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Jeanette Winterson: we need to be more imaginative about modern marriage

The novelist was unsure about gay marriage why conform to patriarchal ideals of monogamy? She may have decided to tie the knot herself, but she still chafes against the idea of for ever

I am a married woman. That fact affects my thinking onmarriage because my thinking has already directed medown the aisle or in my case under a chuppah, asmy partner is a Jew. My wife has been married before I am number three, so I reckon third time lucky. My partners previous marriages lasted six months and 34 years, respectively. Both marriages were to men, and one produced children. Now she has me. And I have her. Thats what marriage means, doesnt it?

Jane Austen liked to end her novels with a marriage. Shakespeare comedies end with marriages, although the uncomfortable feeling that not everyone will live happily ever after is always there (think The Taming of the Shrew), and not least because when we visit fully grown marriages in Shakespeare the roll call is uneasy (Caesar doesnt listen to his wife, Macbeth does, Othello murders his, Leontes nearly does, and so on). Every aeroplane romcom persuades us that the right person is out there, and that, after a series of trials, funny and sad, we will find ourselves with the perfect partner, for ever after.

Fairytales, especially the Disney versions, lean heavily on frog into prince, princess out of tower, glass slippers and true loves kiss. Where do all those wicked stepmothers come from? Second marriages, of course.

We know that starter marriages often end. That many people divorce or remarry. But we all sing along to those love songs, and the success of Fifty Shades of Grey was a worrying zeitgeist longing for a fairytale ending with a Bluebeard/Big Bad Wolf who just wants a nice girl, really.

But those marriage vows richer, poorer, have, hold, sickness, health, honour, worship, obey and, most of all, for ever is that liberation or a life sentence?

Standing under the chuppah a canopy on four poles, each pole held by a dear friend I was able to make certain promises to Susie. These were my promises, not someone elses idea of what I should promise, and so they have real meaning for us both. Later I had the calligrapher Stephen Raw write them out. They hang on our bedroom wall. When I am in a good mood, or a bad mood, I read them out loud, and, for different reasons, depending on my mood, they steady me.

I promise to look at you and always see you.
I promise to listen to you, even when you say things I dont
want to hear.
I promise to respect you: the you that is you; the you that
is not me; the you that is not us.
I promise to stand by you in the world.
I promise to delight in you.
I promise to treat you like a Jewish princess.
With my body, with my mind, with my heart, with my
imagination, I promise to love you for as long as I live.

I like sleeping next to my promises. I have an idea that they reinforce themselves, subliminally, while I sleep. For me, love is like gardening, or writing, or working out, or cooking, or eating, or meditation, or reading its an everyday activity that needs to be fresh and alive every day, tended, and with tenderness. Hard work, commitment, a conscious choice. A sense of: this is what I do because this is who I am.

The idea of getting married, having a party, going on honeymoon, then expecting that huge change in circumstances and outlook to somehow manage itself, seems crazy to me. I dont want to take my marriage for granted, because I dont want to take love for granted. And marriage and love were famously, conspicuously apart for most of the history of marriage. Wuthering Heights, misread as a love story, is really about property and class. Look at how Heathcliff manipulates marriage to ruin his enemies. Cathy cannot choose love shes a woman and men choose for her so she takes the usual route, and chooses death. Like Madame Bovary. Or Turandot. Or Violetta in La Traviata.

The
The white wedding is a Victorian invention brides holding hands. Photograph: Alamy

The 19th century is nearly as problematic for love and marriage as for religion. By which I mean our assumptions about fidelity, purity, the role and purpose of marriage in society, and in our private lives. And the very different expectations for men and women around sex and sexuality.

The white wedding is a Victorian invention. Victoria was the first person to wear a one-off white dress that couldnt be used again. The long-suffering wife and the fallen woman are both Victorian. We dont talk about women who have sex outside marriage as fallen any more, but we still have double standards and, somewhere, we still believe the white wedding and the wedding vows and the happy ever after are what we want, rather than a more recent picture of what is supposed to be the pinnacle of human relationships.

Yet marriage has changed so much over time that it is hard to sympathise with the traditionalists who pop up whenever the world tries to move on a bit. Its a pity we dont have a handy reference book to keep in the loo; a Horrible Histories would be perfect. Heres what Horrible Histories: Marriage might look like.

For the first thousand years after the death of Christ, the Christian church regarded marriage as the second best option to celibacy. No sex, good. Some sex, OK if you were going to have children though this was a bit of a waste of time as the early Christian church thought that the Second Coming was about to happen. (Mrs Winterson was still waiting for it when I was born the main reason, I think, that I am adopted: she just wouldnt do the necessaries to have a child of her own.)

Marriage confusion was a Christian problem, not a pagan or Jewish problem, though neither pagans nor Jews put love at the centre of marriage. Marriage was a practical arrangement about money, land, property, business, peace-keeping; everything and anything really, except love. Love was understood as a consequence of marriage; not its primary purpose.

It is hard for us, fixated on love and sex, to understand that, for many, giving up marriage was not so big a sacrifice. To live in a community as nuns and monks did, both separately and together was likely to have been much more convivial, fun even, than being forced to bed and board with someone you couldnt care less about. Fear of being alone is modern. People didnt live long, community was stronger, religious communities were little worlds, and no one was worried about being left on the shelf or turning into a crazy cat lady.

For women, especially, alternatives to marriage were attractive. Women became chattels of their husbands on marriage. They could not own property unless it had been specified that it was for her own separate use. This didnt change in the UK until 1882 with the Married Womens Property Act. Do we really believe that anyone now would defend those hundreds of years of tradition where a woman had no money of her own and could not take out of a marriage any wealth she had brought into it? No wonder that Jesus made the perfect husband for so many women.

