“Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”
This article, whilst being more politically orientated, helps illustrate how skepticism can be applied to all aspects of our lives. That we should strive to maintain logically consistency even in those topics that are by their very nature quite emotional.
Marriage to many people is seen as an event that shapes their lives; it defines the relationships of the people involved and creates the foundations on which to build a family. Marriage can be undertaken as a religious practice, for social recognition or for financial safety, but generally in today’s western culture it is pursued as an act of love.
What then does the practice of marriage actually represent in our modern culture? Are there any legitimate reasons for a couple to get married? In this article I hope to show that the tradition of marriage has become corrupted by stringent legal regulations and eroded by euphoric promises. I aim to emphasize the importance of questioning even deep rooted traditions, like marriage, to ensure that they still retain validity.
My interest in marriage has arisen as my partner and I are to be wed next year. We had initially planned to get married, but have since changed our position. Investigation into the publically held concept of marriage and the pertaining legal structures revealed a tradition that we were not comfortable to be a part of. We have thus decided to hold a commitment ceremony instead, removing the need for any unsubstantiated state involvement and allowing us to structure the ceremony in a way that truly reflects the love we have for each other.
Currently, under Australian law, for a marriage to be valid the state requires the presiding celebrant to say “Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. This single sentence conveniently encapsulates everything that I hold to be wrong with marriage.
‘According to law in Australia’
Why is it that marriage has anything to do with the state? Marriage in its early days originated as a financial agreement within families, offering economic security to those involved and as a way to strengthen bloodlines. Due to the business like structure of such agreements, laws dating back to 1,000 BCE were created outlining the price of marriage and subsequent property arrangements. As the concept of marriage evolved, the states retained their involvement, continuing to govern marriage even after it moved from being financial commitment to an emotional one in the 17th century. Now in the 21st century, with nearly all western marriages taking place for reasons of love, is the state’s involvement really justified? For what reasons should the state really be able to enforce that only certain couples can be married? Attempts to justify such discrimination can be made by appealing to definitions, but the state is not in place to enforce definitions.
Proponents of state controlled marriage have argued that legal recognition conveys state endorsement and thus encourages people into healthy lifestyles. Implicit in such a position is that monogamous, heterosexual relationships are the only correct way to lead a healthy life (as currently they are the only state endorsed form of marriage) and as such the state is discriminating against all other forms of relationship.
Here someone might object and point out that many states are in fact beginning to recognize same-sex relationships through civil unions. If I was to momentarily accept that civil unions provided equal rights to that of a marriage then I am left in a position where state recognition of marriage becomes redundant. Civil unions are available to both homosexual and heterosexual relationships and as such there appears no adequate reason for the state to not solely recognize civil unions. Marriage should thus become independent of the legal system, with all state recognized relationships being encompassed in civil unions. Individuals would then be left to decide whether their civil union would be called a marriage, but such a decision would have no significance within the legal system. It is worth noting here that in their current form civil unions still mandate particular forms of relationships, namely monogamous ones, and as such would still have the potential to be discriminatory.
Others argue that state regulated marriage is required to protect children; that marriage promotes and supports two parent (heterosexual) families, which are proclaimed to be the ideal structure for a child to be brought up in. Unfortunately for proponents of such a position, the reality of the situation is much different. Studies have shown that children raised by homosexual couples are just as well off as those children who are raised within heterosexual families. Though many of these studies have been relatively small and alone are insufficient to draw conclusive results from, they do demonstrate that current government policy lacks empirical support; that we have no reason to assume that only heterosexual couples can adequately raise children. As such it is fair to conclude that, taken from a position of protecting children within families, the current policy of promoting only heterosexual relationships is again discriminatory.
With the absence of any substantial justification for such discrimination, governments should cease favoring particular arrangements for love, intimacy, and sex through state recognition of a diversity of marital relationships without restriction, that are still compatible with justice (ie. still voluntary in nature, don’t involve children).
Such recognition could take two possible forms, the first being an involuntary one, similar to de facto recognition in today’s legal system. Relationships would be recognized on a basis of several optional criteria; cohabiting for 18months or involved for 12 months, etc. The second alternative is to have voluntary state recognition. Individuals would be free to choose when they move their relationship to the next stage and receive state recognition. So just as couples nowadays approach the state when they decide to get married, people would opt in when they decide to get married/wed/etc.
Due to the complex nature of financial arrangements within relationships it is important to ensure that in the event of a relationship breaking down, all parties are protected. The state is in an excellent position to provide such protection to individuals and thus I do feel that they do have an important role to play in these regards. Such ‘divorce’ policies should in no way be limited to married (as currently defined) couples alone though. Participants in homosexual or polyamorous relationships should equally be protected in the event of separation.
