Marriage as a Tool, for Better and for Worse

In junior high, I was part of a “gifted and talented” program at my public school which largely consisted of ducking out of class once a week to gather in the library with other lucky students for exercises in “creativity” (yes, this was the ’90s). We played spontaneous brainstorming games in which we were encouraged to generate as many ideas as possible, no matter how unlikely or left-field. It was a bit like Whose Line Is It Anyway? for middle schoolers, with random props and improv skits. I have a keen memory of one boy discovering a use for an empty film canister (remember what those were?) that is unmentionable in polite company.

All that to say, humans are genius tool-creators and tool-users, adept at taking whatever is ready-to-hand and repurposing it to suit the needs of the moment. All it takes is a little imagination (in a classroom) or a lot of desperation (in real life). What we fooled around with while skipping French once a week on the public dime—exaptation—is something that Americans have always done with one of humanity’s oldest, most serviceable social tools: marriage.

The cover of Marcia A. Zug's You’ll Do: A History of Marrying for Reasons Other Than Love

In You’ll Do: A History of Marrying for Reasons Other Than Love, family law professor Marcia A. Zug writes about the myriad of fascinating, troubling, harrowing, provocative, violent, deceptive, brilliant, mundane, gold-digging, and frustration-fueled uses to which the institution of marriage has been put—reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with romantic love. While our current culture assumes folks will “put a ring on it” for the sake of securing their soulmate, facilitating their personal growth, or starting a family, many of our ancestors (and some of our neighbors today) have recognized and used the practical power of marriage to procure a whole host of other prizes. 

You’ll Do demonstrates that, by marrying the right person at the right time, Americans have acquired things like status, wealth, safety, racial equality, citizenship, and parental rights. On the other hand, things like deportation, discrimination, stigma, and criminal conviction for rape, prostitution, domestic violence, and even murder, have been evaded with a well-timed “I do.” 

I never knew that American marriages had such a checkered history, that the laws we crafted to protect women and children, and to uphold certain moral norms and ideals, were so wrought with loopholes, prejudices, and perverse incentives that Zug’s book—packed as it is with old court cases and dry statistics—would read like a fusion of thriller and tabloid. I was shocked by how often I was shocked. 

Marriage Covers (and Compensates for) a Multitude of Sins

While our current culture assumes folks will “put a ring on it” for the sake of securing their soulmate, facilitating their personal growth, or starting a family, many of our ancestors (and some of our neighbors today) have recognized and used the practical power of marriage to procure a whole host of other prizes. 

Zug opens You’ll Do with two stories from her family’s history. In 1937, Zug’s great-aunt Rosie, a Jewish woman who worked in a garment factory in Manhattan, agreed to marry her friend’s Jewish brother (Sol) to facilitate his safe passage out of Poland as Nazi Germany prepared for war. At the time, the United States severely restricted immigration from “undesirable” groups (like Jews), and Sol’s application to immigrate would never have been approved—unless he was married to an American. Rosie went to Europe and married Sol, a man she’d never met, and she most likely saved him from death in a concentration camp. Back in America, Sol and Rosie had a daughter together and eventually fell in love. 

While Rosie didn’t marry Sol out of romantic feelings, it’s clear she did marry him for love—love of her friend whose brother was in danger, and love of a fellow Jew who needed her help. She was potentially sacrificing her future happiness for the life of a complete stranger, and if that doesn’t deserve the name “love”—to will the good of another—then what does? It’s a happy ending, and one can see in it the goodness of providing legal benefits to those who marry. And yet, the story behind the story is that her actions were a response to a racist U.S. immigration law. As Zug writes, “Generations of American men and women have used marriage as a loophole to circumvent unfair or discriminatory treatment. … You’ll Do reveals how the rights and benefits that attach to marriage can also perpetuate harms,” and provide cover for long-standing injustices.1 

