A reply to an email I got:
>anyhow, i think it's sad if everything becomes a la carte. (was watching
> love last night. borrowed the phrase... if anything, the institution of marriage
> gives meaning to the essentially meaningless human relationships abound which i'm
> quite sure a lot of us are looking for.
Relationships do not have to be given meaning by institutions. I believe they can and are valuable in and of themselves (because not everyone looks for meaningless relationships), without needing to be vindicated by external forces. If your relationship was already meaningless prior to marriage, why should legal and social sanction replace what is lacking between you and your partner?
Marriage is an archaic institution which has outlived its time. It was conceptualized for an era where household conveniences, dry cleaners and fast food (for the men) didn't exist, women were poor, weak and needed protection, contraception/abortion didn't exist and as a stable framework for bringing up children. Some might bring up free sex, but prostitution is after all the world's second-oldest profession (the witch doctor being the oldest), and men value sexual novelty which you don't get in marriage. Now women can work and have legal protection and men have washing machines, so you really only need to get married to provide a child 18 years of family stability and a dual-parent environment, and that's not an issue if you don't intend to have children (which is another essay).
In today's society, we all live much longer than we would have millennia ago. You've heard of the Seven Year Itch. Now imagine a few decades with the same person. It's difficult enough to predict what pair of shoes you want to wear next week. Now imagine predicting your feelings over a period of 4 decades (assuming marriage in your late 20s and dying in your late 60s), and at a relatively young and immature age too (ie Late 20s).
As you know, our mutual acquaintance realized after about 8 years of marriage that she didn't want to be with her husband anymore: "The heart has reasons that reason cannot know". How many couples do you think still love each other after decades of marriage? Divorce rates are going up; it is fashionable to attribute this to immorality and immaturity among the young, but why should you stay chained to someone if you realize you don't want to be with them anymore? Far worse, I think, to be stuck in a loveless marriage for years, or even decades, unwilling to part because of fears about peer pressure and gossip. A related problem I have more sympathy for is the problem of finding someone else, if that is one's desire ("Sad my lot and sorry, What shall I do? I cannot live alone!" - Sir Joseph, HMS Pinafore, ie The fear of loneliness), but that segues into my unemployment theory of relationships which is another essay.
Commitment is another red herring often thrown up by defenders of marriage. But then signing a piece of paper does not true commitment entail. Indeed, I would argue that entering into a formal marriage contract shows a lack of commitment - if you lock someone in a room and he has to break the door down in order to escape, and he doesn't, does this show more or less commitment than if you put someone in a room and the door is open for him to walk out of, but he doesn't? A prisoner with a ball chained to his leg is not more committed than the inmate who gets to roam the yard freely. Quite the contrary, really.
Another problem with marriage is that it is romanticised. Some girls don't have a concept of marriage or wedded life but they have a *highly* detailed concept of their wedding. The guests, dress, flowers, music, decor, places they want to go take photos et al. A few have even planned their wedded lives down to what house they want and how many kids they want and what to name them. We (girls especially) have been socialized into deifying marriage and thinking it will somehow cast a golden halo over our lives, but life still goes on. You have to pay the bills, your partner still snores and you still suffer from heartburn after eating bak chor mee.
This is not to say that there is no place for romantic partnerships. There is ample space for these within the institution of cohabitation. Some are suspicious what advantages it would have over marriage. Cohabitation lacks legal sanction, there is freedom of entry and exit, there is no (less?) Romanticisation about lifelong partnership and True Love and it is a more accurate way of showing commitment, if that is valued.
I wanted to slip in something about how not having pre-marital sex is being irresponsible, but it's not that relevant so I'll do it another day.
Basically, marriage should be deromanticised and cohabitation destigmatised. The only scenario I can see marriage having a place in modern society is in the context of child-rearing.
(This post has been edited in minor ways since I sent the email. The thesis statement is, nonetheless, unchanged)