Monday, June 15, 2009

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, then...


We are all familiar with the childhood chant used to embarrass kids who might like each other, in that stage of life where we considered the opposite gender to have cooties.

When I first heard the words that form a version of the ring exchange section of the Church of England wedding service, I was taken by the expressive romantic poetry of them. Variously those words are (in part):

"With my body I honour you,
all that I am I give to you,
and all that I have I share with you,"

another version uses the even more erotic wording:

"with my body, I thee worship".

In the proclamation phase of the wedding service, the Church of England takes the position that the clergy does not marry the husband and wife; they marry each other. The role of the clergy is to direct the process and then to announce and proclaim that it has been concluded properly.

I find this an interesting observation to keep in mind when contemplating the current social discussions on both same-sex marriage, and the privatization of marriage. Some who hold to either a fundamentalist or conservative perspective, admit only one version of marriage to be correct, to be permitted, in a civilized society, to the vehement exclusion of all other possibilities. God is often marshaled in support of their thinking; they feel qualified to speak on His behalf in telling those who think differently how this institution should exist as an absolute.

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist currently a professor at Princeton, recognized for his work in behavioral finance and hedonic economics. He is the 2002 Nobel Prize laureate for economics. I admire Kahneman's work for not only its brilliance, but its honesty. Kahneman developed the concept of visceral certainty to describe how he could feel himself so adamantly correct in his thinking, when objective evidence and the opinions of others indicated he was wrong. Kahneman excels at identifying the gap between theory and ideal, and practice and objective reality.

In his spirit of examination, I decided to make my own attempt to rationally examine the subject of marriage. Taking a long range look in the sense of distance, at how marriages exist around the planet, and taking a long range look in the sense of time, at how marriages have existed in history, there seems to be a considerably larger range of relationships than the one embraced by conservatives and religious fundamentalists. While the existence of these differences is not in itself a guarantee that they are all equally correct, it does argue that we have as a species been very flexible in this context, and that there is no one single way for marriage to be defined to the exclusion of all possibilities.

While marriage can be entered into as a sacrament, we do accept as married those who do not solemnize their commitment through any religion. Even in the early Christian era, up until the mid-16th century with the edicts of the Council of Trent, clergy and religion were not a requirement. Prior to that, in Europe all that was required was the agreement, the verbum, for individuals to enter into the relationship. If the wording of the agreement was in the present tense, the individuals were married from that time forward; if in the future tense, they were engaged or betrothed only. Sometimes the agreement was recorded by the church, but it was not required to be either recorded by clergy or civil authority. In some versions of Judaism, the act of marrying another person means merging into one soul from two, a view of the necessity for marriage to achieve spiritual completeness that is shared with some other religions where there is very strong pressure to enter into marriage.

Over many centuries, in European culture and other cultures, marriage was neither a civil nor a religious agreement; it was purely a personal commitment and a kind of contract, which in large part regulated control of property. A form of this idea is currently advanced under the concept of privatization of marriage. In privatization, the roles of both the church and government would be minimalized, and the emphasis would shift to individual commitments and contracts. The recognition by some states of common law marriage, where the relationship is established by a couple living together as if they were married, would be an example of a marriage that was neither formalized by religious ceremony or by formal government license.

While marriage can be entered into for the purposes of having children, we do not require couples to reproduce, nor do we any longer penalize those who reproduce (or are born) without benefit of marriage the way we did at one time. Nor do we widely restrict the role of parent to heterosexual couples; in our society, parenting sometimes falls to grandparents, guardians, single individuals, and even same sex individuals and couples; they sometimes do a superior job over the heterosexual individuals in a monogamous relationship. Recognition is progressing that gender orientation or relationship status with another adult does not always equate to parenting ability or emotional or economic stability.

The argument is sometimes offered that marriage is recognized by society because it benefits it directly, providing stability and greater prosperity. The divorce rate and the resultant destabilizing effects of what amounts to serial monogamy would suggest that is not necessarily the case.

