter reading that book.
I went in for my exam the next day and filled it out with whatever seemed to make sense to me. I wrote, “Kant said this and Hegel said that having no clue about any of them.” I figure, “If I got to flunk one class, I’ll flunk this class.” I got an A-minus on the exam because this professor didn’t care. He was like, “You answered all the questions.” That was my one brush with Philosophy, and I got out with my soul intact.
Here’s your second.
I survived this book. I made an Elizabeth Brake drinking game. I call it Braking Descriptors. Every time I come across one of these, I drink. Here are a couple of examples. Prufrockian vacillation, Christian intuition, Aristotelian virtue ethics, and Rawlsian liberalism. Every time one of those popped up, I was like, “Whoa.”
Where is the tequila?
I also have had a brush with Philosophy. I minored in Philosophy as an undergraduate.
I did, naively. I’ll tell you this. I took a Logic class and let me say I loved that. It worked with my very robotic approach to understanding the world but in the other classes, I took a Philosophy of Science course that was so over my head. It was shocking how difficult that was. I also had a solution to surviving the exams. This was on a day when you had a midterm and a final. That’s it. I went to a big state school. I went to Rutgers, and you had a midterm and a final.
In most classes, they were multiple choice, but in your Philosophy courses, they were essay exams. What the professor would do is they would give you a list of essay questions and tell you that X number from the list will be on the exam. What I just figured out was, what is the minimum number of questions that I have to memorize the answer to?
It sounds like a logic problem.
He did a probability analysis.
There were some questions that were easier than others. I’d pick the easiest ones but sometimes it was three questions. I would have to memorize 5 to make sure that I was going to get at least 3 of them. I would write the answers out, turn them into an outline and memorize them. I sat there and just regurgitated what I had memorized as a result of it. Also, As.
It sounds enriching.
This is a book written by a philosopher written in the style of an academic philosophy book. I think it’s informative and provocative, but it is esoteric. It brought me back to those days of undergrad again.
There are definitely gems in there. I’m excited to talk about them.
Let’s get into it.
There are some good points.
How would you summarize the overarching idea and argument of Elizabeth Brake’s Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law?
I would say she spends the first amount of time talking about our obsession as a culture with marriage and how much importance we’ve put on it. She breaks that down into tons of different categories of importance and value that marriage has in our society. Also, where that came from and the history of that. She starts to break it down and says, “We have all these preconceived notions of how great marriage is, but when we pick it apart, is it that great?”
She’s using a lot of philosophical and logic ways of approaching these questions. She then says, “Let’s talk about the negative things that have come with our obsession with marriage.” We’ve talked about them on this show before. She introduces the term amatonormativity, which we can talk about. She says, “Is it salvageable? Can we save this concept?
We historically have loved it or say we love it. Can we reframe it? Can we remold it, make it better, and make it serve more people or do we need to get rid of it and move on?” I think in this room, we have different opinions on whether that’s possible but I think that pretty much is how she laid out her arguments.
Her general thesis is for reworking marriages, expanding them, and reducing the levels of privilege, protections, and requirements that come with it. You could get institutionalized protection for your relationship with your closest friends or a sibling that you wanted to take on certain kinds of responsibilities. I think it’s unfortunate that she called it Minimizing Marriage. What she should have talked about and I’m not sure this is a better term, but codifying voluntary kinship.
That rolls off the tongue.
It belongs right in this book.
Minimizing marriage is not obvious what that means, in a sense. Your point, Laura, is her argument is limiting the benefits to this small group of people.
Yes. It’s currently limited to a very small group of people and there are a lot of supportive relationships that people can have that are deserving of protection and support. Also, you need to look after what happens when those relationships dissolve because all relationships can dissolve. The more I kept going through this, the editor in my mind was breaking out the red pen for lots of things, but mostly it’s like, “Can we just call this kinship?” It’s because that’s what she’s talking about. It is creating kinship bonds that would be legally recognizable among people that might not get to enjoy those kinds of benefits.
Let’s step back because I think people are listening and going, “I think I get this.” It’s very clear that marriage brings forth a whole set of benefits that are limited to a particular type of relationship.
1,138 federally authorized when she wrote this book in 2012.
After that, there was a great Atlantic article that came out that enumerated them which is interesting.
Some of these are familiar. Things like Social Security benefits, for example. If you have a spouse who’s non-working, your non-working spouse gets not only survivor benefits but can get up to 50% of your Social Security benefits.
