Identity and Marriage: Which Christian Conception? by Stephanie Arel

This post explores issues I present in an essay which will be published in the Journal of Theology and Sexuality. In that piece, I consider the term “identity.” I claim that identity and the categories it delineates often present dilemmas when it comes to gender, sex, and sexuality. This is especially the case when considering biological and social data related to sexual fluidity in women. While in the paper I argue that “identity” serves in many ways to stultify, I recognize that we can also interpret the eschewing of identity as something reserved for the privileged – who can afford to discard identity. Marginalized groups, on the other hand, are often at the mercy of identity – it is hoisted as a marker, one that cannot be displaced or removed.

Where I complicate identity relates to its ability to typecast and congeal a self into a definitive configuration. Categorization follows, serving specific ends and bolstering very specific institutions.

Let’s consider marriage.

Marriage – ideally – takes a variety of forms interpreted and created by the couple who consents to the marriage, making the union their own. All marriages are different, and in the world that I imagine, marriage partners fashion their own rules and standards – re-envisioning or rejecting those projected onto them by law – moral, legal, or natural.

Unfortunately, societal and religious pressures, along with Christian tradition, have solidified marriage into something fixed. The grand narrative that supports the fantasy of an ideal marriage determines it as stable, reassuring, consistent, and of course, always full of love and romance. We could call it a St. Valentine’s Day Marriage. In this type of marriage, the lines between Christian values, romantic love, and capitalist society blur.

Understood by the church as a Western Christian liturgical feast day to honor a Saint, St. Valentine’s Day achieved legendary status in the 18th century after it was associated with romantic love, a gesture with an intellectual tradition in the courtly love phenomenon of the 14th century promoted by Geoffrey Chaucer and his compatriots. (By the way, in Chaucer, this kind of love was often generated outside of the marriage union which was, in his time, one defined by economic and political exchange, where women were childbearing accessories to men.) Most currently, St. Valentine’s Day has morphed into a revenue generating holiday, which still happens to signify, for some, love present between a couple.

The idea of romantic love – ever present in Hollywood movies as a promise of fulfillment of a life (also a misnomer) – supports a kind of coupling, which offers – at least temporarily –“security by furnishing an identity marker (‘you love me therefore I am, in moments of passion, too, also in time of illness…’); the couple is a durable mirror, a repeated recognition” (Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, 227). Christian marriage in this framework solidifies identity amplifying into other identities – including a national one – which simultaneously unify while making and categorizing the other. Thus, as it has developed, Christian marriage is very individualistic and insular. It promotes a male to female coupling, and, “because it has merged with the superegotic practice of law,” as Kristeva asserts, “marriage – [in its conception as] a historically and socially determined institution – is antinomic to love” (211). Chaucer tried to tell us this.

I turn to Kristeva again because she expresses what I see as the core problem: “The mythical representation of coupledom responds to a social need. The unity of the group, especially a national group, is nurtured by the fantasy of the primordial union, the parental myth. This original cohesion myth, is what the political apparatus throws at the ‘popular masses’ like wool over their eyes” (Marriage as a Fine Art, 8). This social need for cohesion supports heterosexual, heteronormative marriage. It also perverts the life of anyone who lives or marries outside of that structure. Furthermore, the myth that men necessarily leave their families to merge with a woman has been morphed into theories that marriage is both a social and biological need. The pressure on us to fulfill this need is enormous.

Ultimately, marriage as a structure is dependent on other structures – of law for instance; it ensures a certain belonging in society. Anyone that functions outside of this heteronormative framework, reinforced by conceptions of Christian marriage, is immediately othered.

The question becomes: What should we be in Christian marriage? This is not an easy question to answer. And I am not promoting an idea that envisions marriage as imperfect so that one should just “deal with it” – a slippery slope colluded with by religion that justifies staying in bad or abusive relationships. What I am promoting is an idea of marriage as mutually reciprocal. This can be demanding, and it is not always characteristic of romance. Maybe it never is, for some.

We can discover values for mutual reciprocity in Christianity – in the biblical conception of community and in the formulation of the family in the Gospel of Mark. This Gospel disrupts the notion of the male as the head of the household, instead viewing all members of the household as valuable participants. Underneath this assumption of cooperation is an ethics of love and service. Relationality subverts the notion of self-founding subjects with rigid identities and instead asserts the primacy of relationships. As Xochitl Alvizo says, there is actually nothing inherently Christian about imposing pressure on two individuals to live in harmony and romantic love outside of community. From a truly Christian perspective, marriage is a practice of ethics taking place within a household, where identity is fluid, and love is a practice that takes place alongside service.

Each of us has a notion of marriage, and what marriage means, of what it serves and performs. In keeping with Kristeva…she states, in her book written with her husband Philippe Sollers, that her marriage “lasted so well, with such uncompromising vitality…because it never obeyed any law but its own” (Marriage as a Fine Art, x).


Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author ofAffect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).

Categories: Relationality, Relationships

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9 replies

  1. Of course it it important to think about marriage. Uncharacteristically I will be saying a few words about marriage at a wedding today.

