Technically speaking, marriage is a social construct, because us humans invented the whole concept of saying “I do”.
Even though living together in family units happens in nature, you’re never going to see a chimpanzee getting down on one knee to pop the question.
But even if marriage is a social construct, that doesn’t mean that’s all it is. There’s no denying that to many people, it means a whole lot more.
What is the key function of marriage?
If we’re going to be super pragmatic, then you could say that since it was invented, marriage has played several key roles within our societies.
• Managing sexual behavior
Marriage helps to reduce the sexual competition between people and allows society to have some control overpopulation — by creating certain social rules and expectations around having children.
• Fulfilling economic needs
There’s a responsibility of care when it comes to things like food, shelter, clothing and general safety.
• Providing an environment to bring up children
Particularly in the past, marriage gave children legitimacy in society, which impacted things like inheritance.
Even if that is how marriage started, It’s fair to say that both the function and meaning of marriage has evolved over time.
The purpose of marriage and how it’s changed over the years
Legally speaking, the role of marriage has always been to lay out the rights of partners and also any kids they might have.
Historically, romance very rarely came into things.
In fact, family studies professor Stephanie Coontz says that marrying for love is a really recent idea that didn’t become popular until the mid 19th Century.
“Through most of human history, love was not at all the point of marriage. Marriage was about getting families together, which was why there were so many controls. Too much love was thought to be a real threat to the institution of marriage.”
Even if arranged marriages statistically still last longer nowadays, the cultural trend certainly seems to have shifted more from convenience towards love.
Do you think marriage will ever outlive its usefulness as a social construct?
As our shared cultural beliefs around marriage have already transformed from a purely practical arrangement into something else, our perception of marriage will probably continue to change in the future too.
Marriage seems to be less popular than it was a few generations ago.
According to the Pew Research Center, 14% of American adults say they don’t plan to marry at all and another 27% aren’t sure.
Well, the fact is that even if fewer of us are tying the knot, the vast majority of people do still expect to marry eventually.
Even now — when there are plenty of socially acceptable ways for families to live together and marriage is increasingly deinstitutionalized — we’re still choosing it.
If 4 out of 5 young adults will still get married when they no longer need to, for Cherlin the most interesting question becomes — why does anybody get married anymore?
“It’s symbolic value of leading ‘the good life’ is more than it used to be. Practically speaking marriage is less necessary, but symbolically it’s distinctive, it’s more important. Precisely because not everybody does it, it’s a symbol of saying “I have a good personal life and I want to celebrate that by getting married.”
So perhaps marriage has already outlived its initial usefulness as a social construct, but along the way started to fulfill other purposes for us.
Are relationships a social construct?
If marriage is a social construct, then are all relationships too?
What we would probably consider as relationships exist in the natural world all around us, with some animals and birds also mating for life. The reason animals pair up is so they can work together for their survival and to care for their offspring.
Maybe where it becomes trickier is trying to define what a romantic relationship means to us or how we view love. These are some pretty deep topics.
Even though biologists think that socially monogamous relationships are natural to us human beings, how we choose to have those relationships is surely influenced by society — so to a certain extent, they’ll always be a bit of a social construct.
Polyamorous philosopher Carrie Jenkins goes one step further in her book “What Love Is”, to argue that the whole concept of love and relationships is the product of a very narrow social script.
“Some people think it’s made up like fiction is made up, but I’m trying to say it’s made up like the law is made up. We made it, but now it’s real.”
What makes something a social construct?
I think an interesting question to ponder might be, whether it even matters if marriage is a social construct?
After all, we live by plenty of socially made-up ideas that are effectively an agreed upon story that we collectively tell ourselves.
The money we buy our morning coffee with, the homes we “own”, the government who decides the laws we live by, even the language I’m writing this in — they’re all examples of social constructs that we all follow every day.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his popular book “Sapiens”, says it’s our ability to create and follow a shared group narrative that actually helped turn us into the most dominant species on the planet.
He claims it’s these common stories we live by that were responsible for the mass cooperation needed to work together and advance.
Of course, this takes an evolutionary view of the world, when marriage for plenty of people still has a religious significance.
Was marriage truly ordained by God or is it just a social construct?
Whether you believe that marriage was ordained by God or not is probably going to come down to your own personal belief or individual faith.
Some Christians would perhaps cite passages from the bible that refer to the first marriage ordained by God taking place between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Meanwhile, plenty of other people are going to argue that religion itself is just a social construct and something we don’t need.
The bottom line: What is the true meaning of marriage?
I think it would be overly reductionist to say marriage means less just because it’s a social construct.
For a lot of people, an underlying problem with marriage is that its meaning has been imposed on them by society, but I guess we still have the freedom to choose our own individual meaning for it.
In that way, it is just a piece of paper or a social contract if that’s all it feels like to you. Similarly, it becomes so much more if you want it to be.
There are many reasons people decide to get married, ranging from the purely practical to the fairytale romance.
Arguably, none are better or worse reasons to get married, they are just your reasons.
In the simplest terms, marriage is a union but ultimately you get to decide what that union represents for you.