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The International Writers Magazine
: Marriage: Goes together like a fish and a bicyle?

If You Loved Me, You Would…
M. C. Wood
I propose that people who want to get married would have to pass some sort of relationship test

The Supreme Court's recent decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws in the United States, is viewed as heralding a new age for gay rights, and may even pave the way for gays and lesbians across the country to marry. The more recent Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on gay marriage more explicitly addresses the issue for same sex couples in that state. Such decisions for social parity are laudable and necessary for any civilization to develop in a positive direction. What I do find peculiar, however, is the myth that marriage somehow means "you've made it;" that the couple is legitimate by virtue of marriage.

This myth is set in stark relief by the talk about constitutional amendments defining marriage as one man-one woman, and President Bush’s plan to increase funding for initiatives that “strengthen marriage.”. The institution of marriage is clearly at the heart of cultural attitudes about what makes a relationship “real.” The cultural attitude itself is rooted in a religious tradition that, for many, is a quaint and comforting belief that makes it easy not to think about life.

The social expectation to marry, and its corollary prejudice against unmarried cohabitants, reveals the same moral attitude against homosexual relationships. Marriage is, after all, a social institution. My boyfriend and I have been together as partners for six years. When people learn of our commitment, almost invariably they ask me when we are getting married. It is if marriage was the inexorable and exclusive outcome of any romantic relationship.

Some people ask me why we're not already married, and their tone depicts disdain for our unrecognized relationship. At first, the derision was mild enough, like a vague but persistent headache. Into our third year together, however, every time the subject of my union came up I felt an emotional vice (yes, run with the pun) tighten around me. The criticism was this: since were not married, legally or religiously (or both), our relationship is defective and our emotional commitment doubtful. In short, our relationship is not real unless we are married.

When I still felt the need to explain myself, I said that we were committed to each other, but we each have specific reservations about the marriage institution. I cringe at the idea of marriage as an arrangement that transfers power from woman to man, or from mother to father, vestiges of which exist in contemporary practices and notions of romance. Giving "the bride" away, the dowry, engagement rings, the civilizing effect of marriage upon men, taking "the husband's" name, prove my point. Even more offensive is the idea that we are obliged to prove to the state what we mean to each other; otherwise, we are ghosts, without the rights and protections that even gay couples have managed to secure in the absence of the right to marry legally. (their fight for marriage reveals just how embedded is the tradition to ideas of social acceptability.)

My guy and I are in a sort of no-man’s land. We could count as legitimate if we went to the courthouse, but believe that doing so would make us complicit in a tradition we think is anti-same-sex. Moreover, we think that, by getting married, we would be buying into the idea fundamental to the institution in its current form: marriage is about religious commitment. By not marrying, on the other hand, we are not recognized by law; along with that status comes fears about how to protect our rights to each other in the event of emergency (lawyers cost more than we can afford).

Since puritan British colonials settled America, much of our early Common Law followed the puritan version of Christian practice. Early marriage practice in the United States reflected a female-to-male property transition, based upon Christian concept of uniting the flesh, so that two people became legally one: The man. Such belief is true for the Jewish tradition as well, (read Genesis 2:24). As an economic arrangement, marriage is a powerful and effective tool of what we now call "social engineering."

These are merely brief sketches of rather large problems with the institution of marriage. For example, the idea of marriage for the purpose of raising children (as the proposed federal Marriage Law has it) has little to do with the emotional bond launching a marriage or monogamy between the two partners. Tracking offspring became a moral issue: children born out of recognized marriage, and the mothers who bore them, suffered the contempt of society, as if the infant were somehow less human than a “legitimate” one.
Unfortunately for my partner and me, our explanations and arguments appear as mere excuses not to ‘do the right thing.’ We still consider caving to social pressure by contemplating the civil marriage option, but, besides the concerns previously raised, there is also the absurdity of arranging one.

Let's start with the marriage license. You need a license to marry. Is that like getting a license to fish, or to carry a gun? To drive? Is the licensing "condition" suggestive of some sort of perquisite skill involved that prepares you for marriage? What, exactly, is a marriage license meant to accomplish?

In dispensing licenses, the government grants permission to its citizens to participate in an action. Whereas in colonial America parental consent was required for marriage, now that permission is the province of the state. Today, you can certainly sidestep parental permission, but you can't avoid your state's. You may think you've outgrown your parents, but the government will always be your parent. Permission is meant to reflect some sort of official maturity, our country's divorce rates indicate a terrible lack of such. The United States and Sweden shared a rate of 55 divorces to 100 marriages in 2002. (This doesn't mean the divorce rate is 55 percent.) A 1996 US Census Bureau survey found that almost half of all first marriages between couples under 45 years of age end in divorce. I don't think my objection to marriage is "tu quoque," but I had to resolve what marriage indeed means for me. To answer that question I moved past the "permission" rationale and reconsidered the outcomes of requiring a marriage license.