If the tale of Rosie and Sol was about taking an incalculable risk to save a stranger, then Zug’s other opening tale is about taking advantage of a vulnerable family member to fulfill a dream. About a century ago, one of Zug’s relatives lived with his wife and their adult mentally disabled daughter. The couple paid a man to marry their daughter (who apparently gave what consent she could) and give them a grandchild they could raise as their own—a second chance for a happier parenting experience. The new husband pocketed the money and left as soon as his bride was pregnant, having fulfilled his end of the bargain. Essentially, the parents had pimped out their disabled daughter as a surrogate; but because the hired husband and the daughter were legally married, he couldn’t be prosecuted for rape, and the new baby was considered legitimate (and not a “bastard”). The parents and the man they paid may have acted reprehensibly, but not illegally: marriage kept their sins from being prosecuted as crimes.

Instead of marrying to save someone’s life, this is a case of marriage for money, for parenthood, and for legal impunity. But what the stories share is the instrumentalization of matrimony, the turning of government-granted side benefits, intended to bolster the institution, into the essence of the arrangement. Such actions (whether admirable or execrable) are transactions

And for many of us, that doesn’t sit right as a framework for the institution understood to be a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church (by all Christians) and as a sacrament of divine grace (by some). Zug maintains, “Despite romantic notions about love and marriage, marriage is fundamentally a legal institution,”2 i.e., a man-made tool. But marriage as a general practice is not created by the state through a legal fiat; marriage predates the existence of the modern state, which merely recognizes and regulates what people have always been doing.

At its core, marriage is the holding of life in common between a man and a woman, a gendered joining of fates, such that the good of one becomes the good of the other. (This is why a child is an apt symbol for a marriage—a one-flesh singularity that is a perfect and permanent joining of the parents and is utterly dependent on their virtue and love for its flourishing. This is also why divorce can feel like a death in the family.) As Marc Barnes argues in his essay “Marriage is the Form of Christian Politics”:

Marriage leaps for virtue like a man leaping for a moving train. … The married man is not virtuous because he would like to be but because he has freely chosen a situation in which the lack of virtue means—hell! Instant hell. …

Marriage is a deliberate entering into a state of existence whose continued life depends on continued love. As such, it is a sort of suicide pact: let us, you and I, enter into such and such a contract by which the happiness of each becomes utterly dependent on a gift that neither can assure will, in fact, keep coming—that is, love. Let us increase the likelihood of mutual destruction by an infinite degree. Let us make sin, which once meant nothing, mean hurt, and mean it right away. It is all well and good to preach the virtuous life, but preach the married life, and the necessity of the virtuous life will become as clear as a slap in the face.

If marriage is entered into with a grasping rather than a giving mindset—for me instead of for us, or for me at your expense—then it ceases to look like itself and becomes, as Barnes quips, instant hell. This is why Rosie’s marriage stands apart from most of the book’s examples as a non-romantic yet still loving and benevolent act of self-donation. Her transactional use of marriage was actually an example of virtue rather than of vice. 

Even so, virtue and vice are not solely individual matters, but communal, legal, and political: no one makes choices in a vacuum, every decision has a context, and every law assumes a hierarchy of values.

What We Have Done, and What We Have Failed to Do

Both marriage and the law can be tools to address life’s unfairness and inequalities, but they do so in very different ways.

Zug examines both things that the law has done through marital privilege (unintentionally incentivize gold-digging and crime-evading behaviors) and things that the law has failed to do (create equally good outcomes for women, for people of color, and for singles and unmarried parents). She paints human decisions as primarily acts of adaptation to conditions on the ground, and she sees those conditions as heavily shaped by law and the absence of law—whether just or unjust (since she is a family law professor, this framing of the problem is understandable, though it has its blind spots).