It wasnt until 1215 that the Roman Catholic church decided that marriage is a sacrament, and began to emphasise the biological family as a recurring reflection of the holy family. A priestly blessing on marriages that were basically DIY you got together in front of friends and family and said, Were married, OK? became the new normal. Interestingly, love entered the equation or, at least, the notion of consent. Parents, though, could still betroth their children of any age; there was no age barrier to marriage, and arranged marriages were common. Mary, Queen of Scots, was betrothed as a child: no wonder she was trouble later.

Our first Brexit the break from Rome, and the establishment of the Church of England was a consequence of the pope refusing heir-crazed Henry a divorce. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, helped Henry annul his marriage in the sight of God, who was presumably looking the other way. On a roll, Cranmer invented a whole new brand of worship, including the Book of Common Prayer and there, for the first time (this was 1549), was the marriage ceremony everyone recognises the have and hold, richer, poorer, sickness, health etc.

Malcolm
Malcolm Brown (left) and Joe Schofield marry in the early hours of 1 January 2015 in one of the first same-sex marriages to take place in Scotland. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

So it was not until the Reformation that the state got involved in marriage and ever since that time there have been the arguments and tensions over who owns marriage. Is it the church? Is it the state? And in that tug of war what about the rights, wishes and desires of the couple who just want to get married?

Civil partnerships, made legal for gay couples in 2004, represented a major decoupling of church and state, because the church still insists that marriage is between a man and a woman. Equal marriage, therefore, is a huge problem for the conservative elements of thechurch, whether Catholic or Protestant. Indeed, all the fundamentalist iterations of religion of any kind will not accept homosexual unions.

If we are to reform marriage, the first and most important step is to nullify the power of religion to dictate the rights of individuals over their own bodies. And over their own hearts. I respect religious faith, but I do not respect bigotry and ignorance. It is not the job of the state to whitewash bigotry and ignorance by calling it religious or cultural practice.

Marriage now is usually about love and commitment, butit is also about rights and responsibilities, and protection under the law. Those things need to be fair, equal, clear andapplicable to everyone regardless of religion or sexualpreference. That is where the state, in a secular society, can act for the common good.

Given that a priestly blessing was not a requisite of a binding marriage for 1,200 years after the death of Christ, there is no reason for religious conservatives to call it tradition and perhaps, taking a larger view of the history of marriage, there is no reason for gay people of faith to require it.

In the history of marriage, we should recall that divorce was crushingly difficult and expensive in the UK until the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. Even then it still carried stigma and shame with it, and even now Catholics who divorce andremarry may not take communion. Reforming divorce isitself a way of reforming marriage, though reforming marriage might drastically cut divorce rates and the misery and stress that goes with it.

For ever is too long for most of us whatever the church thinks and that needs to be recognised. We are all living longer, and not all of us can stay with that same one person for ever. Marriage has always been a contract, so why not discuss fixed-term contracts? I want to stay with Susie, and Ihope I can, but I would have preferred to sign up for 10 years because for ever makes me panic.

What of the children, though? Well, children go through divorce no matter how often we say for ever. A fixed term might allow both parents to feel less pressure and more responsibility. Maybe not, but unless we discuss these things without huffing, puffing and shouting about God or moral breakdown, we are not really consenting adults in public or in private we are adults who are not thinking about the things that most affect us.

And that includes sex. Why is sex outside marriage if you are married so threatening? Gay thinking has generally taken a broader view of sex, love and commitment, and how to manage non-monogamy and the fact that non-monogamy is not a special privilege for men, while women stay at home reading romance novels.

One of the reasons I was unsure about gay marriage was that the gay community stood as a critique of and a challenge to heterosexual, patriarchal norms, where a nuclear family, opposite-sex parents, monogamy (for show, at least), and woman as the unequal partner were offered as historical, inevitable, God-given and correct.

Far from being unstable, many gay households predicated on non-monogamy but loving commitment thrived. The Aids crisis of the 80s and 90s showed how community really worked. Loving units, closer to the brotherhoods and sisterhoods the early church would have recognised, were formed spontaneously, and held. There was no way of recognising these bonds in law and if we were to reform marriage, wouldnt it be sane and sensible to allow bonds of affection, with legal benefits and obligations, to take their place alongside marriage? We cant adopt adults in the UK, so what do we do about the real deep feelings and commitments we have to those we cannot, or do not wish to, marry? Rights within the family structure are useless to those who make their own families in their own way.

I fantasise about communities at present only imagined as retirement homes for renegades where those who do not wish to marry or form one-to-one unions could live in congenial company, pooling resources and moving beyond both marriage and the binary oppressions of gender. We could be more imaginative, couldnt we? I dont mean thatsomeone should marry their dog or their fridge, and Idont have a lot of time for this fashion of people marrying themselves, but I would like to see creativity applied to loveand affection.

And what are we afraid of? In a world filled with hate, the more bonds of affection we can establish, the better.

Jeanette Winterson will deliver her Reformation lecture on3June at the 30th Hay festival. To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, 30 writers and thinkers fromaround the world including Stephen Fry, Elif Shafak and Tahmima Anam will reimagine institutions and orthodoxies for a better world. The Hay festival runs from25May to 4June. For tickets visit hayfestival.org orcall thebox office on 01497 822629.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/08/jeanette-winterson-marriage-monogamy-wedding

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