In many states, if not all, marriage licenses granted people permission to copulate. That would make the marriage license like an official sex card. After the sexual revolution in the 1960s it sounds silly to publicly sanction sex, but don't forget, American public policy on marriage is founded almost exclusively on the Christian concept of the union. Though marriage law may have allowed for a legal separation of church and state, it did so without abandoning the morals central to religions faith. Christians should be appalled that God's blessing is dependent first upon the state.

Another fun fact of marriage license history is its connection to racial separation. Most states forbade interracial marriages. Even as early as 1665, the Maryland colonial assembly made interracial marriage a crime. When states did relax the ban on interracial marriage, the licenses were used to track the couples. Marriage law has changed over time to accept interracial unions.

Licenses bestow legitimacy, both literally and socially. They tell us, "You're in the club. You've just made it past the velvet rope. You've got the right outfit." But shouldn't we have to do something to get licensed other than show up in a cool ensemble? Given this structure of imposed validation, shouldn't, in fact, the marriage license be the result of accomplishing a test of skill? It's not so far fetched an idea to make couples earn the license. The crackdown on divorce manifest in a number of states’ laws making it harder to dissolve the legal union seems a bit hollow. My proposal, on the other hand, is right up there with the new scheme by the White House.

I propose that people who want to get married would have to pass some sort of relationship test; a multiple choice questionnaire, or spending an hour doing something domestic with their partner under the watchful eye of a man wearing a painfully bad polyester suit who carries a clip board. Each task would have an ascending level of difficulty, and in addition to being judged on successful completion of a chore, you'd be rated on cooperation and a loving attitude. Points would be deducted for frustration with your partner. If you failed the test you wouldn't be issued a license, plain and simple. Maybe you could come back in an hour or so to try again, but I think rules are rules. If you fail the driver's test, you don't pose for the photo ID.

With my proposal, couples could still opt to receive marriage permits for a year or so before taking the test, just like teenage drivers do before their sixteenth birthday. And there could be government-accredited marriage schools that would teach you all the most up to date "dos and don'ts" of married life.
As ridiculous as my idea may sound, it casts doubt upon the pertinence of marriage. What else, after all, are we suggesting in our current debates about same-sex marriage? No one really wants to talk about what the underpinnings of marriage are - unless that person is religious. Most Americans are vaguely religious, and their response to same-sex marriage (and heterosexual couples who aren’t married) is based on habit, not rigorous thinking.

Who is able to decide whether or not the historical concept of marriage has grown obsolete? Couples still buy a marriage license and marry because "that's just what people do when they love each other." The implication is that if you don't get married then you must not really love each other. It further implies that couples who aren't married don't have a "real" relationship, since real relationships are based upon love through marriage. It is arguable at best, however, that marriage follows necessarily from love.
There are good reasons to marry, if you’re willing to buy into all the ideas that go along with it. Legal marriage provides benefits to each party. In other words, marriage is a legal contract that is, as such, binding. One spouse may not commit certain acts without the threat of legal repercussions. If we think about legal marriage as a positive sort of parental control, we can appreciate the safety it is meant to provide. The governmental oversight of contracts provides recourse for grievances that would otherwise go without redress. Yet the presumption of these protections is that, without marriage, there is nothing there to protect except the basic rights every citizen has. So why must two people be married to receive such protections and submit to such obligations?

In point of fact I do want my relationship legalized, but I have come to bristle at the very mention of the word “marriage” by some ignoramus who has little or no understanding of the social, legal, economic, and religious evolution of the concept. The era in which we live, after all, has come to be. It was not always this way, nor will it necessarily always be the way it is now. This general axiom applies also to the concept of marriage. Today, the legal and religious mingling of the concept is almost inextricable, and arguably they have always been related. This leaves people who do not wish to have a religiously sanctioned marriage in a difficult situation.

I want my relationship to be recognized as real and legitimate precisely because I live in society, and more specifically a society that understands relationships by means of certain rituals, and we have through our customs ways to understand each other and what our relationships are. After all, customs help us to define us. Yet they should not be shortcuts to or crutches for understanding relationships. I simply wish that it wasn’t psychologically necessary to some people that I get married in order to achieve this goal. How can I refer to my life partner in terms that will resonate with people in the same positive ways that the terms “spouse” and “husband” do? “Boyfriend” sounds and means something insubstantial, transient, and oh so temporary. How can we define for our fellow citizens, our friends, and our families what we are to each other?

I do refer to my boyfriend as my life partner, and I dislike the term. Whether or not we eventually marry, people will one day say, "Well, they did stay together all their lives." Hopefully that will count for something.

© M. C. W. Feb 2004

Same -Sex Marriage


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