As her publisher notes, “The potential for harm is not that these unions threaten the idealized conception of marriage, but that they reveal substantial racial, gender, and economic inequalities that the participants are using marriage to overcome.”3

You’ll Do is not just about the unromantic reasons some people wed, but about the age-old recognition that Life Isn’t Fair, and that Something Must Be Done about it. Both marriage and the law can be tools to address life’s unfairness and inequalities, but they do so in very different ways. As Zug repeatedly shows, when the government takes a hands-off approach by incentivizing an ideal (traditional marriage) rather than using the law to actively enforce equity, some individuals will use marriage to acquire what they desire, or what they believe is their due. Many of those choices will raise readers’ eyebrows.

And yet surprisingly, Zug concludes, “There is no such thing as marrying for the wrong reason. When people marry for benefits, they are doing exactly what American law and policy encourages them to do—they are getting married.”4 She says we should stop acting shocked when marital incentives work: instead, we should be looking for “different fixes to America’s problems, not doubling down on marriage,” which has been at best “a Band-Aid that Americans have used when society is too sexist, too racist, or just too lazy to implement better solutions.”5 

Precisely what these different fixes and better solutions are, she doesn’t say. She sticks largely to the descriptive and only briefly alludes to prescriptive measures. She believes marriage is not the solution to many societal ills, but is rather used by the government as a cowardly self-absolution from its true responsibility. She supports ending the government’s structure of marital privileges, thus reducing the frequency of transactional marriages and (she hopes) making other laws pick up the slack when it comes to generating gender, economic, and racial equality (I’ll explore the legitimacy and wisdom of this approach later on). 

The Exclusion of “Religious Marriages” and the Problem of Proportion

You’ll Do explores many of the most common non-love reasons for marriage, but explicitly excludes religious marriages from consideration

Just like I learned in middle school, there are rewards for creativity; and yet, the creative uses to which marriage has been put are not always morally beneficial, even if they prove to be materially successful, thus demonstrating that while marriage can function like a tool, it is not merely (or even mostly) a tool. To grasp and manipulate marriage in a transactional manner is a bit like using swatches of a flag as bathroom rags, or a Bible as a doorstop, or a grassy cemetery as a good place for a game of pick-up football. It gets the job done, but at the expense of something held to be special—even sacred.6 At least that’s how it appears to me as a religious person, though there are many who don’t share my priors, and Zug intentionally avoids looking at marriage from a religious angle.

You’ll Do explores many of the most common non-love reasons for marriage, but explicitly excludes religious marriages from consideration, because “the book’s focus is on the connection between law and marital decision making. Religious marriages, if they comply with state marriage laws, receive the same legal benefits as all other marriages, but they are not motivated by these benefits. Spouses in religious unions would marry regardless of governmental recognition” (emphasis added).7

This exclusion made reading the book from an explicitly religious perspective somewhat harder. I understand Zug had to draw the line somewhere, and yet it strikes me as unlikely that one could indeed draw a hard and fast line between “religious marriages” and “non-religious marriages” in American history. We’ve been a culturally Christian country since our founding, and our ancestors’ “family friendly” marital moral standards (yes to consent, fidelity, and raising children; no to premarital sex, adultery, and coercion) was informed by centuries of Christian doctrine and practice. The majority of Americans even up to the modern day have self-identified as some kind of Protestant; religion is not so easily boxed and set aside as a private matter. Over 80% of couples married prior to 1972 share the same faith affiliation, while only 3% of marriages from that same time period were between two religiously unaffiliated (secular) people. Granted, those numbers have changed: today, only 59% of married Americans are wed to someone who shares their faith, while marriages of non-religious people have risen to 12%, and interfaith marriages comprise 14% of married couples.8 However you slice it, though, religion and marriage are heavily intertwined.

By excluding “religious marriages” from her historical survey, Zug ends up implying that instrumental marriages for tangible, earthly benefits of a self-centered sort (as opposed to benefits of a communal/familial sort, which was the norm until recently) are, to use Christian terms, a feature of the City of Man rather than the City of God (St. Augustine). Whatever she believes religious marriages are, they are apparently neither motivated by loving feelings alone, nor by personal practical benefits alone, but by something other than (or higher than) both.

