Marriage and Family and the Government

I wrote most of this as an exercise for a class on narrative, but I think I was looking for an excuse to work through this anyway.

I was surprised when I realized that I was one of those people out to destroy traditional marriage. Depending on the definition of “traditional marriage,” I always might have tended towards destruction. In the 1970s Indiana small town of my childhood, “marriage” happened between a man and a woman, usually of the same social class and race. Disparity in social class happened, but few regarded the difference as a positive thing. As for interracial marriage, well, that presupposes that anyone in the county wasn’t white. My Dad’s high school buddy married a Filipina woman, and they almost never came to visit back then. I had to ask my mother to explain why. Now, interracial marriages are more accepted.

The parties to currently-defined traditional marriage, then, would be one man and one woman, presumably for the “preservation of the family.” I can point to my husband’s sisters, however, and note that family comes in many forms besides man, woman, and two-point-however-many children. As my husband’s elder sister could not have children, his youngest sister carried them for her; the older sister’s husband, the sisters, and the two children lived quite happily together. Legal rights, however, were complex, and they had to stitch together quite a bit of legal documentation in case anything happened to any of the adults. Something just did not seem fair about that, and thus I was already predisposed to similar arguments for same-sex marriage.

As a young teenager, however, I completely enjoyed the works of Robert A. Heinlein, who had some peculiar views on how marriage might work in the future. He included varieties of polygamy in many combinations as well as contract term marriages. As the public debate over the nature of marriage became more prevalent, I thought about how these alternative forms of marriage might be helpful to people like my husband’s sisters. Perhaps alternatives could work for some, and others could keep their religious ceremonies?

But then tax time rolled around, and filling out my tax forms reminded me that “marriage” is deeply embedded into governmental and economic structures. We file taxes based on “household,” but household is really a narrow definition of parent(s) plus children and perhaps dependent adults. Three adults just do not fit into the tax structure as a household. I thought about other families I’d met, such as the extended Indian family who lived in three apartments in Hayward, California. Siblings, cousins, children—but all interdependent. How does a tax filing structure fit that? And what about an adult child living with his or her parents? Was that not the “traditional” way we lived before, when unmarried (and sometimes married) persons lived with family?

From there, I had only to consider other ways in which “man+woman+children” embedded in economic structures. We have a whole industry based on the dissolution of marriage and the conflict between divorced parents. Perhaps my first marriage might have worked better as a five-year contract; it certainly would have ended with less unhappiness if the expectation was for something less than forever. Marriage is embedded in the job market as well. Many employers offer benefits for spouses or dependent children, but likely not other adults in a household. The Affordable Care Act reinforced the paradigm even more.

And that was when I figured out that I really wanted to destroy traditional marriage—not because I want to stop men and women from marrying each other in religious ceremonies, but because I would like to see the structures that reinforce “one-or-two-adult(s) plus children” removed or replaced with structures that allow the family unit to be built the way families really build themselves. Now, one can argue that the existing structures exist for the support of children, but if that were the case, then divorce would be a lot harder to get. Maybe, if we were more accepting of other arrangements of family (and that includes the stereotypical dude living in his parents’ basement), we might find that parents have more support and more options for child care than the existing attitudes permit. And as a bonus, maybe with less government subsidy. I always think about this at tax time, after all.

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