The element of time in connection with marriage is a particularly interesting one. While we, as a nation, nearly always enter into marriage with the intent of "til death us do part", we follow a variety of time tables in practice. It surprised me to discover that there are marriage rituals that do NOT define relationship in forever terms. For example, in some locations the Shi'ah form of Islam recognizes term marriages, as have other societies. Spouses agree to be temporarily husband and wife, an arrangement that is renewable; not so very different from those marriages where spouses elect to renew vows ceremonially, only more so.

An overview of marriage customs shows some interesting variations: so-called ghost or posthumous marriages, where a living person marries a dead person; levirate marriages, where a widow marries her husbands brother to perpetuate his bloodline, and the reverse, sororate marriage where the widower marries his late wife's sister, for the same purpose. There are so-called "walking marriages" where the spouses do not live together, but maintain separate residences. While this seems contrary to our notion of a typical nuclear family, in practice often one or both spouses may spend regular periods separated without any loss of commitment; it occurs regularly in military deployments, and often occurs in civilian life where one or both spouses routinely travel, such as over the road truck drivers, salesman, and our political representatives, with either one permanent and one temporary residence, or perhaps two permanent residences being maintained by fully committed married individuals.

Legally and officially, we do not treat all relationships or individuals fairly or equally. The concept of (anti) miscegenation laws is commonly understood to refer to laws which prohibit formalizing the mixing of different races, originating in part from a lack of understanding of the concept that whatever skin color we may present, we are the same species. What fewer people seem to know is that the first miscegenation laws in this country addressed not marriages of different races, but marriages between different classes. Indentured servants were prohibited from marrying their contract owners, because such marriages prematurely ended their labor service (at least, in theory). The current remaining restrictions prohibiting marriage tend to be age; consanguinity - too close a biological relationship, such as between siblings or in some but not all states, first cousins); plural marriage, either polygyny or polyandry, or group marriage (multiple of both husbands and wives); and gender, with a decreasing majority of states prohibiting same-sex marriages. The possibilities offered by genetic science to anticipate problems in offspring seem to be superseding at least some of the restrictions on how closely related parties can be in marriage; it is unlikely that closely incestuous relationships will ever be permitted. Given the variations in plural marriages around the world, and as advocated by a variety of religions, it would not surprise me to see the marriage limitation to two people eventually change, but not for a very long time.

There is the so-called marriage 'penalty', where the tax rate for married couples is higher than the tax rate for single individuals. We are having to examine how to make accommodation for the discrepancies where some states allow same-sex marriages but others do not - or in the case of California, did for a while, but do not now. Our federal government does not currently recognize the status of same sex marraiges. Even the District of Columbia, which has the unusual situation of not being a state, and not being the usual kind of municipality, is wrestling with how to deal with residents from the 50 different states having 50 different definitions of marriage. As much as some conservatives and liberals alike would like to accord the authority for marriage to state government, so long as we have federal issues, and conflicting state laws, this is problematic.

Given the difference in attitudes towards same sex marriage in younger adults compared to older adults, it seems a reasonable expectation that same sex marriage will eventually be fully accepted, and legally recognized. Even some religions are changing their position, arguing in response to the phrase "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve", that God made Steve as well. The only remaining question to a wider acceptance of same sex marriages appears to be when - and where - not if.

I would argue that the intention and commitment of the two parties involved logically should define their relationship of marriage, in the form of a contractual agreement between them. The limitations of age that govern entering into other contracts would provide adequate protection for children not to be exploited by adults. It would allow for the participants to be of opposite or same gender, and it could be required as a contractual condition, that children that are part of that relationship, whether biologically or adoptively occurring, would be provided for by those spouses, both for support and for inheritance. The participants could choose if they wished to follow the dictates of their conscience through the teachings of whatever religion they profess, or none at all, if that is their choice.

It would permit the government to opt out of what is a divisive controversy at best, and to institute fairer and more equitable standardized treatment of individuals, regardless of their marital status. The intrusion of the government in different ways into the bedrooms of our society has never been a comfortable one for either the government, or the people into whose bedroom they intrude. It would offer a more sane, humane, and objective approach to an age old, much varied institution. Those who have a visceral certainty that they are right and everyone else is wrong - and that everyone else must be compelled to their way of doing things - are unlikely to ever consider any other options. But those who are thoughtful, and who have the integrity to recognize that they might be wrong no matter how right they feel, could do far worse than consider this possibility.


