Marriage is a thing that’s so important to our culture and media that you’ll see it in an embarrassing quantity of everything. Setting aside media genres that are just dedicated to some version of it (and yeah, a lot of those ‘romantic’ things people are making are really just just about marriage things), there’s still stuff in our language and everyday common existence that speaks of marriage. If nothing else, consider we have a mode of address that specifies whether or not a woman is married, and asking to not be treated with that language is seen as a different dispensation. It is, to the audience of most of this conversation, a thing that The Empire tells us
What does it mean to be ‘married?’
In the context of our world, western European world, marriage is a simple idea with complex surroundings. The idea is that two people who are married are people who have agreed upon sharing their lives and assets. All the permutations of it, from signataries, name changes, the ceremony of a wedding, inheritance, offspring and property rights, oh and divorce law and all its stuff, that’s all things that flow from ideology in our own world about what marriage is and how our lives work.
It’s all built on our own base assumptions. It’s been changed, in your lifetime. It used to be that wives didn’t have legal rights for protections from their spouses, which were men. If you’re younger than that, it used to be that marriage had to be between men and women only. If you’re pretty young, you might even be born around the same time as Ireland legalised divorce – 1996. There’s a lot of things about marriage that are directly reflecting the ideology and history of our own reality, which you might notice are based around ideas like patriarchy and capitalism. A woman is titled as a married woman to indicate not that she should merit more respect, but rather to signal to everyone around her that she is not an unmarried woman and therefore there is no reason to treat her as if she is unmarried.
Our vision of what a marriage is, and therefore, what flows from that, is about property and control.
Is that necessary for your world?
This isn’t about the different rites. Rites are ways of representing arrangements. A marriage in Korea and a marriage in India and a marriage in England are all going to have very different rites, but it’s not an unreasonable comparison to say that to some extent those rites follow on from the actual action, which is a committed unified action about the you know, the capital stuff. I don’t even know if it’s how things worked in those countries now, but sometime in oh say the past two centuries, some culture did a whole mass colonialism thing and then another culture kept doing it, so a lot of what culture is going on in the world is kinda stamped with that.
The point is, the coloniser created the default and now we all get to operate under it, and that means, if you’re building a world, you have the opportunity to construct this idea without the pre-existing assumptions about what it means. To that end, I’m not actually going to try and tell you about how you should do marriage. I’m going to, instead, present examples of different approaches to marriage from another culture I’ve used in Cobrin’Seil, and how I built it out based on cultural assumptions about what they don’t care about.
The one I’ve written the most about is the culture of Orcs in Cobrin’Seil. These Orcs don’t have an idea of privatised property; there’s the personal property, but to an Orc, personal property is your immediate stuff; you don’t own things that aren’t enclosed by your personal sphere. If it’s something too big for you to carry off, it’s not a thing you own. This relationship to property means that Orcs in general don’t have a problem with unasked borrowing, either; if you cohabitate with someone and they use something of yours without asking, it was clearly happening because you weren’t holding it. This absence of an attitude towards property means that marriage isn’t really a thing for needing public declaration.
What Orcs do have public rituals about is child-rearing. Someone has a kid – from birth or adoption or a raid – and then they negotiate a couple or more rearing the kid. This is a thing that tells the community ‘hey, we won’t be contributing to group resources as much,’ and that’s its purpose. I guess there’s also an element of consideration of how Orcs lack the idea of familial ownership – you know, the idea that parents own their children.
(“They don’t,” you may say but trust me, look at how parents talk about their children and the legal rights of those children, and uh, you own your kids more than you tend to own the house you’re raising them in.)
The lack of private propery plays into the way orcs regard children. You don’t need children because they’ll take care of you in an ongoing capitalist drain on your resources. You don’t need children because of investments of worth, you take care of kids because kids are kids and someone needs to take care of them. It’s not a matter of imprinting legacy or having enduring influence. And there’s more here of course; orcish society has some degree of kyriarchy to it in that classic ‘bigger punch wins the conversation’ way that comes up in heated moments, but as a rule orcs don’t have the prebuilt bias towards patriarchal structures we do and the assumption of things like birthright and blood lines.
These are all deliberate choices! Orcs are independent, Orcs are tough and when I say ‘independent’ I mean an individual orc is likely to overproduce things they use, and leave those things in caches for other Orcs. To have orcs do marriage rituals about shared ownership and obligations and like, tax law, that’s strange. That would imply things about Orcs that don’t make sense for the setting.
Don’t think you need to reinvent marriage from the ground up in your setting. Worldbuilding is not the task of creating a coherent alternate reality ex nihilo, it’s the task of considering what differs from your norm in order to help engaging with the world embracing the different space. But it’s also a thing worth examining and asking the question of if this ritual, if this practice, is similar to how it is in our world, then it probably indicates a similarity in the history of your world to the history in our world.
You can do this backwards too; you can start with the idea of ‘here are the things I want a ritual to include because I think they’re dope,’ then work backwards to what those things represent, and how they inform ideology. Remember, that cultural behaviour is not agnostic to the culture it’s from. Right now, we have gay marriage and interracial marriage, and divorce and financial independence but those things needed to be bolted onto another system. You can bolt on other things or even open it up and clear out stuff from under the hood!