About Last Night: Isn’t it time to overhaul the concept of marriage?

Q: Tanya and I are not religious, so when we fell in love we didn’t see the need for a bit of paper from the government to seal our relationship. Years later, with a great family, we don’t regret not getting married. During the marriage equality debate we kept quiet, believing everyone should have equal rights, but the reality is that marriage breakdown lies behind much of society’s misery, violence, litigation, poverty and vice. Isn’t it time to overhaul the whole concept?

A: The concept of marriage is pretty much universal, but, historically, it was a religious sacrament, or an arrangement designed to consolidate wealth and to ensure property was passed on to legitimate progeny. In fact, great love stories were often about forbidden or unsanctioned unions that usually ended tragically. The "fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after (even if we live to 100)" narrative is a relatively recent concept that can lead to unrealistic expectations.

At this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, I chaired a session that included a presentation by Professor Dennis Altman, the renowned Australian academic, writer, and gay rights activist. His latest book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist, touches on a range of themes, including marriage equality, and I was fascinated to hear him say that, actually, most of the gay community has no interest in marriage, but that it was agreed to stay quiet and be supportive while the marriage equality debate was going on, which mirrors your comments.

Maureen Matthews. Credit:Simon Schluter

In a subsequent conversation with Altman, he observed that gay people have grown up in the same culture of romantic love and fairytale endings, so many are just as susceptible as everyone else to the idealised fantasy of a fabulous wedding, followed by a life of wedded bliss. Unfortunately, many of them are already experiencing disillusionment and the nightmare of divorce. In fact, a family law lawyer of my acquaintance cynically joked that he was delighted by the legalisation of same-sex marriage because his practice would double.

Altman observes that most gay men prefer a more fluid, non-monogamous lifestyle. This does not preclude having loving, long-term relationships, but allows for more flexibility and freedom. Making this work requires mutual respect, negotiation and trust, which means the relationship is not taken for granted.

Of course, jealousy and insecurity are only human, but can be managed. For example, Altman cites the "100 Kilometre Rule" – no having sex with other people less than 100 kilometres from home. Perhaps the straight community could learn useful strategies by observing successful gay relationships.

One example of the influence of gay culture on others is the increasing popularity of hook-up apps. Ten years ago, Grindr was developed to help gay men locate other men in their area. Today, Tinder, the heterosexual equivalent, is incredibly popular. In his book, Altman observes that: “People can be remarkably honest about their desires through the safety of an electronic exchange. Women I know who've used Tinder complain that gay male sites are more honest about wanting to just hook up for sex. But gay men also use these sites to find companionship as much as sex."

There are certainly a number of people who are challenging the status quo, such as those who are exploring polyamory, "swingers", and those who access the learning opportunities offered by groups such as curiouscreatures.biz. Unfortunately, these activities are usually pursued under a cloak of secrecy. Many people are not "out", for fear of social stigma. As a result, it can be difficult to know how many people are exploring new lifestyles, or to start a sensible, honest, and respectful public conversation.

I am no iconoclast. Change for change’s sake is unnecessary, and if you are in a situation that ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For a variety of reasons, I chose to get married and it has lasted for 40 years. I am suggesting that it would be useful to challenge the status quo in order to ensure greater relationship success, and to minimise the terrible hurt and damage that can happen when love goes wrong.

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