    However, it is important to recognize as well that in today’s world many women (and men) will not be married for much of their lives.

    I also wonder how “easy” it is for every couple to define the nature of their relationship. If it were, I suspect that a lot more men than are currently doing so would be taking on 1/2 of the household tasks and childcare tasks–if men were listening to what their spouses would like them to be doing! I suspect that many women consider it the price of “keeping a man” to do more than their fair share of housework and childcare. This is not only a “personal” choice, given that for a variety of reasons, not all personally chosen, men tend to make more money than women, so if something has to give, it is far too often the woman who feels she must be the one to do so.

    I looked up a review of the book you mention and noticed that Kristeva’s husband opined that without economic equality (equality in earnings) in a marriage there is little hope of any other kind of equality.


    • Thanks as always Carol. I think that what I am proposing is very hard, not supported socially, and not really easy to do emotionally – basically because of how people are scripted – internally in the family and externally by a variety of sources. I read this the morning you wrote it and have been thinking about the economic piece. I am not sure equality in earnings is precisely the point…and I am thinking about this also for myself, so it could be a blind spot. I think that there is a difference in this and financial independence or economic autonomy (the words Kristeva uses), and both come up in the book around how these two scholars have chosen to live separately and polyamorously (also adjusting the concept of economic equality). I don’t think my reflection here debates your critical point, but perhaps it clarifies my thought.


  2. Wow Carol, I was struck by the power of your response – that without economic equality there is little hope for any other kind of equality – I think that’s true.

    Stephanie, you remark about marriage acting as “security by furnishing an identity marker” seems to me to be a true today as it was when I was young. As a mostly single woman and mother (married for only short periods) I am stunned today to recognize how marginalized I was as a mother and a woman, and feel such compassion for the young woman/mother that was me. Marriage, did at least give me a false identity for a short while at a terrible price…what can we do to help women today NOT to fall into this ideology of patriarchal marriage that still appears to claim so many.?Economic equality isn’t even enough, the way I see it.


    • A first thought. Money is a symbol – I had a friend who used to call it a kind of energy and exchange which underlies the energy and exchange in every interaction in a marriage. This supports your point that “economic equality isn’t enough.” Also, I almost went into the life of the single woman in the post – widowed, divorced, single mother, etc. I think culture (at least American) is more comfortable with a married woman, for so many reasons (hard to enumerate here), that the single woman and what she represents is often marginalized or, and this is a strong word, ostracized…Where I see these women draw strength – other women.


      • As a longtime single woman I couldn’t agree with you more. We are ostracized… married women are still the norm though it’s hard to see how this can be when one out of two women is divorced… I just wish I had understood earlier in my life that this wasn’t about me being defective, but a cultural norm that was thrust onto me. I have two women in my life that I really trust – unfortunately as woman centered as I am I have to say that many women simply cannot be present for us in a meaningful way. The woman who can be is a gift…


  3. Fascinating post! As I recollect, Jesus himself didn’t have too much to say about marriage except when he waded into the thorny thicket of divorce and allowed as how it might be all right in the case of adultery. (Something my fictional character Maeve challenges him on). But I have often wondered where some Christians came up with the notion of family values, which Jesus consistently challenged. “Who is my mother? Who is my brother?” He bluntly opposed putting filial duty before duty to God. (Folks who did that weren’t worthy of the kingdom of heaven). The community of believers took precedence over kinship by blood or marriage. One often wonders how the wives felt when their husbands laid aside their fishing nets to become fishers of men.

    Fast forward to the 1400s, Geoffrey Chaucer had an arranged marriage in which he rubbed along well enough. But rumor has it that his romantic (and chaste) passion was for the Duchess Blanche of Lancaster, first wife of John of Gaunt. So yes, he did understand that love and marriage don’t always go together like a horse and carriage.

    Even though I have been married for almost 38 years (in a very equitable relationship, thank goddess) my favorite saying about marriage is one attributed to Mae West. “Marriage is a wonderful institution. I’m just not ready for an institution!”


    • Thank you Elizabeth for your response and for offering biblical references related to challenging how we interpret “Christian family values.” Your post reminds me of an amazing book that I read recently: Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended, and Polygamous Families by Shelley Parks (I recommend it highly for mothers and daughters in any familial construction). Parks shakes up or queers monomaternalism, which also makes an impact on marriage as an institution. A favorite, and important claim of the text: “polymaternal families (like polyamorous relations) might queer intimacy in both its psychological and its material dimensions” (10).


  4. Wonderful post, Stephanie. Lots of mull over. I recall, some years ago, talking with a married female colleague. She and her husband–they had been married over 20 years at this point–were experiencing all kinds of difficulties living together harmoniously. My colleague (and friend) concluded, “There can be no equity in marriage since marriage is an outflow from a patriarchal institution.” Since patriarchy stems from one person having “power over” another, I agree with my friend. I guess one of the bigger questions has to do with how we want to arrange ourselves within community/society.


    • Thanks Esther. I like the bigger question, and your comment about equality also strikes me. I think my resistance to the word “equality,” which I intimate in another response, has to do with what you name, and I had not thought of it that way. So double thanks!


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