Whereas as a single person, if I were to die, guess who gets to inherit my Social Security benefits?
No one. Now, there are tax benefits. There are employee benefits. I have an article forthcoming about this. For example, my employer, if you have a spouse’s independence, the university will cover healthcare for them. I am not able to add anyone to my plan unless I got married or had a child. These are people who are doing the same job as I am, but they get an extra benefit. As a quick aside, hundreds of universities around the country offer tuition breaks for the children of married people and perhaps their spouses. I’m not sure about that one. Again, additional benefits for the same work. Let’s throw a few more out there.
Married people are considered to be a better lending risk. Regardless of the finances, all else being equal, a single person going after the same kind of loan or mortgage versus a married person or a married couple going after it, all the actuarial magic behind it, which all of that is proprietary. You don’t get to see what that actuarial magic is, but you can look at the effects and all else being equal, people coming to it with otherwise equal financial footing and lending history, married people get offered better mortgage rates. They get offered better terms for almost every kind of credit.
Also, insurance and that kind of thing. One of the other things, and this is what I argue is they benefit from status. To be honest, I’m not that excited to get married to get the benefits of being married but what I don’t like is the fact that the world looks down on me as a Peter Pan. If I decided to shack up with someone, suddenly, I am right there, a good citizen, a good person, and responsible.
I had one of my colleagues who’s been married for 30 years or so. She just put it to me very nicely as she was paying attention to the Solo Project. She’s a runner. She goes, “When I go on a run and the wind’s at my back, I don’t notice until I turn around and I try to run home. Being married is like having the wind at your back, and being single is like that run on the way home.”
That’s how privilege works. Privilege is the social effect of status. What it all boils down to is the world is, for the most part, set up to support and accommodate people who are like you. The thing is if the world seems to work okay in certain ways, you don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who say, “This isn’t working for me.”
I recognize that the challenges single people face may be diminished in comparison to other groups that face overt discrimination, historical, and so on. At first blush, you can say, “It’s not so bad if you compare them to trans people, gay, lesbian, bisexual, LGBTQIA+ folks, etc. but nonetheless.
When you start compiling those oppressed identities when you look at it intersectionally.
One point that I like that she went into a fair amount of historical detail in this book was how marriage itself has been an institution of oppression. Who is not allowed to get married has always been a way to enforce oppression. For instance, during slavery in the United States, slaves were not allowed to get married. They had their own marriage rituals and their own social recognition within their own culture but it didn’t mean anything if the boss wanted to sell your wife. That factored out into the anti-miscegenation about who could and could not marry somebody by race and by religion. Also, the whole LGBTQ issue. It all came down to, “You can’t get married because your relationships aren’t real.”
One of the big pushes with same-sex marriage in part was not only to have these relationships recognized but to be able to get the benefits. For example, if you’re in a same-sex couple and someone gets sick, hospital visitation or bereavement. Employers will offer bereavement leave for immediate family. What makes someone immediate family, according to your employers, “Are you married?”
Also, housing codes. Just look at Boulder, Colorado, not far from us here. In most neighborhoods in Boulder, a limitation on how many “unrelated people” are allowed to reside in the same house regardless of the size of the house and how much room there is in that house. The city government of Boulder, Colorado gets to decide who your family is.
I think we’re done with criticizing Elizabeth’s writing style. I think she makes a very strong point and a point that I had not thought that much about and it’s simply this. I’ve thought about it on the way out of a marriage, which is striking how much government control there is over the dissolution of a marriage.
Marriage Law in large measure comes into play during the hard stuff like divorce, child custody disputes during illness, deaths, and during inheritance issues. It’s largely designed to be there for the hard stuff. You don’t need a lot of laws for stuff that is easy.
The government makes it very easy to get married, but her point it’s not clear why the government is so involved in this particular style of relationship. The government says nothing about my friendships, says very little about my relationship with my sibling, with my sister, and yet it has a lot to say about my imaginary marriage and subsequent divorce. I think part of the argument is this idea of there’s a redistribution of resources away from some people and to others based upon this very limited definition of a dyad.
