Once again, the inspiration for my blog came from The New York Times: “Marriage Is a Mixed Blessing.” This is really a rehash of things I’ve said before, but I find myself saying them with greater conviction as time passes.
The more I think about it, the more really I believe the answer to relationship equality is civil unions for legal purposes and marriage that has nothing to do with civil law for those who choose it, regardless of the sexes of the people involved.
I know that “traditional marriage” means a lot to many people, but whether everyone likes it or not, marriage is in a state of flux. In fact, it always has been. “Traditional marriage” as most people mean it has never existed. That is to say, marriage of the 1950s (which seems to be some golden-era of marriage for proponents of “traditional marriage”) would be unrecognizable to a couple married in the time of Jesus (another apparent golden age of marriage). I’d be willing to bet that, while couples of the 1950s knew what the ideal marriage was supposed to look like, few people actually had it.
The fact is that people have always had different ideas of “traditional marriage,” so why insist on regulating it? Why insist on it at all?
To me, marriage is an equal partnership—not tit-for-tat or day-to-day, but on balance. It’s not the whole of my life, but it’s the bedrock. It’s not my husband’s responsibility to fill all my needs, but when the chips are down, or my back is to the wall, or (pick some other cliché), I know he’ll be there, and vice versa. Others believe that marriage is a sort of hierarchical arrangement, where power is unequally but clearly designated. Some follow the ideal of monogamy; others treat exclusivity in marriage as more a guideline in discretion—there can be additional sexual partners, but a decent person hides them. Still others prefer an open relationship that they do not hide from each other, but feel they can’t reveal to anyone else, because there’s this supposed universal concept of marriage.
In all honesty, I can admit that part of the reason I got married almost 27 years ago was because that was my paradigm for a committed relationship, so much so that I never considered anything else. But it also felt very, very right. I knew I wanted this relationship to be the bedrock for the rest of my life. I wanted to grow old with this man. (So far, it’s going very well!) I felt such a deep connection to him that a religious/spiritual sanctification of our relationship felt appropriate. Our marriage very much fits the current idea of traditional marriage, but really, that’s just because it works for us. If it didn’t, I very much doubt that mere social pressure would make it what it is.
Not everyone wants an exclusive covenant that lasts for life. They may believe that such a covenant is silly and contrived, and forcing them to enter one doesn’t mean you can force them into changing their belief. Not everyone’s relationship is like my husband’s and mine, and that does not make those relationships any less legitimate. The way it currently works, if you don’t want a forever relationship, but you have children together or want to provide for each other, you get married, and then when the time comes, you get divorced, and other people lay all their own paradigms on those actions; it all becomes much more complicated that it needs to be. Those who choose an exclusive, lifelong covenant, which is what most people who say they value “traditional marriage” mean, understand that it would be difficult and complicated to dissolve it; that’s part of the choice they make. The key is it’s a covenant they make between themselves and God (or some other term for a greater power or bigger picture), not themselves and the state. It seems to me the state is too worldly an authority for that kind of commitment.
I know people will say that children need both parents, and “traditional marriage” helps ensure that they have both there, but I wonder if that’s true. Parents divorce all the time, and sometimes they stay together “for the sake of the children,” all the while modeling some really unhealthy relationships for those children.
The best marriages are those of choice, where people stay together because they believe in the relationship, not because they feel trapped or obligated. A relationship is truly sanctified only as long as the people in it recognize its sanctity. The church alone cannot uphold a union’s sacredness, and certainly not the state.
Addendum: One more option I hadn’t thought of that my mom mentioned: She used to live in Florida, where there are a lot of retirees for whom a civil marriage has financial implications for their heirs. They sometimes opt for the church-sanctified marriage and skip the civil part. It seems to me that works fine, too, and should be as socially legitimate as any other relationship.