  1. DG -

    Your article is thoughtful, and thought provoking. I want to write a reply worthy of the clear effort you went into in drafting this, but I do have a couople of quick thoughts.

    First - obviously I understand you aren't arguing that polygamy or incest is acceptible - but I don't think it's clear.

    Second - marraige is a church action (in the US), social commitment contracts which the government should recognize are the province of what we, as citizens, should concern ourselves about. The state should recognize as 'married' anyone who enters into such a contract - but the church(es) does/do not have have to, they are allowed whatever dogma they choose, no matter how arcane or archaic it may become (and therefore become irrelevant) over time.

  2. No, of course I'm not arguing that incest is acceptable. My point is that to avoid the problems associated with genetic disease inheritance, we now rely on science rather than consanguinity prohibitions. In some locations, those prohibitions can be quite complex; we commonly think of the restrictions prohibiting too-close marriage as pretty simple and straightforward. Not so in other cultures where there can be quite complex rules, including not marrying anyone having the same surname/familial name or clan name, special totem animal, regardless of any close biological relationship.

    Clearly, we understand that there is emotional and psychological damage to individuals engaging in incest --above and beyond the genetic risks -- which have become the more important basis for prohibiting incestuous marraiges. With the options for genetic testing, we no longer make thosse decisions based on the fear that resulting offspring might look like the presumably inbred unfortunate individuals in the movie "Deliverance".

    The subject of polygamy is less clearly unacceptable. Given how widespread polygamy is worldwide and historically, NOT only in Islamic countries, it is possible that at some distant future point (certainly, not any time soon) our own culture might change what is permitted. While it is emphatically NOT something that I would choose to consider for myself, in attempting to be objective, stepping outside of my own cultural experience, I have to consider the very real possibility that it could at some point be accepted.

    Pen, you say "marriage is a church action". While it is considered a sacrament in some religions, we do not strictly in the US define marriage as a church action. We certainly should recognize the rights of churches to define their sacraments. But we do impose limitations to those sacraments - age of consent, restrictions on polygamy,some prohibit same sex - some don't, and so on. Within the limits of that larger social consensus, those who have religious convictions should have the greatest possible freedom to pursue the tenets of their faith, even if those tenets are more restrictive than non-religious marriage conventions.

  3. K-Rod said...
    "Whether you are homo or hetro or bi, we all have the exact same rights."

    Actually, we don't, if only heterosexuals have the right to marry. Obama did recently add the U.S. to the international resolution that decriminalized homosexuality; something Bush refused to do.

  4. K-rod said:
    Who said ONLY hetrosexuals can get married?"

    Only people of the opposite sex can get married to each other in Minnesota, and in many other states. This was just reaffirmed in California with the upholding of Prop 8. The Defense of Marriage Act, aka DOMA, prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same sex couples in those states that allow same sex marriage. The military does not recognize same-sex marriages.

    If you are asserting that homosexuals can marry so long as it is not to another homosexual, or bi, you are technically correct, but that still in essence means they cannot marry each other.

    What impressed me in undertaking the research on marriage is that not even the bible, OR the traditions of europe that we rely on for our current view of monogamy are as permanent or long term as we tend to think of them. Even the bible, as just one source for defining relationships, is full of non-monogamous relationships, both multiple wives, and concumbines. Effectively, marriage is a relationship defined by consensus, however we decide to define it. There are a surprising number of Christian churches that will permit and perform marriage between same-sex couples, and other religions as well. Marriage does not HAVE to be defined as narrowly as it is currently defined in most states and by DOMA.

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  6. Sure, DG, we could also redefine government marriage as the union between only 3 women and 2 men.

    And technically a homo can marry a bi in MN... and a homo could marry a homo... and a bi could marry a bi. (talk about swingers)

    Homo or hetro or bi, we all have the exact same rights.

    K-Rod, explain how technically we have those same rights?

