Sunday, July 09, 2006

Matthew and Marilla

I've been thinking about marriage. This is something you end up doing after going on a vacation and being together with your beloved too many hours in a day.

I've heard some little saying (probably nobody ever did say it, but it's been "quoted" so much that it's taken on a life of its own) that if marriage hadn't existed, then our culture would have had to invent it. I've tried to deconstruct this saying to figure out exactly what it means. I conclude that it's a tautology: our marriage-centred culture needs marriage.

Well, no kidding. We've made family synonymous with marriage. And family is the backbone of a civilization.

But are family and marriage necessarily connected? If marriage hadn't existed, would we really have had to invent it? Or would we have had a completely different culture with a different style of family?

I titled this blog Matthew and Marilla because Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert were the elderly brother and sister who adopted Anne in Anne of Green Gables. I try to imagine an unmarried brother and sister pair successfully adopting a child today. The notion of family has evidently changed in these 100 years. I question whether these changes are healthy.

Before I go any further, I just want to toss out polygamy. I'm not supporting polygamy here. Polygamy is dysfunctional wherever it occurs in Western society. It's about power and exists where there is cultural coercion against women. I realize those cherubic polygamist Mormon women with their toothpaste-commercial smiles do TV interviews about how nice it is to live with all the sister-wives. But I note that there is always a Mormon man standing somewhere close by to make sure they say what they're supposed to say.

Moreover, if it's so nice to live with all the sister-wives, then why marry the goofball at all? Polygamist women never talk in the interviews about their relationship with him.

Because there is none. End of story.

Besides, there's the math problem. If some guy gets 20 wives, then there are another 19 guys who don't get anyone. There's no getting around that problem. This is not a real-life solution.

And it's icky.

However, the idea of the group of women raising children together is a powerful one for women. (I don't know what it does for guys.) The single family dwelling is oppressive to female parents, since it parcels us off from each other and sends us to the loonybin. It takes a village to raise a child. Marriage breaks down the village into mcnuggets.

The tribe and the extended family have melted away, and with them, the wider community of women (and men) that used to be central to the notion of family. Somehow over the past two centuries, families have been whittled down to just two people and their biological offspring. My question: how sustainable is this as a family unit? Can two parents really do it alone, raising kids and staring at the same face every morning? Just what percentage of marriages can withstand this kind of pressure?

Maybe the polygamous ladies have a point. It is great to live with other women and share the duties of the day. However, those women don't all have to be married to the same dork to get this community (a point they never raise in the TV interviews, and none of the dickbrain reporters ever have the presence of mind to ask).

The Mosuo people of Southeastern China don't have our notion of marriage or our notion of family. A Mosuo person is married to their mother, sisters, and brothers and live with them all their life. They have sex whenever they want, with whoever they want. The Mosuo culture is the ultimate "free love" lifestyle, but with a heavy family ethic.

The Mosuo culture is matrilineal and matriarchal: heredity is determined by the mother's line, and all property is owned by women. Children are raised by the mother, the uncles and the aunts. Women do most of the work of farming and fishing, and the men do the hard labour. But in exchange for not owning anything, the men are pretty much free otherwise. For this reason, they are generally happy. The Mosuo are known for singing and dancing a lot, and family strife is almost unknown.

Mosuo women are not taught abstinence or sexual inhibition. They can take on lovers from other households (provided the matriarch determines that they are not cousins). But when they don't want to be sexually active, they don't have to be. Among the Mosuo, relationships last as long as they last. No one expects a lifetime commitment. In fact, even living together is rare (usually only practiced when the man is from outside the culture, because he doesn't have a home). Most of the women practice only "walking marriage" -- that is, in the morning, the man leaves to go back to his house, no bad feelings.

PBS ran a documentary recently about the Mosuo. I was struck by how happy, energetic, confident, and radiant these young women were. They knew they had power over their own lives, and they knew they had the love and support of their biological families all their lives. There was no pressure to find a man to start a family. There was no pressure to make a relationship work. There was just a lifetime of support and security.

One young woman interviewed was in a relationship with a man from Beijing. She said freely that she would be heartbroken if their relationship broke down. But she would never leave her family to go live with him in the city. This was her family and her life. A man was, well, just a man. There would be others.

The Mosuo have an overwhelming duty to family and to children. But they don't have marriage at all. In fact, they see marriage as antithetical to happy family life.