I think you might be overthinking it a little bit. The laws are made by people. Legislators are people. Judges, prosecutors, and attorneys are allegedly people. People grow up with a lot of beliefs that they don’t examine. A lot of the laws about marriage were absorbed from earlier parts of a culture where people are like, “Of course, we have to have marriage and protect it legally in some way.” These kinds of bedrock assumptions are not usually a clear philosophical or even conscious choice. They are barnacles. They creed on each other over time to the point that, “That’s the foundation of the law. You get enough barnacles, I guess it can feel like a foundation.”
That’s a fair response to my observation. It wasn’t that long ago that we lived in a time of great conformity. In 1960, 72% of adults were married. Ninety percent would marry and do so by age 21 on average. There was a shocking lack of diversity around these issues of interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, polyamory, and so on. You have this very limited form, which is what Elizabeth would call a Stable Caring Relationship that now doesn’t exist in the same way. We’re living in the vestiges of those rules and those policies. If you run a business and you have an HR department, they do what every other HR department does, which is what every HR department has done since the rise of business in the United States. It’s fair to say we’re running on old programming.
Marriage is complicated. All things having to do with actual human beings are but the thing with marriage is that it also can be a very positive thing. For a lot of history and a lot of parts of society, and even parts of this day’s society, depending on the marriage in the family, it can be something that pulls together a very valuable network of support. I come from a large family. I’m fifth out of six kids. Right now, we are all pitching in to help a couple of family members who are in need.
There are a lot of people who value that. I imagine legislators and judges and everybody who’s involved with putting together and implementing the law related to marriage and family, a lot of them probably have their hearts in the right place. They want people to have support, care, and connection and to have the connected part of their lives supported as much as the individual parts of their lives.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those kinds of connections are always beneficial and are always available to people. There are a lot of things to fall through the cracks. If you say, “The solution is to get married, have kids,” or whatever. A) Not everybody can do that or wants to do that and B) Those institutions can end up doing a lot of damage too.
She talks a lot about that in the book and also as a result, the two-edged sword here is marriage has perpetuated a lot of problems and has covered up a lot of problems and then tried to create solutions to those problems. There are lots of protection for people from the problems that marriage itself created. Removing it removes a lot of problems and a lot of protections that people are reliant on. It’s a much more complicated social issue than, “Should we get rid of this thing? It’s antiquated.”
It’s a Jenga game like every other part of the law.
It’s also naive to talk about getting rid of marriage.
Even relegating it to the private sphere to say, “The government has nothing to do with your marriage. Just do it the way you want to do it.” There are benefits and drawbacks to that as well. It’s not repairing any of the harm that has been done by the government’s support of this institution.
It is fair to say that marriage now, in terms of the law is better than marriages of yesterday, especially for women. It wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t own anything within a marriage. They couldn’t have a checking account.
In the book, she goes into the past institution of coverture, which is basically, once a woman gets married to a man, legally, she ceases to exist as an individual. She cannot do anything for herself that would involve money, property, or any kind of decision. That wasn’t that long ago.
1970 is when some of these laws came off the books. You have to acknowledge that a woman didn’t even have the right to say no sexually in a marriage where marital rape was legal. By the way, it’s still legal in some places around the world now. Marriages are improving. I had Eli Finkel on here talking about The All-or-Nothing Marriage, he also pointed out that the expectations around marriage are also increasing. As a result, even though objectively marriages are better, satisfaction within marriages has been decreasing, in part because people are using them to try to live a remarkable life. It’s a lot to ask your partner to be your everything.
I blame Disney. I call it the Disney Industrial Complex. When we talk about it in the form of a contract, I would never sign a contract where so much is left to assumptions. You will be my husband or wife. Of course, you know what that means. I’m not going to write down all the expectations of what a wife or a husband does. You should know that already. Look at what your parents did. It’s like that.
There’s a lot in here about all four of my parents. I’m not sure if that’s a good model. Another thing Elizabeth Brake talks about is let’s get the actual nitty-gritty down on paper so you know what you’re signing up for, especially when it comes to marginalized people who in many cases are relying on the privilege that comes with marriage to support them to say, “Here’s exactly what you can expect to get. Here’s what you should be expected to give.” Write that all down, sign it, and be able to read it and have support to feel empowered to enter into this eyes wide open.
The problem with that, just like the problem with this book is that people hate reading contracts especially if they have a strong emotional attachment to whatever issue is being codified on a piece of paper somewhere. They’re going to interpret it through their own mental filter anyway. This is why lawyers get rich because contracts are always up for argument.
Let’s be honest. A contract is not romantic.
