One of the most notable pieces missing from the societies of Oblivion was marriage. Very few couples were in a fixed relationship and of those that were, one had a cheating partner and the other was fiction. Even the player-character, for her efforts, was utterly alone in her adventures and travelling. For the construction of a world, this was a major hole in the weaving of the fabric of verisimilitude. There were people, some were in relationships, but marriage did not seem to really be a part of the overall culture.
Coming to Skyrim showed a change to the situation: not only was marriage possible, multi-racial and even same-sex couples were encouraged. For those characters who were attracted to the player, a wide array of configurations granted the ability of the player to actually pursue a relationship with others, including those that traveled with the player. In this game, it became a part of the world: there were now both priests to officiate it and a place to carry out the ritual. Rings were given. Bonuses are granted to the player.
In fact, it is that last item that is the most troubling for looking at its placement in the world. The spouse, regardless of background and previous station before meeting the player, becomes a part of the player’s position and worth. They take on jobs “somewhere” to generate profit, they give over access to their residence, and they allow the player to store whatever they want in storage within the spouses’ house. Once a day, the spouse will even cook for the player. The inequality of the partnering is firmly seated with the player and away from the spouse.
The player does nothing for their partner other than to win them over initially. While the cultivation of the wooing might not climax in a sex scene, something nearly all other games do, it does separate the spouse from their position within their city and social status. They become nothing more than another object for the player to collect, something that is visited and harvested from on occasion for the player’s gain: the profits of the store that the partner keeps even recharges every day for an extra amount of gold. Investing time in the relationship yields results nothing for the spouse, of even their connection together, but only for the player and whatever role-playing ambitions imagined by them.
Divorce is not possible in Skyrim. It is this simple fact that is most damning for the culture, and the spouse. No one can break from an approved relationship. They are trapped with whatever person they married at any time, even in the long past. The bond between the two people — and it is limited to a couple — is fixed within the world. This is not by religious order, a code of morality, or even personal taste. The very code that runs the world, the underlining fabric of its universe, forbids this action. Marriage is a permanent fact and a remaining constant.
The introduction of marriage within the societies makes it more real, and closer to our own. Yet, the lack of divorce means that, while the world of Nirn becomes that much more for those who are playing, it also creates an uncanny valley effect too. The higher the degree of approximation, the more the details that are lost in the emulation come to the surface for the player. The player might look for a relationship first, and then some official stamp for it via the game’s priests, but are stuck with what the game is more than willing to give them for their struggle: a spouse for however long they plan to play the game.
The purpose of marriage in Skyrim might be to give the player the ability to indulge in their fantasies and create a richer world, yet dooms the spouse into a life of servitude to the player. The ritual grants the player an income, a home, and a person who can make them a meal. Outside the world of the game, the action prompts the unlocking of an achievement on all platforms. In all cases, it is the player who gains from it, and the spouse who loses for the event. Even the love comes not from the player, even in conversation choices, but from the partner; the change in their speech patterns reinforces this.
The spouse becomes little more than a slave, and one ever stuck in this situation too. If there is an unshakable love in the game, it is this process. By getting married, the character is firmly and even in love with the player. Nothing can break this infatuation and even the selling off of the spouses’ property elicits no effect. Not even death can separate the two. The session may end with the player’s death, but if the character dies, the marriage is still in effect. They are and will forever be married to one another.
In Oblivion, there is a character called Adoring Fan. After finishing the quest line of fighting in the Arena, the player is gifted with equipment, an achievement, and this character. From then on, he becomes a follower who, despite any other action to the contrary, will have complete faith in the player. Stealing from him, hitting him, or even pushing him off a cliff will not shake his devotion to the player. Nothing can change it. He is permanently in love with the actions, person and perception of the player in the game.
This is what a spouse becomes in Skyrim: a fan. They give for their loved one, work for them, and allow them free reign of whatever actions they want. It is an expansive love that allows for all possible events from the player. Anything that happens in the game that might impact this relationship is nullified by the overwhelming love and devotion of the spouse for the player. Since the marriage cannot be broken, their love cannot be broken. Even if the player might want to leave the relationship, they can’t: they are tied to this person, and the person to them. Feelings might change for a player, but for the character, they will never move away from love.