There has been much discussion in recent years, in most Western countries at least, about marriage – what it means and how it might be reformed. Gay marriage has been discussed endlessly. Very recently, the topical discussion in the UK has been about whether a heterosexual couple might enter into a civil union; a court concluded that they could not. As I see it, all the discussion has been taking place amid great, heart-felt emotions and has been held back by long-standing traditions. All of this has resulted in the muddled thinking that leads to headlines in the less reputable parts of the media.
IMHO, a simple analysis of what a marriage is all about yields logical answers and the possibility for all parties to be reconciled [though this last bit is a long shot] …
So, what is a marriage? In just about every culture [tell me about any exceptions], there are 3 possible elements:
- The religious part. The parties make vows before God and generally sign up for whatever their chosen religion demands.
- The personal part. The parties declare and celebrate their union and commitment to one another in front of their friends and family.
- The legal part. The state endorses a shrink-wrapped set of contracts between the parties, which gives them some rights and imposes some restrictions.
Many people incorporate all 3 parts. Others, who are not religious, skip #1. I will consider each part in turn:
- Every religion has its own set of parameters that apply to a marriage. A good example would be the acceptance of same-sex marriages, but there are many other criteria that might make a proposed marriage problematic for a particular religion. The parties to a marriage have a choice as to whether they commit themselves to a particular religion. If they find that their faith of choice does not allow their marriage, they have two options: do not get married or find an alternative religion. This is a very personal choice and certainly no business of the state or other outside parties.
- In many ways the personal part of a marriage is similar to the religious one in that it is completely the choice of the marrying parties how they celebrate their union.
- In countries [like the US and UK], where there is a constitutional separation between church and state, the state should only be concerned with the legal aspects of a marriage. The matter should be handled in the logical, meticulous way that most law is enacted. Factors like the domestic arrangements and sex lives [or lack thereof] are no business of the state, as they are quite irrelevant to enactment of the contracts.
To me, it is the clear separation of #3 that is the crux of the issue. This does occur commonly anyway – I have just attended such a marriage – and I believe that it is common practice in France, for example. Terminology also matters. I feel that #3 by itself might be called a “Civil Union”. However, when combined with any combination of #1 and #2, it might be called a “Marriage”.
There are other factors worth discussing, like: where should a marriage ceremony take place? I addressed this recently.
Most people regard stable relationships to be A Good Thing and a benefit to an ordered society. A civil union or marriage is a good way to parameterize that stability. It is also widely felt that the raising of children in such stable circumstances is in their best interest.
Given that the only part of marriage, that concerns the state, is #3, a number of implications result. First, any two individuals might enter into a civil partnership, as it is just a legal relationship. Gay marriage arguments do not arise. Maybe siblings might wish to bind their lives together in this way. That would not be condoning incest – it is just a legal arrangement. Why should this kind of partnership be limited to just 2 people? Perhaps a small group of friends might wish to commit to one another. Once again, no consideration of any sexual relationships comes into the matter.
Sadly, some relationships founder and may come to an end. Divorce happens and that is usually sad, but often the best option. Again, the parties have the 3 parts to consider and the state should only concern itself with #3, which could be triggered on the formal request of one or more of the participating parties, and contracts may be dissolved in the same way as they might be in other legal contexts.
I am sure that my views are controversial, but I believe the logic is sound. Comments welcome.