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Friday, March 02, 2012

The Marriage Debate: Why marriage?

I've been slowly working on this for some time - long enough that I can't even remember what originally triggered the whole thing - made several false starts and deleted some draft versions.  In the end, my problem was that there was just too much I wanted to cover.  So now I start again, but will be splitting things up into specific topics.

For this post, I will focus on one thing.  Why marriage?  In other words, what is the purpose of marriage?  Why do we bother to get married, and why has marriage been elevated and recognized throughout human history?

First, I want to make clear that when I use the word "marriage," I am referring to marriage between one man and one woman; the so-called "traditional" or "Judeo-Christian" marriage.  When discussing other types of marriage, I will be more specific and use terms like SSM (same sex marriage) or polygamy, etc.

So what is the purpose of marriage?

This is a complex question to answer, since the purpose of marriage is both public and private, religious and secular.  Many of the reasons for marriage are also intertwined, and cannot really be separated, one from the other.

Marriage has been viewed as many things throughout the millenia.  It has been a rite (both religious and a rite of passage), an obligation, a responsibility.  It has even been mandated by secular law, as well as by religious decree.  It has long been an expectation, and those who never married were often viewed with pity, while those who deliberately chose not to marry were often viewed with derision.

Marriages around the world continue to take place by choice, arrangement and even by force.  At times, people could only marry with permission, either from family members or from rulers.

One thing marriage has never been, however, is a right.  It can be a privilege to be earned or qualified for, an obligation that had to be met, but never a right.  At most, it is a granted right, like the right to vote or the right to drive.  Granted rights have qualifiers.  There are many, many granted rights.  Human rights are rights we have simply because we are human, and there are very few of those.  The problem is, too many people are demanding granted rights as though they were human rights.  I will discuss rights more later on.

Another thing marriage has never been about is love.  Oh, we have been admonished to love our spouses.  Love is a verb; it's something we do.  What has never been a requirement is to be "in love" - a passive term that makes for a rather shaky foundation for marriage.  Either way, love itself has never been a requirement of marriage.

So after looking at two things marriage is NOT, what is marriage about?

The primary reason for marriage, however, is procreation.  More specifically, it is a recognised institution dedicated to the creation and protection of future generations, connected largely (with recognised exceptions) by biology.  When you have a single wife and a single husband, you are pretty much reassured that the children born of that coupling are genetically related to those two individuals.  Adoption, of course, is a necessary and recognised exception.

But what about those marriages that don't produce children?  Are they less valid?

Well, historically, yes, they were.  If a married couple did not have children, this was considered something shameful.  It was also generally assumed to mean something was wrong with the female, so it was extra shameful for her.  Lack of children was considered a valid reason for divorce, and some couples went to extremes to produce the required children.  What those were depended on the culture of the time.

The need to procreate was so vital, that in some (usually patri-linial) cultures , if someone died childless, they considered truly dead.  If a person died with progeny, then they still lived on through their children.  To die without children was a greater tragedy then death itself.

Procreation within marriage served other purposes.  It ensured the continuation of the family line, as well as the continuation of the community.  Inheritances and lineages were assured, often through complex rules, customs and negotiations.  It also served the communities.  It was not unusual for cultures to restrict marriages within the village.  Instead, marriages had to be arranged between neighbouring villages.  This not only prevented intermarriage (for those cultures that saw intermarriage as a bad thing), but ensured ties between neighbouring communities.  One was far less likely to cheat or go to war with your neighbours when you had family there.  Kinship ties could be incredibly complex, and custom required special behaviour and treatment of those ties.  Such recognisable ties could not exist without the recognition of genetic relationships, and those relationships could be determined with assurance only through marriage.  Infidelity was a scandal as much for its effect on these kinship ties as it was for the betrayal involved.

In essence, marriage between one man and one woman attaches children to their parents and each other.  It ensures that those children belong to those parents, and they are responsible for those children.  That recognition and responsibility is a nucleus within the community that expands outward, connecting the community through expanding, concentric ties.

Which leads me to another, overlapping, purpose of marriage.  The joining of families and communities through recognised ties.  Nations could be built and wars ended on the marriage bed (or the other way around, I suppose).  Kinship through marital ties often accompanied elaborate ritual recognition that established responsibility between groups.  People could be complete strangers, but if it was found that they had kinship ties, there were proscribed ways that they had to treat each other, ranging from care of children, care of the elderly, inheritance, gifting, and ensuring that those kin who were undergoing hardship would be assisted by those who could, even if they lived far apart.

Another important part about marriage is that it is absolutely and necessarily exclusive and discriminatory. 

First, what does it mean to discriminate?  From Merriam-Webster, we have:

transitive verb
1 a : to mark or perceive the distinguishing or peculiar features of 
   b : distinguish, differentiate <discriminate hundreds of colors>
2 : to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences; especially : to distinguish from another like object

intransitive verb
1 a : to make a distinction <discriminate among historical sources> 
   b : to use good judgment
2 : to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit <discriminate in favor of your friends> <discriminate against a certain nationality>

What about exclusive?  The Free Dictionary give us:

1. Excluding or tending to exclude: exclusive barriers.
2. Not allowing something else; incompatible: mutually exclusive conditions.
3. Not divided or shared with others: exclusive publishing rights.
4. Not accompanied by others; single or sole: your exclusive function.
5. Complete; undivided: gained their exclusive attention.
6. Not including the specified extremes or limits, but only the area between them: 20-25, exclusive; that is, 21, 22, 23 and 24.
7. Excluding some or most, as from membership or participation: an exclusive club.
8. Catering to a wealthy clientele; expensive: exclusive shops.
9. Linguistics Of, relating to, or being a first person plural pronoun that excludes the addressee, such as we in the sentence Chris and I will be in town tomorrow, so we can stop by your office.
These days, when people talk about discrimination and exclusivity, they tend to use the terms as entirely negative.  Discriminate, in particular, is mostly a positive term - it's choosing the best; making good judements, etc.  One would hope people would be discriminating when it comes to choosing spouses!  If anything, we need more discrimination in marriage, not less.