I guess we have different ideas of romance.
By the way, in terms of law, reading this book reminded me of the close ties between philosophy and law, which is something that is worth thinking about. Whenever you’re dealing with any aspect of the law, I think it’s useful to consider what are the philosophical and ethical assumptions behind it because that can help you think your way through a difficult legal situation.
Can you give an example of that for the audience?
Yeah. In regard to marriage, they’re talking about what is the assumption of what is this marriage supposed to be here for. A lot of law about marriage is written up for protecting children. You don’t have to have or want or be capable of having kids to get married. That wasn’t even true when marriage was only for opposite-sex couples. Going back in time, I could be 80 years old and still decide to get married and it would be legal.
People who argue that marriage needs to be a certain way to protect children, you can say, “It never was about protecting children.” Looking at the assumption of what is, as she calls it in the book, the primary good that’s supposed to be served by this institution, when you start digging into the primary good of anything, but especially with marriage, that’s where you’re hacking away at those barnacles.
First of all, I’ve been surprised by how complex this topic of single living has been. I entered into this project naively and as a psychologist who’s interested in the individual, I’ve read history, sociology and cultural anthropology. I’m reading philosophy. It’s so interesting the differences in perspective and in many ways make me more pessimistic than when I started out. I call myself a rational optimist, but the issue is I see society changing.
I don’t feel like I as one person have much sway. The show is contributing in some way, but I do feel like I can help Laura. I can help individuals feel better. I feel like I can help liberate people. I can help them feel seen. I can affect the individual but when we start having these kinds of conversations, I feel like when I vote. It’s the way it is. That’s the nature of the world.
Peter has on we.
We all do. I think the real power of this book is, “Are we going to institute these changes tomorrow?” No. Could we? Maybe we couldn’t but to see that there’s another way of thinking about it, to see there are things we need to unlearn and that’s been my journey. It’s, “What do I need to unlearn and reexamine?” Giving us a whole new model for how this could look, helps us think about things in different ways and change our perspectives.
I look at it this way. I was really happy when the Supreme Court decision came down to legalize same-sex marriage. Basically taking the gender requirements off of marriage. I thought that was a great thing, even though it made this institution only slightly less discriminatory. It helped create good for people who needed it, who needed protection and recognition, and who felt that marriage is personally meaningful for them, which matters, but it is only slightly less discriminatory than it was.
Digging into the philosophical underpinnings of marriage in this book made me want to scream. Support should be accorded to individuals. The more we try to hack away at personal relationships like family, marriage, friendships, or whatever, as anybody’s primary avenue to support protection, healthcare, or whatever, you’re only dodging the responsibility of society. Nobody is free to make choices in their life if they don’t have the means to support their own life. That means marriage or families in a lot of cases, people who are not in a position to look after their own interests are not free to decide whether to stay or leave a relationship and that leads to a lot of harm.
There are two paths that we’re starting to outline here. Amy’s path is to support the individual. That’s very Scandinavian of you. I had a previous episode. I called it Sweden – The Singles’ Capital Of The World. The reason is that it supports the individual primarily. It has this cascading set of benefits. For example, Sweden tends to be very entrepreneurial as a result of having universal healthcare and free education, which you’re untethered from your parents’ decisions about where you go to school and what you study, and so on. In the United States, for example, your student aid package depends on your parent’s income. That’s one path. As you might imagine, I am highly supportive of that because it gives people the freedom to couple up, triple up, or quadruple up as they like.
If they pay a lot in taxes, they get a lot for it.
There is a trust in government that we don’t have in the United States that also facilitates this. The other path, which is the break-in path would be, “Let’s afford a greater array of caring, stable relationships, the benefits of marriage.”
I love the way she suggested the framework could work, where you have a list of all the benefits and you can assign each piecemeal to the people who matter to you. I have a brother who’s raising four children so I want to help him financially. I live with my roommate. I want the property to follow the roommate, but also I ideologically match with someone else. I want them to rule over medical decision-making and to figure out who in your life it makes sense to share these specific benefits with, instead of saying, “They all have to go to one person, and that relationship has to look this specific way for it to matter.”
Right now, marriage or traditional ties to family are not the only route to that but speaking as somebody who has durable power of attorney, in this case for one of my siblings who I’m helping to support right now, you never get anything by default. I have to keep producing those documents over and over again, especially with insurance companies. If I’m trying to work with the insurance companies on behalf of my sibling, it’s a crapshoot whether the person on the phone is even going to want to talk to me until I fax them that document again.