Certainly, in some of the book’s most heinous examples—white men marrying and then murdering Native American women to take their land, middle-aged men marrying 14-year-old girls to acquire acreage and (for all intents and purposes) a slave, prostitutes marrying their johns to avoid jail time, a 21-year-old woman marrying an 81-year-old veteran to get a lifelong widow’s pension—it’s obvious that any kind of higher religious or moral motive is nowhere to be found. Such “creative” uses of marriage turn a structure designed to promote fruitful communion into a weapon, a siphon, or a prison. 

Because Zug doesn’t define religious marriage, and the only example of it she gives is of Mormon polygamy (an extreme exception), I can’t tell whether her exclusion of religion is the choice to set aside a tiny minority of people with unusual practices, or whether she’s functionally excluding a very large portion of self-identified Christians of the past who held to “traditional family values.” Either way, her selection of the strange and exceptional, of the shocking headliners and heartbreaking edge cases—when compiled and presented one after another—certainly gives the impression that marriage laws and benefits are unjustifiably discriminatory, invite bad actors and opportunists to take advantage, and are having an enormously negative impact. 

But as George Eliot noted, “There’s no rule so wise but what it’s a pity for somebody or other.”9 Without a counter-balancing picture of how these marriage laws and benefits affected the vast majority of the population, how can we know if those who suffered or acted corruptly under this “marital regime” were a feature rather than a bug of this system? Without knowing that, how could we justify dismantling the state’s privileging of marriage? I did not get a sense of proportion from You’ll Do, and so I couldn’t determine whether these stories amount to a small kitchen fire, or something like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

All the well-supported, boring, good enough, and stable marriages that such government benefits assisted are in a sense invisible in Zug’s analysis: only those hurt by the system are described, not those helped. It’s possible that the case studies she shares are actually very widespread and her selected stories are good representations of the whole; but given the kind of information in her book, I can’t tell one way or the other. 

You’ll Do Raises Questions about the Meaning of “I Do”

You’ll Do raises a host of thorny questions that Christians would do well to consider and discuss, which is why I recommend you read it. One’s political leanings will certainly shape the answers: conservatives will see in these stories both the triumph and the corruption of individual agency and individual virtue; liberals will see the inequitable contexts that motivate sympathetic, desperate, and sometimes even depraved choices. Where to lay the blame—on individual choice or on social and material conditions—is one of those timeworn arguments that functions in American public life like an insoluble marital spat, probably because both sides have a point but neither is willing to admit that. 

There isn’t space here to address all of the questions the book raises, but I can have a go at two of them—next time.

To Be Continued: In Part 2 of this article I’ll examine the original purpose of marriage (is it love, rights, or something else?) and address the book’s conclusion that fairness demands we end governmental privileges based on marriage.

  1. Marcia Zug, You’ll Do: A History of Marrying for Reasons Other Than Love (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2024), 2. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 1. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., publisher’s note. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 247. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 246. ↩︎
  6. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2012). Haidt argues that human moral systems are built on six foundations, or “moral taste buds”: 1) Care/Harm, 2) Liberty/Oppression, 3) Fairness/Cheating, 4) Loyalty/Betrayal, 5) Authority/Subversion, and 6) Sanctity/Degradation. The “Liberal Moral Matrix” is based on 1-3 (reducing harm, ending oppression, ensuring equality), while ignoring 4-6 (communion, hierarchy, sacredness). The “Conservative Moral Matrix” relies on all six foundations, with the goal of preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community. Zug assumes the Liberal Moral Matrix, and my critique comes from the “moral tastes” she neglects. ↩︎
  7. Marcia Zug, You’ll Do, 5. ↩︎
  8. Daniel A. Cox, Emerging Trends and Enduring Patterns in American Family Life, Survey Center on American Life, February 9, 2022. ↩︎
  9. George Eliot, Adam Bede (United States: Belford, Clarke, 1888), 484. ↩︎