Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What’s all this talk about marriage?

Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution.
Mae West
Marriage is a mistake every man should make.
George Jessel
Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?
Groucho Marx
Marriage is a wonderful invention: then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.
Billy Connolly
Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.
Gilbert K. Chesterton
Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open.
George Bernard Shaw
Marriage is an attempt to solve problems together which you didn't even have when you were on your own.
Eddie Cantor

Everybody, it seems, has something to say about marriage.  The traditional jokes abound, satirizing the stereotype of the bumbling husband, miserable under the thumb of the henpecking wife, and the overbearing shrew herself.  They illustrate the supposed misery of marriage, the agony of divorce and the poor, broke ex-husband, eating beans and bread after his ex-wife has soaked him for all he was worth.
So, yeah.  Then why do the fundamentalists insist that marriage is forever?  The Catholic church has, for centuries, insisted that “what god has joined together, let no man put asunder” - yet, an annulment, even if somewhat faked, isn’t hard to get with the right “donation”, at least if you’re rich, it is told.
Which is it?  Untold, lifelong misery?  Or a god-given, divinely inspired, holy bonding?  Or, maybe, just maybe, something in between - or just completely different.
Let’s explore this.  
Define marriage.  Webster’s says it is, first:  
The state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.
Wow, that’s pretty simple, isn’t it?  The good old, traditional definition.  But what does “united” mean?  How? Joined at the hip?  Tied at the waist?  Is this some magic spell cast on the couple that joins their souls forever in some arcane, godly manner?
Some say it is religious.  But the Catholic church only recognized it as a sacrament since about the 10th or 12th century, I forget which.  It wasn’t always considered a holy bond.
So, how did people get married before the RCC “legitimized” bonding men and women together for eternity?  Traditions varied.  Even in the early US, before there were churches on every corner, in some parts of the Appalachians, jumping over a broom sufficed until a "real" preacher drifted through.
So, what is so magic about it that the fundies have to rant and rave over the idea that some people want to “get married” yet are of the same sex?  Is it so unbreakable?  (Can’t be - the divorce rate for fundies is almost twice the rate of the general population)  Is it so blissful?  Again, not if that divorce rate is so high.
I’ll tell you what I think it is.  Traditionally, in the minds of those fundies, to live together, you had to be married.  Shacking up was sinful.  (Never mind that every State in the union has common law marriage rules, shacking up was sinful, daggone it!)  But that no longer applies.  People today, from teenagers to old agers live together, happily shacking up, pooling their resources to save money. Some of them are intimate, some of them aren’t so much, but they’re doing it at a higher and higher rate, so much so that the marriage rate of the general population is down.  Seriously down, so much that it worries those fundies.
So, what is the “magic”?
It’s the law.  “Married” couples have rights and privileges that unmarried folks don’t.  Income tax, inheritance rules, hospital visitation rights, end of life decisions, etc., all are easier if you are “married”. It’s also because it’s harder to get UN-married than just moving out.  Even so, divorce, once unobtainable, then merely extremely difficult to get, is now fairly easy in many States, now that “no-fault” laws are on the books in more and more places.
But, what if that were no longer the case?  Do we really need special rules favoring “married” couples?  Should the State really be in the business of defining marriage?
What if we substituted a different system?  One that featured “marriage contracts”?  You could have the basic, traditional marriage between two people, obligating each to being faithful, sexually and emotionally, with defined expectations regarding finances, child-rearing, real property ownership and sharing, inheritance and divorce, with clearly defined clauses regarding each partners’ role, obligations and rights.
One could have a more complex contract, designed for multiple partners of either sex, with similarly defined expectations, obligations and rights, with additional clauses regarding bringing new partners into the relationship contract.  This could be as simple or as complex as one wished, dissolving the marriage upon various events, mutual agreement, or even upon a future date, limiting it to a specified period.  Or it could be a very complex vehicle, essentially making that marriage immortal, as new parters are introduced and older ones die off.
Such a marriage contract was envisioned by Robert Heinlein in his famous novel,
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and also in the novel Friday.  Partners would come and go, be accepted into the marriage or, as in Friday, expelled summarily and quietly paid off.
Other models would be possible, allowing all sorts of different expectations regarding sexual mores and restrictions which would codify a much more lenient set of values from ours today.  The sky, literally, would be the limit!
In such a system, the State would be involved much as it is now in the realm of contract law, registering contracts and enforcing settlements derived from disagreements over one thing or another.  Divorce, as such would no longer exist, but would be a matter of how the contract you signed defined it’s dissolution and the obligations of each partner depending on the circumstances of that dissolution.
In other words, the State would simply make and enforce the rules of “marriage” similarly to how contracts are defined and enforced today.  Simple, easy, and no discrimination based on bogus racial or sexual boundaries.  Just what each set of partners desire in a future relationship.
And, of course, since minors can’t legally enter into contracts, they couldn’t marry, either.  So, any worries over the past polygamists’ practices of forcing minors into marriage with older men would not only be prohibited (as it is now) with the force of law behind it, but would be more widely frowned upon, since polygamous marriages could be legally entered into with adults of legal age.  When a thing is outlawed, it becomes unregulated, forcing it underground, which automatically introduces all sorts of unsavory practices, like the sexual abuse of minors.
With legalization, regulation becomes possible, nay, inevitable.
I strongly believe that some forms of marriage like those above will someday be widely practiced.  The legalization of “gay marriage” is just cracking the door a bit, once us old fogies die off, the next few generations will change the entire idea of how we see human relationships.
It can’t come too soon for me.

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