Compare this to if you had gone to a Vegas chapel and got a marriage certificate.
I can’t legally marry my sibling but yeah. The thing is people are like, “You can do these other structures to cobble together those rights.” It’s like, “Try working with that and see how that’s going.”
I have a forthcoming episode with Diana Adams, who has a wonderful TED Talk. She is a lawyer and helps LGBTQIA+ folks create families and polyamorous people. What’s interesting is, if I understand this correctly, she uses LLC structures in order to do this.
That’s helpful for certain logistical and financial things, but again, with all these hacks, it’s trying to make other things provide the protection that you get by default with marriage. All it takes in most states is one judge to look at and say, “No. I don’t think so.”
By the way, that judge is probably married.
However, people structures with LLCs and prenuptial agreements can be challenged. It comes down to whether a judge thinks, “I don’t think this is real after all.”
One thing that is the breaking inside of this, to me the case study is platonic partners. The case study essentially is this. You have two people who are in a caring, stable relationship. They live together. This is a long-term partnership and it serves all of the functions of marriage, except it lacks two elements, sex and romance.
That’s my brother’s two best friends and they’ve been housemates for 20 or 25 years. They’ve been best friends since childhood. They both were married and got divorced and then they started sharing a house and they take care of each other.
That should be equal status as a marriage. It should be treated the same way. They should have the ability to visit each other in the ICU, give death benefits, and so on and so forth.
For a long time in the gay community, if there was an older partner and a younger partner, the older partner would adopt that younger partner to be able to do inheritance.
That’s fascinating. I didn’t know that. The idea essentially is you keep putting more and more types of relationships under this big tent. One of the nice things about the courts is it sometimes work. This is something that comes up. What’s coming in our lifetime is the recognition of polyamorous relationships counting as a marriage.
We’re going to have to overhaul the Supreme Court before that because they’re going to fight that hard.
That may be the case because of the politics of it all.
Not only the politics of it all but the bigotry that’s inherent in the culture. Unfortunately, right now, that’s the Supreme Court we have.
Yes, fair enough, but the point being though is there are some outlets outside of legislative ones. The other thing that is going to happen is as there are more and more single people and married people start to become more of a minority, there ought to be a shift politically because single people vote. You should be representing the interest of your constituents.
I agree. I hope that’s the way it pans out. I will mention that we’ve so internalized this amatonormativity, which is the one umbrella word that Elizabeth Brake has for how normal marriage is and how abnormal everything outside of marriage is. A lot of single people think there’s something wrong with them because they’re not married and can think of no greater goal in life than to become married. If that’s your thing, great but is that really what you want, or is that a function of you internalizing that bias that’s in our culture? Am I going to vote in my own best interest or I’m going to vote in the best interest of the person I wish I was?
This happens with a tax policy. If you ask people what the expectations of their wealth will be, it’s always greater than what it is now. It’s typically greater than what it’ll end up being. There is that sense of, “My life will be better off,” and what you’re arguing is they’re imagining their life is being better off in a partnership.
I’m glad that you’re so optimistic about this and you’re giving me encouragement to be optimistic because it’s unrealistic to expect that vast numbers of people would be ardently opposed to government in their own interests. That doesn’t happen. People vote against their own interests all the time. There is a time-tested way of approaching that and a lot of that time-tested way is hearkening back to the way we believe things used to be.
Marriage hits on that. I think legal changes to existing marriage will be hard if you’re looking to expand it beyond two people who are presumed to have a sexual and romantic connection, or at least, who are willing to let that institution or that contract that they’re entering into exclude them from forming sexual or romantic connections with anyone else.
Let’s get into this idea of the individual because it’s fair to say that the three of us in this room and many readers would prefer a model that focuses the benefits on the individual so as to free them from having to make a choice to partner to get healthcare or to have the 1,138 benefits.
In order to have food in your belly or a roof over your head.
Also, help raise your child.
That’s an important point. The freedom to be able to give care because right now, there are very few contexts in which I will make a good enough living giving care to people I care about. If I am providing parenting, it’s hard to make money at that or elder care, sibling care, or just care for friend networks. That’s even harder because no one recognizes that as actual valuable work, which has been probably the problem within and without marriage. Throughout history, the act of care and the hours put into care are not valued as part of the capitalist machine.
