Long-term pair-bonding is of extreme importance in Middlelander culture. The core social unit of the society–upon which families and communities are built–is the Middlelander marriage, which is a religiously-sanctioned union, requiring the approval of both priestesses and bureaucrats.
The Importance of Marriage
It is through marriage that Middlelanders qualify for many of their adult privileges, both on a social level and on a government level. Not only is marriage a rite of passage, but a married household is also considered the only appropriate environment for the raising of children or accumulation of wealth.
Marriage is so important that the union is often arranged by the parents of the prospective partners and carefully planned in advance, as one’s spouse can strongly influence one’s status, social circle, and job prospects.
Middlelander marriages are intended to last for life. Divorce is uncommon and widows tend to remarry quickly. An unmarried Middlelander who has passed the marrying age is considered by others to be averse to commitment, which is frowned upon (see: Jaya Hadd).
Employers may avoid promoting an unmarried Middlelander and merchants may pass on a long-term deal if they discover a potential business partner is unmarried. Because of this, immigrants to the Middleland attempt to marry as soon as possible.
Traditionally, only women may marry in the Middleland; therefore, all Middlelander marriages occur between women. Due to the government’s extreme conservatism, foreigners in mixed-sex marriages who come to the Middleland are not considered to be legally married.
Because men cannot marry, they do not have access to many privileges afforded to Middlelander women and are limited in their ability to accumulate wealth. Often, a man will live with his sisters for the rest of his life and pass on any personal wealth to his nieces.
Most Middlelander women–both fertile and robust–have the right to marry, but there are some exceptions:
- Priestesses give up the right to marry when they join the priesthood. This commitment is for life. (There is only one special circumstance where a priestess may marry and leave the clergy, and it is exceedingly rare.) A person who is married or has ever been married cannot be a priestess.
- Non-priestess clergy members, such as temple assistants, are temporarily forbidden from marrying while they are serving in the clergy. Working for the temple is one of the only socially acceptable reasons to be unmarried at an advanced age.
- Enslaved persons cannot marry while they are enslaved. Since slavery in the Middleland is normally a temporary punishment applied exclusively to convicted criminals, the person can marry once their rights are reinstated.
- Unmarried criminals punished with confinement also cannot marry until they are released from confinement. However, people who commit heinous crimes against children may permanently lose their right to marry.
- A Middleland citizen is forbidden from marrying any ethnic Middlelander who is part of a “rogue” tribe that has not accepted the authority of the central Middleland government and the Middlelander state religion. Marriage certificates require all actors to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Middleland theocracy. Marriage to foreigners of non-Middlelander ethnicity is allowed, however, assuming that the foreigner accepts the Middlelander government’s authority and adheres to their spouse’s religious and cultural norms.
- While non-Maharans (such as foreigners who have not yet converted to the Cult of Mahara) may marry, anyone who converted to the religion as an adult and then subsequently left the religion may not marry unless they reconvert. Leaving the religion after converting is seen as suspicious and even treasonous by the government.
- Middlelanders under the age of 19 cannot marry, with no exceptions. They can, however, be engaged as early as birth; this engagement can be freely broken at any time and is a social agreement, not a legally binding one.
Higher Wife and Lesser Wife in Middlelander Marriages
In the Middleland, marriage arrangements adhere to a loosely hierarchical system based on relative status. Roughly 500 years prior to the time period of Goda’s Slave, the fledgling Middlelander theocracy established the Higher/Lesser marriage system, a series of incentives that rewards women of higher status for marrying women of lesser status and lesser means. This was an attempt to avoid social incest and increase equality as the Middleland urbanized, since in theory it would spread wealth from richer families to poorer families.
The scheme mostly worked. Marriage roles of Higher and Lesser quickly became customary, with the Higher Wife typically being a few years older and holding more power in the relationship compared to the Lesser Wife. However, society’s distribution of wealth itself was slow to change because, in practice, the “higher” wife tended to choose someone of only slightly lesser status, sometimes within her own extended family.
Higher Wife or Lesser Wife is not an inherent lifetime role, but is entirely relative. Any woman can be a Higher Wife or Lesser Wife, depending on who they choose to marry and their relative status to each other. It is not a role that is attached to the individual’s personal identity, and in fact some women can experience both roles throughout their life if they experience more than one marriage (for example, if they are widowed and remarry).