Our culture took a turn somewhere early on toward patriarchy and patrilineality, and then later to smaller and smaller family structures, and finally to elevating marriage to the level of shrine.

Has it helped us to live happily ever after?

As for me and my husband, we've decided to take independent vacations from now on. With that decision, we're both suddenly much more interested in holidays. I have an idea of an annual Mothers and Daughters camping trip. My husband and son will go off and do a guy thing. I think we'll all be happier.


At 12:45 AM, Blogger earthfreak said...

Gee, thanks, Nancy!!!! I'm moving closer to moving in with my girlfriend, and you get me all freaked out about the entire structure of our society!

Of course, I think that you're right, or onto something. Aside from the fact that my actual mother is actually insane and impossible to live with, the society that you describe sounds appealing.

I have long been disturbed by the fact that "raising a family" in this society is so tied with finding ONE person with whom you enjoy having sex (so much that you will always want it with them, and never with anyone else) and what's more, can manage money, communicate respectfully, decorate in a way you can both enjoy, etc, etc. It seems rather daunting.

I've been fairy tale, swept off my feet in love once and it was with someone I couldn't manage basic respectful communication with, let alone manage an entire household!!! (and what's more, pretty clearly didn't even like me, in retrospect) I am pretty ambivalent about sex in general, and since I was maybe 12 have seen it mostly as a duty hanging over my head rather than something to take joy in. I believe that simply being freed of the expectation that I would ever "have to" do it again would make it much more appealing.

I have often thought the same thing, hearing about polygamy, "sure, it's great to live and raise your kids with a bunch of other women, but who needs the man at all?" of course, that's a lesbian perspective, but certainly women don't need a man to tie them together (through a sort of ownership, no less!) and could simply go out and pick and choose their own, knowing that their family "has their back"

Thanks for the thought provoking post!


At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

Hi Nancy, great post, which I probably will reference in a "More sex with Quakers" post if I write one.

One thought however – I am as uneasy with "polygamy" as you are, from a certain angle, but might it not be the case that the problem isn't the structure (1 man + N [straight?] women), but the patriarchy that in most cases goes along with it? -- I'm thinking of Mormonism, traditional African patriarchies, Muslim patriarchy, etc... I guess I feel a little motion to defend polygamy at least in the abstract because I think polyamory in general is a good thing for many people (pun intended).

At 12:53 PM, Blogger earthfreak said...


Polyamory and polygamy are just different things. For one thing I have yet to hear of a polyamorous relationship (regardless of the genders of the people) in which one person is allowed to have sex with more than one person, and other people are not. (of course, some may find other lovers while their lovers don't, but that's different from having it be an assumption to the relationship)

I have mixed feelings about polyamory. I know of one threesome that is raising children together, but I dont' even know them (I know their kids, a little) it seems, successfully, I know another person who was in a committed threesome for a bit, and will never ever try it again.

But polyamory is usually more a network of two-people relationships. It would never work for me (I considered it deeply because I felt in love with someone who was already in a relationship, but it became apparent that it wouldn't work. I simply want more attention, and from one uniquely special person, than it affords. Certainly one CAN love all their children, or lovers. But I can tell you my grandmother was the 11th child in a family, and she barely knew her parents. You run out of time for the things that make a relationship, in my opinion.

The things that I really appreciate about polyamory are that, done well, it can really focus you on honesty and working on a relationship (you have to work for things that may seem to be "given" in a one on one monogamous relationship) and that it's more honest than cheating. Apparently some people are wired to want to have sex with multiple people. I'm not one of them. But if that's a given, certainly being open and honest about it is preferable.


At 8:28 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...


One of the men in the fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful, BC, is "married" to twenty women (of which several are being deported back to the US because they have no legal grounds to be in Canada because they're not married to the guy, but that's another story).

Two of the women he's married to (get this) are now legally married to each other by Canada's same-sex marriage law. They went off and got married legally this past year, right under his nose.

Two smart chicks, if you ask me. They now have a second parent for their children, and they have some relationship security in a country that doesn't recognize multiple spouses.

What does the guy think of this? On the CBC interview I saw, he just shrugged and smiled. I guess he still gets to have sex with both of them, so it doesn't matter. You could probably google and find the script of the interview.

Just plain weird is all I can say.

But it kind of blows your argument about who gets multiple sex in a polygamous marriage. Those chicks in those pinafore dresses are doing each other, apparently.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...


Here's a more nuanced version:


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