Exclusivity is another important part of marriage.  When a couple marries, they are publicly stating to all that they are now exclusive to each other.

Which brings me to the next purpose of marriage.


Yup, marriage is about sex.  Married couples have exclusive sexual access to each other.  This is important and related to the expectation of procreation, since without exclusive sexual access to each other, the assumption of paternity cannot be made.

Of course there's more to marriage then the sexual relationship, but that does not change the fact that one of the purposes of marriage is to show, to the entire community, that this couple has sexual exclusivity.  This is a public statement, not a private one.

This leads to another reason for the exclusivity of marriage.  The more sexually active people are outside of monogomous marriage, the greater the risk of contracting and spreading disease. 

Now for the recognition of marriage.

With few exceptions, marriage has restricted to one man, one woman.  Even when, in the interests of procreation, other sexual relations were condoned, the marriage itself was the official, recognised relationship.  Even in cultures where homosexual relationships were mandated by the state, marriage itself was limited to one man, one woman.

State recognition of marriage, however, follows community recognition of marriage, and community recognition of marriage has its foundation in religion. With few exceptions, regardless of what god or gods or spiritual beings were worshiped, marriage was a religious rite.

So when people tell me that oppostion to various alternative types of marriage is religion forcing itself on everyone else, they have it backwards.  It is those groups who demand recognition of their alternate marriages that are forcing their version of marriage on everyone else.

State recognition of marriage tends to take on two forms; it either reflects the religious and community recognition of marriage, or it tries to control its populace through marriage.  Therein lies the danger of the state imposing marital law on the populace, rather then the other way around.  I will leave that topic for now, however, as that will be discussed in another post.

For now, let's look at the secular side of marriage.  Secular, by the way, is a word rooted in religion and meant "in/of the world."  Specifically, medieval Christianity.  When men and women reached the end of their religous training, they had a choice.  They could continue to live a "religious" live of academia, or they could chose to live "in the world."

Today, the word is defined as

1.of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2.not pertaining to or connected with religion ( opposed to sacred): secular music.
3.(of education, a school, etc.) concerned with nonreligious subjects.
4.(of members of the clergy) not belonging to a religious order; not bound by monastic vows ( opposed to regular).
5.occurring or celebrated once in an age or century: the secular games of Rome.
6.going on from age to age; continuing through long ages.

7. a layperson.
8. one of the secular clergy.
 However, whem people use the term these days, it tends to be anti-religious, rather than non-religious.
Secular or state recognition of marriage reflected religous and community recognition of marriage, and that includes its restrictions, and like religious recognition of marriage, what is recognised is not the same everywhere.  Canada, for example, now allows first cousin marriages, but other countries still do not, so a first cousin marriage in Canada would not be recognised in those countries, even though it's legal here.  Likewise, Islamic countries recognise polygamous marriages, while Canada does not.  The issue of polygamous marriages among immigrants is starting to cause all sorts of problems in Canada, but that's a discussion for another time.
Meanwhile, not only are there cultures and states that recognise polygamous marriages, there are those that recognise marriages to non-humans and objects.  In some Indian cultures, a man who's astrologer told him his first marriage would be a failure, but his second a success, could marry a dog or a doll, and that marriage would be recognised.  He would then divorce his "wife," and what would be seen as satisfying the astrological prediction.  
So why did countries like Canada recognise "traditional" marriage, but not polygamous marriage?  In essence, it's because Canada is a Christian country, whether people are willing to admit it anymore or not.  The state reflects the people, and the foundational culture of Canada was based on Judeo-Christianity, even if individuals may not have been.  
State recognition of marriage has its own purproses outside of religion.  Once again, procreation plays a large part.  The state recognises that children within a marriage as being the product of that marriage, and that in turn affects such things as the rights and responsibilities of the parents over their children, and influences laws of inheritance, property, etc.  
Though Judeo-Christian history included polygamous marriages, it is the union of one man and one woman that holds special status.  Why?  
Because the union of one man and one woman has been found to be the most beneficial to all, whether on an individual basis to society as a whole.  Polygamous marriages almost always devalue women.  The rare cultures that practice polyandry have the problem of breaking paternal recognition.  We always know who the mother is, but which husband is responsible for which children?  It also tends to devalue women, as it often takes the form of brothers "sharing" a wife, who gets passed around to various male relatives for sexual purposes.   
"Traditional" marriages have also been found, through centuries of experience, to be the most stable unit for the upbringing of children and the strengthening of society, as well as for the individuals involved.  Mental and physical health, for parents and children, is improved, they tend to be more stable, the children raised have better outcomes, including education and mental, physical and even financial health.  
Ah, but what about all those divorces?  Infidelity?  Abusive relationships?  etc.  Traditional marriages are badly flawed, so preventing people who love each other from marrying is wrong and denying them their equal rights, right?

The problem of that particular argument will be the subject of my next post.