Do I? My quest to get to the bottom of our obsession with marriage

I’m in the pub on a Thursday and I’m complaining, again, about Yet Another Person Getting Married. My friend and I do the familiar dance, rattling through our arsenal of stock opinions about why marriage is trash. Intellectually. Emotionally. Imaginatively. Sexually. Historically. Everythingally. We laugh, we talk about “the normals”, we joke about wedding fairs and anodyne idiots who spend thousands on their weddings, but are too strapped to give to the local food bank. Then we finish our £5.80 guest pale ale and leave, smug intellectual folk who’ve got one over on Big Society and the thwarted plans it had for us. But as I wave goodbye, my sense of satisfaction wanes.

Because I’ve been lying. The truth is, I’m desperate to get married. The truth is, all I want, really, is to slot into that statistic – to be another second in the ticking clock of weddings. I’ve always wanted it: I made a stunning, plump bride on the playground in primary school; I planned my offensively gay wedding to the letter throughout my teens; I wept over men who left me at university as the potential for marriage leaked out of my life; and I spent four years on what I told a friend was my Wedding Diet. We laughed, but I was deadly serious.

I grew up in the northwest, harbouring run-of-the-mill fantasies: I dreamed constantly of getting wed. The bridal box, the obsession with romcoms, the memorisation of every Sex and the City quote ever, because where I’m from getting married is what you do. No questions. So I believed in marriage. I venerated it.

I craved the safety of wedlock more than my heterosexual siblings, because I spent most of my childhood and adolescence feeling unsafe. Tormented, physically and emotionally, for being a basic white girl who loved weddings, who also happened to be in a boy’s body. But I was sure that when I met my groom he’d see me for me and we would be wed, and I would curl up in his big lap and flick the remote as he pulled me in tight. I would fantasise like this from my early teens to my early 20s, serotonin coursing through my body at the idea of being loved enough to belong, by law, by God, and by society, to something as normal as marriage.

Then my life changed. I moved to London. I met a group of radical friends with iffy personal hygiene, I went on anarchist protests, I read the Communist Manifesto (and loved it!) and I railed against The Man. I believed in the fight for a better world. Serotonin began to flood through me at the thought of dismantling overbearing structures, not cementing them.

See, to be part of a proper anarchic community one must decry any and all pre-established structure: gender, sexuality, capitalism, marriage. Because marriage, one might argue, is the point of confluence of all the bad things in the world: patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, racism, capitalism. It is, when pushed through a socially conscious prism, an utterly unthinkable practice.

And so I had thought my way out of my wedding fantasy – the one where I’d dance to Sixpence None the Richer and write vows so all-consumingly poetic they’d make Byron sound like wire wool. In working my way out of my life’s ambition to be wed, I had opted to make the personal political, the political personal. Since I left home I had railed too hard, too many times, against marriage and the patriarchal, homophobic structure whence it came from ever to consider getting married. So I joined the anti-marriage camp. Disappointing my poor mum in the process. But impressing my friends and my vehemently anti-marriage new boyfriend.

But no matter how many versions of me there have been since I left home and became someone who subtweets the Conservative party, there are fragments of the me from before that slice through my current self. And as time passes, and those around me are either marrying, childing, or housebuying (imagine!), like clockwork the question appears: how do I want to organise my future? And the easiest, most accessible, and most familiar organising principle for that future is marriage.

So here I am, edging 30 on my way back from the pub, straddling two camps, practically to the point of doing the splits. It’s hard to admit, in this current moment in society, that something you believe is in conflict with something you feel. Just weeks before, I had been at My Best Friend’s Wedding, atop Arthur’s Seat with my wonderful boyfriend of six years with whom I’d been eye-rolling the whole day, practically having to gag myself to stop the words “will you marry me” from bubbling up out of my mouth. Shocked at myself. Disgusted at myself. Intrigued by myself.

Marriage, specifically, exists along a really peculiar fault line where the personal and political often can’t be reconciled; where the human frailty of wanting what we’ve been conditioned to want clashes with the self-improving instinct to disavow the illogical and the orthodox. How do we integrate this very human irrationality in a time where living your politics is so urgent? Can we live lives without hypocrisy, or is a little hypocrisy kind of healthy? What, really, is integrity anyway? I found myself, the person who has taken their clothes off in the lobby of Big Pharma companies and called out their friends, family and dreadful people on Instagram endless times, asking this question.

