They Who Marry Do Ill by Voltairine De Cleyre

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“So much as I have been able to put together the pieces of the universe in my small head, there is no absolute right or wrong; there is only a relativity, depending on the consciously though very slowly altering condition of a social race in respect to the rest of the world. Right and wrong are social conceptions: mind, I do not say human conceptions. The names “right” and “wrong,” truly, are of human invention only; but the conception “right” and “wrong,” dimly or clearly, has been wrought out with more or less effectiveness by all intelligent social beings. And the definition of Right, as sealed and approved by the successful conduct of social beings, is: That mode of behavior which best serves the growing need of that society.”

This is the beginning of Voltairine De Cleyre’s talk “They Who Marry do Ill.”  My appreciation for this 110 year old essay begins with her nihilistic beginning.  It would be lovely if we could all agree that there is no right or wrong, that this is an anthropocentric opinion.  Is there such thing as a good racoon, a good or bad strain of the ebola virus, an evil elephant?  The obviousness of this thought is obscured by the religiosity of humans.  I freely admit that any sort of ethics that I could be accused of are really just my personal aesthetics, which I do not deny have been heavily influenced and informed by things over which I have no control: the place and time I was born, my body, and innumerous other crucial factors that have formed any myth I have an essential self with principles and beliefs.  As Voltairine says, “Now my opponents know where to find me.”  Good luck.

It seems to me that the popular opinion nowadays about polyamory/monogamy conversations is “people should do whatever makes them happy.”  To me though, there is nothing more important than my interpersonal relationships, sexual or otherwise.  Voltairine takes shots at people who are “married” whether they are polyamorous or monogamous.  As an individualist, the issue for her is individual freedom and for us to have moment to moment freedom to act as we wish.  I desire to form relationships with people as they come, and I desire the same for those I care about.  In the past I have been monogamous and functionally married when polyamorous.  We know what this looks like, it is close communion with a partner, and closeness breeds contempt.  It is my desire to have a friendship baseline for anyone I am close with and for physical intimacy come out of a place of mutual desire and not obligation.  Growing up in a christian/religious society most of us are overloaded with guilt, and it is my wish to eliminate as much of this from myself as possible.  If you are capable of asking a person you care about to limit their physical or emotional affections to just yourself without feeling guilty, then congratulations, but this is not for me.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this essay though is its understanding of another often ignored cliche, that people change.  Voltairine writes, “bodies, like souls, do most seldom, almost never, parallel each other’s development. And this lack of parallelism is the greatest argument to be produced against marriage. No matter how perfectly adapted to each other two people may be at any given time, it is not the slightest evidence that they will continue to be so.”  These words again strike at the religious nature of anarchists.  It attacks the notion of fixed ideas, and stasis.  Voltairine acknowledges that hopefully humans change ideas, bodies, and desires over time, and that it is rare for these desires to closely parallel enough for long term close communion.  Many anarchists believe they have found answers, believing that they are on a path with a destination instead of an endless journey.  If we can admit this to ourselves, and open our bodies and minds to the notion of fluidity and change, then we can change the way we orient ourselves in our personal relationships.

“That love and respect may last, I would have unions rare and impermanent. That life may grow, I would have men and women remain separate personalities. Have no common possessions with your lover more than you might freely have with one not your lover. Because I believe that marriage stales love, brings respect into contempt, outrages all the privacies and limits the growth of both parties, I believe that “they who marry do ill.”

Voice, editing, & production by rydra wrong

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