Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It’s an agreement that two people will create and build a relationship together. Is that unromantic? Maybe it seems that way because we think of contracts as regulating things like house purchases, business transactions, loans and financial agreements. We like – in fact we demand – strong binding written commitments when it comes to the inanimate things in our lives. So why don’t we take the same approach to the agreement that is probably the most important thing in our life and will have the greatest impact on us – the relationship with our partner?
The “piece of paper” is the written representation of the agreement between the couple based on a level-headed discussion between the two individuals who are coming together. Relationships can easily be derailed without a clear understanding of things like how the couple will approach finances, shared life values, how to deal with in-laws (or simply outlaw them), where in the world the couple wants to live, what working arrangements, who will stay at home to raise children (if anyone) or even if each of the two want children at all.
This more substantial meaning and agreement that ought to go into building a relationship is absent in today’s popular discussion about marriage – or any long term marriage-type partnership. It may not surprise you to know that I’m an advocate of marriage, but I believe that the same clarity of agreement should apply to all intimate relationships. Many of today’s relationships are all about falling in love and achieving the dizzy heights of romance. And love and romance are great – I wrote a whole book about searching for them called Love in a Headscarf. However, side by side with feeling “that feeling” the wider framework of agreement that I mention above is mostly unclear and un-spelt out in the grammar of the relationship. The piece of paper ought not to be symbolic but rather it should be an important verbalisation and written commitment – a document – of the aspirations and understanding of the relationship.
The Imilchil Marriage Festival takes places in a Moroccan village in the Atlas mountains every autumn, where bachelors from the surrounding area will come to see a range of bachelorettes that want to get married. I’m generally ambivalent about the idea of marriage markets, but the way that these women set about engaging in a relationship and empowering themselves in it is pertinent to our discussion here. They will weave a rug in the run up to the event, incorporating various symbols which represent what they are looking for in a marriage. A line of camels represents a taste for travel, a row of mosques might indicate an interest in religion. The rug with its myriad of symbols represents her aspirations for her marriage. As the bachelors are introduced to the bachelorettes, they inspect the rug to see what kind of marriage the woman has in mind, so that the two of them have a shared perspective on life and a common understanding of the relationship. In later years, if the wife feels that her husband is not honouring their commitment, she just points to her rug to remind him of their agreement. I believe that the husband ought really to have his own rug too so there is a shared understanding of the relationship. In essence, the rug here is the ‘bit of paper’ that we dismiss so easily.
The state’s role in the marital contract is the same as with other contracts – to help the parties to manage the contract by offering a context which is conducive to the contract, and to intervene and resolve the breakdown of the contract in the most suitable fashion. Traditionally this was managed by the support structures of families or religious institutions, both of which were there to help the couple build and manage their relationship. But the influence of both of those has now diminished.
However, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s approach, for example, is wrong because it treats marriage as an arrangement which is about children. What we need from politicians is not tax breaks, but better institutions to bolster relationships. Why not have guidance available from relationship centres. We don’t have innate relationship skills – we have to learn them. We have “family planning” for our sex lives; what about relationship planning for our emotional and personal lives?
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam and Muslim women and is the author of Love in a Headscarf, released this month in the United States. This article was previously published in The Guardian’s Comment is Free.