So I decided to go on a quest: a quest to see if I could marry a difference in head and heart. If I could, then I would propose to my partner. If I couldn’t, then I would swear off marriage for ever.

I thought I knew the answer I would find. I thought I’d get to the end and have made a case for why marriage is a disaster not only politically, but emotionally, too. I would be cured of my childish desires and I could forge on into my future as one of those annoying people who attends every wedding, but doesn’t bring a gift. Along the way I discovered that, like the perfect wedding dress, the answer to the marriage question is not one-size-fits-all. And I found myself in situations where my judgmental politics and preteen emotions were constantly upended.

I spoke to queer people for whom marriage offered the most unique, incredible feeling of belonging. An idea so radical it seemed to overturn the archaicness of the institution in a second. I spoke to my best friend from home who explained that taking her new husband’s surname –which I had told her was not a very feminist thing to do! – was the first time in her life she felt as though she’d been a part of a family since her dad left when she was young. I was met with constant examples of people who might not have made the right choice politically in my eyes, but whose reasons for tying the knot were far more valid than my political distaste for an institution. Like Zach who married and divorced young, as a means to explore his waning relationship to Mormonism. Like Amir and Stan, whose marriage allows them to be radically polyamorous and feel secure in their primary partnership. And like Amanda, too, who, in order to feel like she fits in, married a ghost.

I interviewed the world’s best divorce lawyer, brilliant anti-marriage academics, radical non-monogamous folk, divorced women, divorced men, all of whom agreed that when marriage performs its function it is a useful tool in delivering and apportioning rights and boundaries. It allows people separated by constructed national borders to cross them for love. It allows those who might not have visitation rights, or rights to inheritances, or those who have given up jobs and raised children then find themselves in the middle of a divorce, the protection they deserve after putting time and commitment into a partnership. When marriage works, it can be an apparatus of protection.

But every time I found an answer, I also found another question. So why doesn’t everyone have the rights marriage affords? Why don’t those in any romantic or single setup get the same as those who have chosen to be recognised by the state? Are we perpetuating injustice by engaging in the institution of marriage while, say, many trans people still can’t legally get married as who they are? And, fundamentally, still, why marriage? Why have we all decided this particular system means love, and anything else isn’t quite serious enough?

Because marriage is, and has always been, a nifty tool of the state: why else would it come with so many legal benefits and be so doggedly promoted to us all from primary school age? Because it’s a way of keeping society in a recognisable shape. A state that depends on the union of two people to produce something that in turn contributes to its purpose: children, assets, debts – all things that are managed by married couples so that a civil society (as we know it) can function in a methodical, controlled way and the state won’t be stuck with the difficulty of raising abandoned kids or supporting ex-spouses or, God forbid, caring for ailing singletons. Divide – into pairs – and conquer.

Over the course of this mission I had, at least in moments in my own mind, untethered marriage from the idea of love, forever, commitment. What proved harder to unstick was the association of marriage with safety, normality, acceptance. But marriage means marriage. It means a lovely day, with some useful legal protections. It doesn’t mean safety – a marriage certificate isn’t going to save me from a transphobic attack, is it? – and who wants normality anyway? As Sylvie, the three-time gay divorcee told me: “At my age there aren’t married or divorced people, there’s just boring and interesting people.”

While I have found real justifications for getting married as things stand, I have become more incensed with the institution itself. So perhaps it’s about asking this question: if I were to be married, if I just can’t resist the pull of the sparkling rings and years of fighting, would I continue to push for the liberation and protection of those whom the system I am benefiting from fails? If the answer is yes, then perhaps it’s better still that we take as many protections from an uncaring state as is possible in the continuing fight towards a different world. So perhaps, as a political move, I do get married? Perhaps we should all marry our lovers, our friends, our acquaintances, and gain the rights we deserve already. Because we can be many contradictory things at once – in this case both married and anti-marriage – and we can still believe in, and fight for, a better world.

First Comes Love (On Marriage and Other Ways of Being Together) by Tom Rasmussen is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99. Buy it for £13.04 at




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