    In Minnesota, as a straight / hetero woman, I have the right to marry the person I love, so long as it is not bigamy. A gay man does not have that same right, to marry the person he loves and wants to commit to as a partner for the rest of their lives.

    Krod also writes: "Sure, DG, we could also redefine government marriage as the union between only 3 women and 2 men."

    We COULD, if there were a consensus to do that. Looking at an overview of the institution of marriage, as I described in paragraph 3:
    "Taking a long range look in the sense of distance, at how marriages exist around the planet, and taking a long range look in the sense of time, at how marriages have existed in history, there seems to be a considerably larger range of relationships than the one embraced by conservatives and religious fundamentalists. While the existence of these differences is not in itself a guarantee that they are all equally correct, it does argue that we have as a species been very flexible in this context, and that there is no one single way for marriage to be defined to the exclusion of all possibilities."

    The definition you suggest of 3 women and 2 men has occurred with any frequency in looking objectively at how we as humans define marriage. I can't say it has NEVER occurred, but I don't know of any society or culture that recognized marriage in that form. So, yes we COULD, but given the premise of forming a consensus, I think it is improbable. Likewise, historically it is unlikely that we will incorporate incestuous marriages or marriages outside our species either. While there is a very substantial record of consistently around 10% of human populations being gay, many of whom form life-long, stable, marrital type relationships. The only remotely similar restriction, which has been lifted, was miscegenation; relationships between races.

    On that basis if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, lays eggs and swims like a duck, and if not calling it a duck does harm --- why not call it a duck?

    Consensus, which IS how we define marriage, whatever other basis we claim, is far more likely to change regarding same sex relationships before it makes any other kind of change, following the pattern of anti-miscegenation repeal.

  7. Ooops - typo! That should read:

    "The definition you suggest of 3 women and 2 men has NOT occurred with any frequency in looking objectively at how we as humans define marriage."

    Sorry if the ommission caused confusion.

  8. K-rod says:
    "Don't make me go all Tina Turner on you, DG. "

    You can go Tina Turner on me if you must; just no going IKE Turner on me please, LOL.

    "If you want to base this on frequency, then such a small percentage of the population should not dictate to a huge majority about a government benefit.
    Therefore marriage is the union of one man and one woman."

    I agree that a small majority should not dictate; that the decision is by a majority. That was the essence of my post; that what majorities have decided varies greatly. As a matter of not gender or orientation, the attitudes generationally are changing that consensus. It is open for discussion, not carved in stone.

    You brought up in another comment about the role of government in marriage, (see! again! this is why you are such an excellent contribution here). Coincidentally that is a topic that I debated about adding here, but decided to separate into another topic of it's own, because it merits more space. It IS a very important aspect of considering marriage. DOMA figures prominently in that topic, because I don't believe that the federal government should give a power to the states, and then arbitrarily decide to ignore legal decisions of those states while accepting others. A little patience, and I promise, I will get to that topic in turn!

    Another aspect that I am wrestling with addressing is what constitutes homosexual from heterosexual conduct or practices, so that it is responsible and respectful and doesn't degenerate into Bevis and Butthead Redux. Given the concerns that were brought up in my discussion with Pen about the archeological Venus in not contravening the blog host's suitability / pornography or prurient material restrictions, that subject will likely come a goooood bit later than the government / marriage topic.

    K-rod says: "I do find it sad that such an "issue" that only affects a very very small percentage of the population is such a big deal instead of focusing on the worst economic crisis..."

    I will strongly AGREE with you that the economy is more urgent, more important, a greater priority. I disagree however that it means that we should not consider other subjects - if only as a breather from too much of the higher priority topics. In the same vein, discussing the significance of oaths of office, or Palin's resignation, etc. would then be unavailable to us. I would argue that a responsible, balanced and mature approach is to recognize that we MUST deal with greater and lesser issues, to balance and prioritize them appropriately, but not to simply ignore any of them.

  9. K-rod wrote:
    " K-Rod said...
    "What's love got to do..." - Tina Turner

    ...with government marriage?

    "...absoloutly nothin', say it again..."

    Now this is a novel experience. I have been serenaded on a blog, LOL! K-rod, THAT is a witty and charming way to make your point.