My walk down memory lane is hearkening back to the good old days of marriage. As soon as we invented this nuclear family and people moved off to the suburbs, immediately people were unhappy with it.
However, we didn’t hear from them because they were behind closed doors.
These are wives stuck in their homes out in the suburbs and then men working long hours in the office and this was not a great system. Prior to that, we had these extended families or corporate families which were bigger and could withstand the loss of an individual and built a lot of the caregiving into it.
It wasn’t just families. A lot of that was also immigrant communities in the US. Now you would have some intermarriage among people in the immigrant communities, but newcomers to this country have often bonded together to help each other out with housing and other kinds of support.
That structure, in many ways, I believe is the superior structure for humans.
When individuals have support, a lot of times people portray that as, “You’re just taking from the government.” That means you have more to give people. If you are desperate and scratching by in your own life, then you’re not going to be able to support anybody else. If there’s a baseline of support for individuals, everybody will have enough to give a little bit of whatever type of support they can.
What are some of the topics that came up for you that we haven’t discussed yet?
Another part of the proposed changes that we could make is divorcing the interpersonal relationship between adults from parenting. A lot of things have been swept under the rug of marriage and they assume, “If you’re married, you’re therefore a responsible person and therefore fit to raise children or care for people.” However, this says, “That’s two completely separate types of relationships.”
There are two or I hope someday multiple consenting people coming together and saying, “We are adults and we are signing up for these commitments and receiving these benefits.” There are dependents who can’t enter into agreements and through the act of existing need support and care for their very survival. Why are those two things wrapped up in each other? Completely segregate those two.
It’s because children are possessions.
It’s just like wives. These are two different structures that require two different legal structures to address them. A parenting relationship has to perpetuate throughout time, regardless of whether you’re romantic or sexual. Marital status changes. Why are they linked together? We should be benefiting all children whether their parents are married or not.
This society has a responsibility to these children, whereas, in a consensual partnership, the people have a responsibility to each other. It can end. Elizabeth Brake thinks we should make it easier to exit those relationships and give people actual incentives to behave well in those relationships to perpetuate them. I think that’s an important point as well.
Why should we be opposed to more strict regulations of corporations? It’s because that would discourage them from innovating and creating more goodness in society. Why should corporations get a pass on that and say, “Trust us to do the right thing?” However, when it comes down to people in their own lives and especially people who aren’t rich and White, it’s like, “We are going to tell you exactly how to live your life because you can’t be trusted to make good decisions unless we are cracking the whip on top of you.” I got a problem with that.
Kris Marsh has published a book, The Love Jones Cohort, and she’s been a frequent contributor to the show. Her research has looked at this alternative path in the African-American community to being middle class. The government policy tends to see marriage as a path to better living and she points out that it’s not always the case. Two poor people get married and then have children. You have a poor family.
You may lose benefits that you were counting on to survive. I have friends who are disabled and who rely on disability benefits. They can only keep them as long as the size or assets of their household or their income doesn’t increase. If you get married and your spouse has any income whatsoever, that counts as your income.
That’s the downside. I’ve been working on an article about personal finance for singles and how single people might need different investing advice essentially and different retirement advice and so on. One of the things that came up when I sought some feedback on this is we have to be very clear whether there are dependents or not dependents involved. On balance, singles live a more precarious financial situation than partnered people. For the simple reason, they don’t have a hedge.
Oftentimes, the other person can continue working if you lose your job or you get sick or something like that. You also don’t have the benefit of sharing fixed costs. That’s very clear but when you start adding children to the equation, whether you’re single or partnered, it creates financial stress and non-trivial stress. What Kris has found is this alternative path to middle-class living and she calls them SALAs, Single and Living Alone.
The idea behind this is you live a minimal life. As one person, you have one income, but you keep your burn rate down. You don’t have a big house and all the trappings that go with your family. You don’t have dependents, which are quite expensive, and so on. Contrary to the popular belief, there’s this alternative path, but the alternative path is not about being single. It’s about not having children. This is connected to your point, Laura.
Although you never know when you’re going to end up with dependents at any point in life. I took on a bunch of responsibilities for my sibling who was not able to manage their life and their health. That is a commitment I’ve taken on for the foreseeable future. I never wanted kids. I don’t have them and this is not the kind of responsibility the parents takes on, but it’s substantial. I now have life insurance and I never had a need for life insurance before but if anything happens to me, I don’t want my siblings screwed.