Advantages and Responsibilities of Each Role
There are both benefits and disadvantages to being either a Higher Wife or a Lesser Wife.
For example, while the Higher Wife can veto many of the Lesser Wife’s economic decisions in the household, and she has final say in decisions about certain key matters–such as where the children are sent to school–she bears much higher economic responsibility in the marriage. The Higher Wife pays most of the expenses to establish the household prior to marriage, including paying to accommodate any previous children if her spouse is a widow. She also bears a much greater burden in the event of divorce, in which case she must pay both the government and her ex-spouse a fine to exit the marriage.
By contrast, a Lesser Wife is shielded from many of the major economic responsibilities and enjoys a higher level of control over the day-to-day household activities. She is usually responsible for maintaining the house and, as such, Lesser Wives with construction experience are greatly desired. She is also typically the one who tends to the everyday needs of the couple’s shared children.
You could say that the role of Higher Wife is to constantly find and provide the fuel, while the Lesser Wife is tasked with maintaining the ongoing fire.
Choosing to be a Higher Wife or Lesser Wife requires nearly as much consideration as choosing a spouse to begin with. However, most women will tend to gravitate towards a role that suits their personality; those who like to be in control of “big picture” matters tend to choose the Higher Wife role, while those who enjoy getting lost in the details choose the role of Lesser Wife.
The Middlelander theocracy considers the Higher/Lesser system itself to be a temporary measure, as it is meant to be phased out once economic differences in the population become so negligible that it is too difficult for the average Middlelander to find a partner of differing status. This is expected to take hundreds of years, however. In the era of Goda’s Slave, the government still offers substantial tax breaks to wealthy women who marry lower class women, foreigners, or former slaves.
This system served as a great investment that paid off for the government. With power less concentrated among specific families and more diffused throughout the general population, there is less of a threat for one single group to challenge the government’s authority (as was seen in the Upperland Kingdom by the Rava family).
Balance, Equality, and Power Dynamics in Middlelander Marriages
Even with this explicit hierarchy, the implicit power dynamics in a marriage will tend to shift over its lifetime, until the relative status of the partners becomes negligible.
This feature is by design. As emotional intimacy between the couple increases and the members of the couple get to know each other, the cultural expectation is that they will discover leverage that can be used to manipulate each other, and that they will test each other by playing head-games until something of a balance is reached.
This is a period where boundaries are quietly negotiated, usually on a sub-verbal level. The Lesser Wife will attempt to “unmask” the Higher Wife and discover her vulnerabilities–which she will then playfully exploit–and the Higher Wife will purposefully neglect less important responsibilities to see where the Lesser Wife is willing to lead and take control.
Eventually, the ideal is for a stalemate to be reached on all matters. This stalemate is considered by Middlelanders to be the mature state of a well-established marriage, as it has graduated from its “playful” and manipulative beginnings.
In other words, Middlelander marriages may not begin on equal footing, but are intended to evolve in that direction. Once a marriage is mature, the bond is strong, and a Middlelander woman will fiercely defend her wife, even in cases where she personally dislikes her.
Love and Sex in Middlelander Marriages
As a rule, Middlelanders do not marry for love. Marriages are often arranged, and even when they are not, most Middlelanders choose a partner based on long-term economic considerations. A person’s ability to maintain a stable household is the most valued trait. For example, a widow who has proven herself to be a good spouse with a stable career and healthy children will find herself with many offers.
Middlelanders tend to actively avoid marrying someone who they find too sexually attractive, as sexual or romantic passions are thought to be a temporary sickness that clouds the mind. Parents will refuse to approve of a marriage if they suspect their daughter is in love with her betrothed.
Along similar lines, Middlelanders are not expected to have sex with their marriage partners. It is actually considered a social faux pas (especially in the Southern Middleland) for a woman to openly admit to having sex with her own wife, though some couples do have sex discreetly. This is not viewed as a moral issue, but more an issue of “improper” or “un-classy” behavior, and it isn’t really a problem unless others know about it–or unless the couple is clearly in love.
Anything that may threaten the stability of a household, such as passionate feelings or sexual expectations, are to be avoided. To this end, married Middlelanders almost universally have sex outside the house, with people who are not their spouses, in semi-public locations established for this practice. Middlelanders will also tend to avoid observing their spouse having sex with others, as this is considered a little awkward and most Middlelanders prefer not to think of their spouse in a sexual context.
