The Question of Marriage
Once a Settled Issue...
Marriage is now the subject of much controversy. It would appear that a relatively small percentage of the population is questioning the age-old understanding of what marriage is. In addition, a fairly hefty group of people are foregoing marriage, to live together without a formal commitment, and even raise children together.
Photo by firemedic58 on flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.
The Understanding of Marriage
Understood for Millennia
It has always been understood that marriage is the uniting of a man and a woman, or in the case of polygamy, a man with several women. Marriages were usually performed by a clergyman, a rabbi, or other religious leader, or by a justice of the peace, or the captain of a ship. In recent times, governments have been issuing marriage licenses. The purpose of the marriage license is so that certain laws enacted for the protection of spouses and children would apply to the people involved. Laws that provide for who gets the estate in the case of the death of an intestate person make sure that the surviving spouse, and any surviving children, get the estate. Absent this provision, the estate might actually be received by the government. In addition, married people have a number of other legally protected rights. If one of them is in the hospital, it is presumed the spouse will be allowed to visit, and even to make medical decisions for an incapacitated person. The laws thus impose certain obligations on outsiders, particularly on hospital personnel, and so forth. The couple is to be recognized as married by society at large.
The most well known controversy regarding marriage in the western world is whether or not the two people must be of opposite genders. Given the understanding of marriage that has existed for millennia, this requires a major paradigm shift. Because marriage must be recognized by outsiders, the potential for violating the religious rights of others is very strong.
Another controversy concerns two people who simply live together and raise children. The law has different provisions for the rights of parents, depending on whether or not the parents are married. For example, in my state, the mother is automatically awarded full custody of the child if the parents are not married. As I have personally observed, the burden of gaining parental rights for the father is a heavy one, and may require heroic efforts to achieve. In addition, law works against joint custody and parenting rights whenever the mother seeks any kind of public benefits. The mother will be motivated to try to sever any ties of the father to the child, so that she will be eligible for these benefits. The result is that many fathers simply give up, abandon the family, and this leads to long-term poverty for mother and children, and operates to the detriment of the child, who has a right to experience parents of both genders. This is a major experience which shapes the child's ability to have wholesome relationships with people of both genders in other situations. Given that children thrive best with their parents are committed to each other and cherish each other, children often have personality difficulties as well. In the past, there was a stigma attached to being the child of a single parent, though this isn't much of a factor anymore. But the state of mind of the child is still very much an issue.
The issue of freedom of religion
To state at the outset, it seems reasonable that any two people of any gender who want to form any kind of commitment to each other are certainly free to do so. The problem only arises when people expect outsiders to recognize their arrangement, whether it violates the religious convictions of others or not.
Some people of the same gender want to marry so they will be eligible to adopt children. The problem with this is that adoption is not a right. In an adoption, the government courts play god, and establish a legal relationship where no other relationship exists, and grant legal authority over the child to the adopters. Since children have a right to a parent of each gender, which makes for the healthiest emotional and spiritual development, the child's best interests must be paramount. Adoption is for the benefit of the child, not to supply children as commodities to other people.
Many different religions have well defined principles about what constitutes a marriage. The adherents of these religions should be free to believe and practice their convictions free of coercion of any kind. This is in part due to the fact that the understanding of what marriage is, has been established for a very long time, and by many, many different religions. For the right to freedom of religion to have any meaning, adherents to various religions must be free to exercise their rights, including their right to freedom of association. This means that if two people who do not fit the traditional definition of marriage try to purchase goods and services related to marriage, the seller has the moral right to refuse to sell to them. A person also has a moral right to refuse to rent to two people or to hire one of them, or pay for health care for the non-employee.
I don't have a problem whatsoever with any two people who want to make a commitment to each other doing so, as long as I am not compelled to recognize this relationship or cater to it.
If two people want to have rights such as the right to visit each other in the hospital or make health care decisions for the other, there are ways to accomplish this that people will recognize. For example, one can legally adopt the other. Adult adoptions already occur for various reasons. Or, in the case of the hospital, one can give the other one Durable Power of Attorney. If two people want the world to be aware they have made a commitment, they can draw up a contract, sign it, and file it with the county recorder's office. They can write wills leaving their estate to the other person, or set up trusts. There are many different remedies available. The rights of the community and its members must be weighed in an equitable way with the rights of these two people. When any two people, or any special interest group, try to force the community at large to recognize a new definition of marriage, then they are stepping on the rights of others. Small groups of people do not have the right to use the court system to bully people into yielding their right to freedom of religion and association.