I went through this with my mother and this is the case for singles. They tend to bear the brunt of elder care. In part, because their married siblings who often have children are like, “I can’t add another dependent to my list.” I’m not saying that this is a sure thing, and certainly, as a solo, you’re going to be in a more precarious situation, but you also don’t ever have to worry about your partner becoming addicted to drugs, a gambling addict, or disappearing on you.
When I was married, my spouse and I had very different ways of managing money. It’s a matter of opinion who’s better and who’s worse but the thing is it just wasn’t compatible.
Yours was better, Amy.
Mine was better but we weren’t compatible for that and that caused an inordinate amount of stress. Right now as a solo person, I own my own house. I have housemates. I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to have housemates. They cover most of my mortgage. I’ve made pretty damn good financial and professional decisions. I’m not scrambling right now, but I never know when that might happen and that’s true for everyone. However well off you think you are right now, crap happens. This is why I’m getting back to the whole individual support thing. We need safety nets.
For me, this ties a lot to talking about alternative relationship structures and looking at relationship anarchy. I think this dovetails to say the labels that we put on relationships are very emotionally loaded. They’re very historically loaded so let’s start breaking that apart. Elizabeth Brake is saying, “We want to signal to 3rd, 4th, or 5th parties, but to the outside world that this is a significant relationship.”
Regardless of who it’s with and whether I’m romantic, sexual, related to by blood, or whatever the case may be, I need to signal to these organizations that control the access and the benefits I get that this is an important partnership. You are cobbling together these very different relationship molecules or however you want to refer to them to say, “This is significant and should have the benefits from these various institutions like the hospitals, the government, and the corporations like the Waterpark family pass. I want in on that.”
Also, family. As I said, this is about kinship. When I read through everything she’s talking about, I know she’s discussing it in terms of marriage because that’s the existing base of law but what we’re talking about would be a new branch of family law that is about codifying kinship. Opt-in family of choice with legal recognition.
The hurdles with marriage are significant enough in the sense of you enter into this legal bond and get these benefits. What would be interesting to see and I think that this is further support for your point, Amy, about focusing benefits on the individual so then they can do whatever they want relationship-wise. The worry and the concern are that people game the system.
I’m not saying they don’t do that. I’m saying it’s harder to game the marriage system than it would be for me to say, “Designate Laura for this. Designate this person for this,” in part because those relationships can be ephemeral, unlike a marriage, which there are grave consequences for dissolution.
We’re trying to wrap this whole thing in bureaucracy and there are only so many people to execute the bureaucracy saying, “Everyone with who I have a kinship, we should all be supporting each other and the government should support that.” That feels right, but how do you manage it?
Here’s the thing with bureaucracy. If you’re going to have a bureaucratic anything, have it be standardized. It’s because the bureaucrats, if they have to have all these little special cases in there, they’re going to mess it up and it’s going to be harder for everybody. Again, this gets back to individual support. One kind of baseline support and then people can add gravy on top of that.
This article that I’m working on is about supporting singles at work, one of the solutions is as follows, benefits packages. You could have a needs-based benefit package, which is often the case that people find fundamentally unfair. People who have greater needs get better benefits. The thought experiment is this. If you get divorced, you lose benefits. That doesn’t seem right. You could have performance-based benefits so your highest performers get the best benefits.
People don’t tend to like that in part because these are benefits. People rely on them to try to live a baseline of life. The last one is equal benefits. The problem with that is you can give people equal amounts of benefits, but they don’t need the same benefits. For example, I don’t need family healthcare or life insurance.
The solution to that is you create a cafeteria-style benefits package where you get a certain number of dollars or points and you get a list or a menu of things that you select. For example, if you have a family, you spend your benefits on that family package but if you don’t have a family, maybe you use it for pet insurance, professional development funds, etc. That works within this individual framework where you get to opt-in to certain benefits.
I would love a housing stipend as a single person living alone.
To add to what you were saying, Laura, is with the notion of relationship anarchy or this idea that I’ve been developing, which has a better name called relationship design is how do we educate people to have these conversations with their non-romantic partners? That is, how is it that we model or teach people to have conversations with their friends? I’m old enough now that I have friends of 20, 30-plus years where we are bonded together and we are making plans for the future.