‘Between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others’
I have already touched on some of the discriminatory implications of viewing marriage as a purely heterosexual arrangement in the eyes of the state, but a great many people would still hold that, regardless of legal repercussions, marriage by definition is the union of a man and a woman (to the exclusion of all others), and as such is not open to interpretation. This view is common within religious denominations that see marriage as first and foremost a religious tradition. Such people hold that any variation to marriage would only serve to corrupt the tradition.
Such a position is precarious and ultimately unjustified. The act of marriage has its origins within Ancient Egypt, the first records dating back to 1000BCE. The concept of marriage subsequently evolved through history and was incorporated into Roman culture, although at this period it was still primarily a union undertaken for economic security.
Approaching along a quite different path through history is the word “maritare”, which will eventually become “marriage”. “Maritare”, a Latin word, described the close blending of two things, specifically humans, animals and grapes. Such origins are evident with the use of phrases such as “The Chardonnay did not marry well with the salmon” still present in today’s culture. Around 12 CE the French adapted the word into “mariage” and it was here that is was first used in conjunction with the previously mentioned acts of marriage.
Unbeknownst to many, it was not until around 900 CE that the church became involved with marriage. The tradition of marriage then continued to adapt through the ages until it eventually moved away from being an economic commitment and towards being an emotional one.
What we can see here is that marriage as we understand it today is an adapting social phenomenon and a blend of various cultural practices. Attempts to defend particular aspects of marriage, such as its religious origins, are fruitless due to its adapting nature. For these reasons, efforts to restrict marriage to incorporate only those unions between a man and a woman hold no merit. Throughout history, social norms have shaped our understanding of marriage, such as from a financial commitment to an emotional one. Consequently, the growing social acceptance of and the need to provide equal opportunities to same-sex couples should mandate the adaption of marriage to better reflect current social norms.
‘Entered into voluntarily for life’
For most people, at the core of marriage is the concept of forever; that through better and worse, you will always be with them. The underlying assumption here is that the marriage will indefinitely exist because their love for one another will always exist. Are people ever really in a situation where such a promise of eternal love can be made though? Here it is wise to remember that emotional responses such as love are really beyond our conscious control, we are really at their mercy. With this considered, it seems unlikely that a person could ever guarantee their undying love. They may very well intend to love another forever, but throughout their lives people change. Whilst it is possible that two people may change in a way that fosters their relationship, the possibility exists that these changes may lead people in different directions.
The best evidence for such an assertion is the high number of divorces that occur in countries which permit no-fault divorce. In Australia there are indications that almost 40% of marriages will end in divorce. Whilst these statistics can be misleading, they certainly serve to indicate that in a lot of relationships love does not pass the test of time. With such evidence in mind one cannot be sure that their own marriage will not go the way that so many others have.
If this were to be the case and two people found themselves in a loveless marriage, are we to suppose that due to their initial promise they will consequently have to remain within the relationship? No, such a view is not commonly held and the popular existence of no-fault divorce laws substantiates such. We are thus left with an initial obligation to remain within a relationship, made with a no exceptions clause (for better and worse), that can acceptably be disregarded at the holder’s disposition.
Take as an example a promise made between John and Jane. John promises Jane that no matter what extenuating circumstances occur he will mow her lawn next Friday for $20. At the time of the promise John very much desires the money and fully intends to mow Jane’s lawn but when Friday comes he no longer needs the money. Considering the fact that he promised (including a no exception cause), is it acceptable for John to not mow Jane’s lawn? Intuitively we say no, he is obligated (because of his promise) to mow her lawn. If though John had instead promised to stay married to Jane forever then our position differs. It becomes acceptable that if down the track the relationship becomes loveless then it is appropriate for John to break his promise and leave the marriage.
What then is the purpose of making such a promise? This promise would seem either to mean nothing, subtracting from any other promises made, or to articulate the unrealistic expectations that couples have of each other, demonstrating an absence of rational contemplation within the relationship. Neither of these are desired traits on which a newly formed relationship should be structured. I am not advocating that married couples should be obligated to stay in loveless marriages; instead I propose that such a promise should not be made in the first place. Instead an intention to love forever can made in its place; promising to always act in ways that will sustain the relationship in a beneficial manor.
I hold that marriage as practiced today has become a dated tradition. It is rich with discrimination which is unjustifiably enforced by the state. The expectations of marriage have become unrealistic and morally serious people should not consider creating an unrestricted obligation (through the marriage promise) that can be disregarded at their own discretion.
My partner and I hold no desire to be part of such an institution. Instead we will hold a commitment ceremony to celebrate our love for one another, free from any state regulation. Acts of love, intimacy and sex are by their very nature exceptionally personal, and consequently should be free of any unsubstantiated state control. We will express our love for one another as we see fit, maintaining our moral integrity and rational views, and promising to always act in ways that will foster and support our relationship.