Unmarried People Raising Children
I have spent many hours talking to people, especially women, who have been part of a relationship not involving marriage, where the woman became pregnant. Most women who are not married are not really in a position to raise a child; they cannot afford the costs, and cannot both take care of the child and work at the same time. If they're not living in the same household, there are extra unnecessary expenses. Many women, especially young women, do not really understand a man's sexuality, and may badly misinterpret what men say to them. They read a commitment that isn't really there. This is aggravated by the fact that when a woman engages in sexual activity, it releases hormones that cause the woman to form a bond with the man, but the man doesn't have a similar experience. Most men aren't counting on having to provide for a child, and most couples have an understanding that they aren't ready to have children, so when a child comes along, the man in particular sees it as a complication he can evade. The mother is not so lucky. She cannot evade it, except by harming the child. Men often coerce women or abandon them, to get them to get rid of a child, and violate their own desires and convictions. Even if they both agree to have and raise the child, the lack of a commitment often means that at some point before the child becomes an adult, they will experience the disruption of the relationship, and the child is defenseless to protect her own interests.
People say, well, marriage is just a piece of paper. Actually, it is far more. The piece of paper, or the public ceremony, helps to cement the resolve of the couple to make a go of it, and the community likewise has a tacit responsibility to help the couple to remain in a committed and nurturing relationship. No-fault divorce has been very detrimental because divorce only settles legal questions. It doesn't settle emotional or spiritual ones. As a result, some states have enacted statutes that provide for covenant marriage. In a covenant marriage, the couple cannot get a divorce unless the traditional grounds (adultery, for example) are present.
Regardless of the nature of the relationship, both parents of a child have an absolute duty to protect the child from harm, before and after birth.
"Rights" to Which No Spouse Is Entitled
The Terri Schiavo case brought an awareness of another growing problem surrounding marriage. No spouse has a right to ask that a disabled spouse be neglected to death or to be denied food and water, shelter, and comfort care. When a spouse seeks such a right from a court, the court is duty bound to protect the rights of the disabled person, because that person is incapable of protecting her own rights. If someone else, such as a family member, offers to take the responsibility for the disabled person, the court should give the spouse a choice: either care for your spouse, or we will dissolve your relationship and place the spouse in the care of someone who will provide for her. Doctors also do not have a right to overrule the decision of family members that their disabled member shall receive ordinary care, and shall not have his or her life shortened. The Living Will has been designed to give medical personnel the legal "right" to kill a patient if in their opinion the patient's life is not worth living. Many people sign these out of ignorance. They do not know what they are agreeing to, because the wording is intended to conceal this. They also do not know how they will feel about their life once they become disabled. If they become unable to communicate, or if medical personnel decide they are no longer competent to change their minds, they may be in trouble. Some people become locked in because their motor nerves are not working. Many of these people are fully aware, and have to suffer listening to people discuss how to dispose of them. Donating your organs is also a problem, because if a person is allowed to die a natural death, the organs usually become unusable. Out of prudence a person should refrain from signing a Living Will or donating their organs. Usually, it is the spouse that SHOULD protect the disabled person, and it should be universally understood this IS a paramount duty. No spouse has a right to physically abuse someone, especially to the point of disability, and then seek to kill that person to hide his crime.
Love is a Decision
English-speaking people seem to have a very rudimentary understanding about the nature of love. The Greeks fare better. They have four different words to describe different kinds of love. One is "phileo", which means "brotherly love". It covers friendship, too. "Eros" means sexual attraction. "Agape" means self-sacrificing love. I don't remember the other one. The problem is that too many people confuse eros with agape. A man has sexual feelings for a woman based on her appearance. The woman may be attracted to him for a variety of reasons, and if the man then tells her he loves her, it is far too easy for her to believe him, even though all he feels is eros. Eros is a feeling. Agape, on the other hand, is a decision. It is the decision to cherish and protect the other person, even at one's own expense to the extent that the lover is able. Agape is the only kind of love that will make a sound marriage. Eros helps, but it is not a requirement. We would do well as a society to recognize that agape is a requirement, and that two people who are not willing to commit to that extent should not seek to marry.
Walter Trobisch on Marriage
A discussion of marriage would not be complete without thinking about what forces shaped the understanding of marriage in other cultures. It also helps to define what marriage really is, and which kinds of linkings don't fit the definition.