I have my friend Janet, who’s going to euthanize me at some point. We’ve talked it through. The idea is like, “How is it that people design their relationships in a way that is akin to kin-like structures, which don’t require as much conversation because there are norms around, ‘What I’m supposed to do for my sister if she gets sick?’”
I think end-of-life planning is a good place to start. None of us are getting out of here alive. We’re all going to face it and there are lots of moves in various social circles and cultures to take away the taboo of talking about death and all the horrible stuff that can happen on the way there. There is a project called The Conversations Project. It’s in Wisconsin. There was a small city in Wisconsin that had this amazingly huge rate of people doing their advanced directives for healthcare, wills, and all that stuff.
It was either a nonprofit or maybe even a few individuals that started finding good ways to sit down and talk to people about it. People would talk to their friends about it. It became normalized in the culture of the city in Wisconsin. People started making these plans. You can take a lot of the stress out of it if you start by tackling what might be the scariest thing possible. What’ll happen to me if you don’t die in your sleep? If you’re lingering in a terrible condition for a while, who is going to make decisions for you on your behalf?
Thinking about that stuff as one individual is difficult. Talking about it with friends and community members can be a little lower stakes than talking about it with family or with a spouse. Personally, I think talking about the end of life planning and talking about it with friends or the community first rather than with relationships where there are already strong legal defaults in place about it.
You have to think through the practicalities. You can’t rely on the defaults, but it lowers the emotional pressure of even having the conversation. You can make decisions later. Maybe you want to have your spouse in this particular role or your parents or whatever but starting a conversation like that with friends and community first makes it easier for people to get past the taboos of talking about very potentially scary things.
Do you have some parting thoughts?
Marriage is a QWERTY keyboard. I’m a writer. I use a keyboard every day. I don’t know how to type on any other type of keyboard than a QWERTY keyboard. QWERTY keyboards word designed to slow people down.
It’s because typewriters used to jam.
I typed on one of those old typewriters at a museum one time. They needed to slow people down because they would jam like that but the thing is you have an inherent tension in the marriage. It’s supposed to be an institution that supports people, but also impedes people and creates barriers to exit. That is a fundamental tension that for a lot of people breaks it. They either need more freedom or they need the restrictions to be tighter on leaving it.
You can type beautiful things with a QWERTY keyboard. I was visiting family and my uncle came to visit my mom. He is my mom’s younger brother. He lost one of his daughters to cancer and his wife, my aunt, to heart disease a few years ago. He showed this photo album that he had made of his entire family over the last many years. He was going through it and marriage is not only a contract to him. It is core to who he is and how he feels connected to society.
He’s very Catholic. How he feels connected to his spirituality. I don’t want to take that away. I don’t want to minimize that. People who find deep meanings in institutions, even if those institutions have some messed up parts of their origin and marriage certainly does, it doesn’t mean it can’t be a good thing. I think it’s unfortunate that she titled this book Minimizing Marriage rather than Expanding Kinship because we don’t have to be framing this as taking anything away from anybody.
When we’re talking about normalization, to hold up examples of different relationships that have that same rich history and deep meaning and that have brought so much to people’s lives and saying, “It’s not the Disney wedding. That’s not what happened to get to this happily ever after. There are other ways of doing it.” I think that’s important as well.
Laura Grant and Amy Gahran, thank you for doing the first-ever book club.
Thank you, Peter McGraw.
That was a very McGrawian kind of wrap-up, don’t you think? Where’s my tequila?
I won’t rule out future book clubs, but I’ll say this. I’ll be more judicious in my choice of books.
I wouldn’t have waited through this book if you hadn’t asked us to. There’s some stuff in there that’s worth seeing. There just needs to be a cliffs notes edition.
We did it. Cheers.
- Elizabeth Brake
- Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- The All-or-Nothing Marriage – Past Episode
- Sweden – The Singles’ Capital Of The World – Past Episode
- The Love Jones Cohort
- The Conversations Project
About Amy Gahran
Amy Gahran is a writer and journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not writing about energy, technology and business, she’s researching and writing about unconventional relationships and the power of social norms. She’s currently working on a second edition of her 2017 book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator” — a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity.
About Laura Grant
Laura Grant is a child-free, sex-positive solo polyamorist who enjoys first dates, job interviews, and crafting complex spreadsheets for pleasure and profit. When not traveling to experience different cultures she finds great meaning investing in her relationships with herself and others.