Monday, May 14, 2012

Marriage: What is it to You?

Between North Carolina's recent debacle and President Obama's statement in support of same-sex marriage, an ongoing national debate about marriage has been rekindled. But what exactly do we mean when we discuss marriage? As simple as the question may seem, it occurred to me, when I read this recent article by a friend and colleague of mine, that we don't often enough interrogate our conceptions of marriage. In the article, James argues neither for nor against same-sex marriage. And while he discusses definitions of marriage, he doesn't offer his own definition: instead he attempts to compare two opposing schools of thought. 
James's analogies for either school are arguably over simplification, but I think they're equally so: he suggests that those in favor of same-sex marriage see marriage as a social validation, and denying an entire group access to that validation is therefore unconscionable to activists in this camp. For those opposed to same-sex marriage, however, marriage is seen as some sort of divinely-ordained, "primal magic" union of male and female - it's seen as something that humans don't have control over, and people opposed to same-sex marriage see same-sex couples and marriage as inherently mutually exclusive. To them, asking for same-sex marriage is like asking for the laws of physics to change - that's how deeply this viewpoint tends to delve.

But here's what I realized when I read James's article: my unusual perspective on same-sex marriage stems from my own view of marriage. See, I at once hold both views of marriage - I believe in an ideal of marriage that fits into the primal magic category, but I believe that most marriages on the earth fit into the social validation camp. Or into failed attempts in the primal magic category. Therefore, I support same-sex marriage because I don't believe I have the right to hold others to my ideal of marriage. For me, it's like alcohol - I have personal beliefs against it, and I've never touched the stuff. But I'm not about to make it illegal. Not because I think alcohol is awesome, but because I respect others' agency enough to let them take on the personal choice of whether to drink (and in what quantities). Also, I do on some level hold to the idea that love is love. And if being in a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex makes you happy, I'm happy for you. I don't know how things are gonna pan out in the next life, but I'm happy to let you make your own decisions in the meantime. 

Now, I realize that my viewpoint on same-sex marriage is likely to offend people on every side of the issue. Frankly, it's a view that's likely to offend anyone who doesn't agree with me. But I'm starting to realize that it's important for people with unusual perspectives to share them. Because if people like me don't speak up, it just furthers the myth that this debate is entirely polarized. Let's get a multiplicity of views out on the table.

So, tell me - what does marriage mean to you? What is it ideally? What is it in reality? Where do your views come from, and how have they changed? 


  1. I draw very distinct lines between definitions of the word 'marriage' in regards to the context they are used. There is legal 'marriage', which provides legal protections for two (or more) consenting adult citizens who file appropriate paperwork with the state. Religious 'marriage' where a Church or other religious body approves of the union of two (or more) individuals into their religiously defined constraints of 'marriage'. And social 'marriage', a sort of hybrid of the two based more on the acceptance of the two (or more) people in the way they live their lives.

    Legal 'marriage' is entirely concerned with legal protections and paperwork. No Church is involved or necessary. Society need not approve of the activity of the individuals in question. This is purely beaurocracy provoding simplified routes for certain aspects of our legal framework for two (or more) adult citizens. Want to visit the individual listed beside you on the 'marriage' license in the hospital? By default, you are allowed to visit them even though you are not blood 'family'. Want to file taxes jointly? You can. If they should die without expressly distributing their estate, you become their default beneficiary.

    Legal 'marriage' is what is brought into question when constitutions and laws are in play. It is the only type of 'marriage' that matters when constitutions and laws are in play. The rest are completely irrelevant to the situation.

    Religious 'marriage' is entirely concerned with individual religions and their acceptance and 'blessing' of a given set of people wishing to conform to their views of what 'marriage' is. This is ceremony and spiritual acceptance. This is in no way a legal question (at least, shouldn't be) in the US. The first amendment makes it perfectly clear that the government cannot tell any religious body what to accept insofar as its religious beliefs are concerned, nor can the government use a solely religious foundation for law making.


  2. Religious 'marriage' is brought into play only within the confines of a religious group and their practices provided they don't violate the law. For example, there is nothing that says a religion couldn't declare a four year old to be married to a thirty year old, but if they require sexual interaction that would violate age of consent laws. Saying they are religiously 'married' though is unimportant legally unless they apply for a legal 'marriage' license, at which point it would be denied based on age.

    Social 'marriage' is more about the general acceptance of a pairing (or group) of individuals in the way they interact with the broader range of people in the country. This has no legal or religious weight, but is based upon an interplay of the two. This is about two (or more) people holding hands in the supermarket or going to a movie and people around them reacting to it.

    Social 'marriage' is brought into play when people talk about validation of their relationship from society. This also overlaps heavily with social approval of everything that goes along with the concept of 'marriage', to include things like living arrangements, sexual interaction, and other ways of expressing the relationship in public or private.

    Basically, I think it is extremely important to understand which type of 'marriage' is actually being discussed, and use appropriate information and logic to form opinions. The opinions of the church and society are unimportant in regards to the legal question of if two (or more) consenting adult citizens should be able to visit eachother in the hospital. The opinions of the law and society are unimportant in regards to whether or not a church approves of two (or more) individuals being 'married'. The opinions of the law and the church are unimportant in regards to whether or not society as a whole approves of two (or more) individuals being married.

    If all three stay in their own lanes, there isn't a problem. The problems come when one steps outside of its lane and interferes with another, which is a sadly frequent affair.