Worse than being sexually attracted to one’s wife, however, is admitting to being in love with her–especially if it involves confessing directly to the person in question. This is considered improper and embarrassing. If the love is not entirely mutual, it is even seen as humiliating, since it shifts the delicate power dynamics of the relationship and can alter the stable balance that Middlelanders value so highly.
Due to these huge social risks, a pair of married Middlelanders who have accidentally fallen in love with each other can spend the entirety of their shared life pretending otherwise, with each believing that their love is unrequited by the other.
Children Born From the Marriage
Middlelander marriages are designed to form the foundation of a Middlelander household, which usually involves raising children. Typically, the Higher Wife (who is usually slightly older, though not always) will want to give birth to the first child as a show of status; however, any children born in the marriage are considered to equally belong to both mothers.
It is a point of pride to have many healthy children, whether one gave birth to them directly or not. Often, a Middlelander will not know which of her two mothers gave birth to her, and it is viewed as a little bit rude to ask someone who their biological mother is. Middlelander children may be nursed by either mother as well, especially if both mothers gave birth within a short time of each other.
Similarly, the average Middlelander will have no idea who their biological father is. Middlelanders have no concept of fatherhood and, until their society developed a rudimentary scientific method, they did not even have a notion that men contributed to pregnancy at all. The typical male role models for a Middlelander are her mother’s brothers, as it is common for a man to assist with rearing his sister’s children.
Siblings are understood to be individuals who were raised in the same household, under the same two mothers. Since Middlelanders raised by the same parents may not necessarily have the same biological father or even the same biological mother, it is not uncommon for siblings from the same household to in fact be half-siblings or even to not be blood-related at all.
Regardless, all people raised in the same household are considered to be equally siblings, with no legal or social distinction. Members of a family who were raised by the same mothers may inherit wealth from each other, but are forbidden from ever marrying each other.
Generally-speaking, a Middlelander is not allowed to marry anyone who was raised by the same mother, by their mother’s current wife, or by any past wives either of their mothers may have had.
Even if a person is born out of wedlock (which is rare), these rules still apply to any future marriage their mother might have during the person’s childhood. If a Middlelander is born into a household that is later split by divorce or the death of one of the mothers, and they follow one mother into her new marriage, they may also never marry anyone born into that new household.
In almost all circumstances, Middlelanders may never marry priestesses. The only exception for this is a specific edge case where the Middlelander is a slave who is being pardoned by a priestess. In this case, the priestess must leave the priesthood to marry the slave, must take on the obligation of Higher Wife, and must maintain the former slave for the rest of her life.
If the ex-priestess later becomes a widow, then she may remarry normally, but in practice may have a difficult time finding a spouse. Middlelanders tend to hold priestesses–even ex-priestesses–in high regard, maintaining a certain respectful fear of them and believing them to have magical powers. This is incompatible with the dynamics of a typical Middlelander marriage, which requires both partners to be willing to dominate the other when necessary (as well as surrender when necessary).
For Middlelanders, marriage is expected to be a life-long commitment and divorce is avoided at all cost. Unless there has been violence involved or the marriage threatens the well-being of children in the household, the government requires quarreling couples to go through multiple attempts at reconciliation and generally makes divorce a long, drawn-out process.
It is an absolute last resort–so much so that a woman who is successfully dumped by her wife will have a difficult time remarrying, since others will wonder what she “did” to cause the government to grant her ex-wife’s request for divorce. Similarly, a woman who dumps her wife will be avoided by matchmakers, as she will be viewed as lacking tenacity and commitment, even when she had a good reason.
A failed marriage is one of the most expensive and life-altering events that can happen to a Middlelander, which is why marriages can take years to arrange and why a Middlelander’s parents will often carefully vet potential candidates for them. It is not a matter that can be taken lightly. Middlelanders who divorce their spouses may even be denied their inheritance by their parents unless they manage to remarry, since the parents would not want to “squander” the wealth on a child who cannot build a household with it.
In some cases, divorce is forbidden outright. For instance, a priestess who wishes to abandon the priesthood may only do so by marrying a slave and is not allowed to ever divorce her.