Walter Trobisch was a Lutheran pastor in Africa. The cultural problems he faced were very different from what we are used to. Reading his books yields a whole new perspective on marriage. My favorite book is My Wife Made Me a Polygamist. When you read books like this, you may come to understand that Christianity allows the thinking Christian to find reasonable solutions that are not destructive, for the existing situations he may find in another part of the world. It is a shame his books are mostly (if not entirely) out of print. I hope someday they will be republished. In the meantime, they are available from secondary sources on Amazon. Go to one of the links and look at his author page to find more books.
I Loved A Girl: Young Africans Speak- A Private Correspondence Between Two Young Africans and their Pastor.
by Walter Trobisch
Different cultures present unfamiliar problems with young love.
My wife made me a polygamist
by Walter A Trobisch
My favorite. I never thought of it that way.
To begin with, two people may think they have chosen to cherish each other, but they are young and inexperienced, and they often don't realize that there is more to it than it seems. Marriage requires 100% commitment from each spouse. When the honeymoon is over and people begin to become comfortable with each other, they may stop working so hard with the work of courtship. They may relax and the gloves may come off. If two people are willing to PERSIST, however, in time the relationship can become very deep, sweet, like gold and honey. Don't expect this overnight. Marriage is WORK. It's not about "happily ever after."
- The Abolition of Man-and-Woman: On Marriage, Grammar, and Legal Strategy
Preserving marriage as a union of man and woman is bound to fail unless we address the true point of contention in the marriage debate, one completely ignored by even the best legal advocates for redefining marriage: the question “what is marriage?”
Some Final Thoughts
Or perhaps not so final
Lots of people think that marriages that are undertaken because the two people love each other are better, and will last longer. Actually history shows that arranged marriages last longer in general. The problem comes in, when the community expects an abused spouse to endure rather than seek separation. But it is good to be aware that love is NOT a requirement. What IS a requirement is commitment. Hopefully, that commitment will also include the intention to cherish the other person. We in the west are fortunate that we recognize that spouses are entitled to be cherished and protected. But let's not be under any illusions. Sexual attraction and romance do not generally help the longevity of a marriage.
Divorce is devastating to everyone involved, no matter what. It destroys dreams. It should be used only in dire circumstances. Most people don't have those kinds of grounds. Divorce also harms children. Being willing to be civil to each other for the child's sake is the best course. Don't be selfish and stop being civil to each other.
I know one young lady who, from the age of one, did everything in her power to bring her unmarried parents together into a committed relationship. She is a little peacemaker, and has helped heal a lot of hurts. As of yet, the parents are closer to being together, but they still have a long ways to go. The mother suffered from not having a father present in the home, and that aggravates the situation. Even if a child never expresses his desires, he will probably act out, and in general is emotionally and spiritually disadvantaged. We need to emphasize that children have a right to be protected.
Don't take a chance on having a child until there is enough of a relationship to treat each other reasonably for 18 years, and provide for the family. Contraception and "protection" are unreliable. Respect each other's bodies until society and the families will accept it when you have children.
Marriage has been shown to increase longevity, especially for men, and to lead to a much deeper sexual relationship, something people who started sex before then may never fully develop. Studies have concluded this. When you choose someone, don't try to be the knight in shining armor on a white horse rescuing the damsel in distress. Don't try to use marriage to heal a deeply hurt person. Find someone you would want to be the parent of your children, because that person is stable and loving, and will make a good parent. Leave the psychotherapy to the professionals.
Let's say that you have produced a child with someone to whom you are not married. Perhaps you don't see that person as a potentially good spouse. However, none of us is perfect, and marriage is work. George Gilder (whom I otherwise don't have that much use for, but that's another story) said that marriage is intended to refine the person. It is a place where you get melted and out comes pure gold. At least that's the way it is supposed to work. You already became one flesh with someone else. Give some serious thought to the fact that your child deserves and needs two parents who love and cherish each other, and that when two people cherish each other, it teaches them even more about how to cherish the child. Seriously consider getting married. Then work at it. Marriage can be tough. Maybe you don't want to face that kind of commitment. But you have to start sometime. Your child is a commitment. For your child to thrive, make a real family. Work at it. Make the decision to cherish the other person. Work on developing a friendship, a common bond. Cut that person some slack. They will have to do the same for you. Then when you are old, your child will be a blessing to you in return.
Be good to each other.