Call me the devil’s advocate for the time-being because I’m going to start a discussion that could raise some eyebrows and maybe even change some minds about the current institution of marriage. As a fair warning, this is a lengthy article.
A VERY VERY Basic History of Marriage
Disclaimer: I seriously simplified the thousands of years of marriage history into a couple paragraphs.
Marriage started as a contract between two persons, or most likely two families, in which the husband could continue the bloodline and also have help on the homestead, while the wife would be provided for and raise the children. Basically, daughters were considered liabilities for families due to their lesser strength, and were just considered as “baby-makers”. Now, we all know that women are just as capable providers as men (and often more-so), but when marriage began thousands of years ago, brute strength and endurance were considered very valuable and thus men got the upper hand.
Another purpose of marriage is to have a consistent pattern of raising children and a single authority (parents). Men and women bring different qualities to the table and societies have recognized that both are needed to raise well-rounded children. Again, that’s a major generalization and we all know many married couples are incompetent parents. Just humor me for history’s sake.
Basically, societies across the world and across time didn’t just decide marriage was a fun thing. It had and has a specific purpose. That brings us to today.
Disclaimer: I’m going to focus on marriage in America because, well, that’s where I live. I’m also going to generalize A LOT. Just humor me. Also, this article isn’t about sexism or feminism. It’s about marriage, so let’s stay on-topic.
Today, muscular strength is becoming less important than intellectual skill. However, traditions stick hard and many of us still hold the idea that men should be the leaders of governments, corporations and families. It’s evident in the tradition of the wife taking the husband’s last name. It’s evident in the wage disparity between men and women. But times are a-changing.
Keeping in mind the traditional reasons for marriage, let’s look at why the government is involved. Since society has deemed marriage a good thing because it maintains consistency, which begets order, it’s in the government’s best interest to promote marriage. Having an orderly society makes governing much easier, right? But now America, and many other countries, are running into problems with marriage.
As we all know, there are two major challenges to traditional marriage:
- Same-sex unions: If two people of the same sex are attracted to each other and want to raise a family together, why should they be excluded from the ability to marry? Well go ask the religious leaders to explain why.
- Divorces: If half of all marriages now end in divorce, then is it even an effective institution?
Basically, same-sex couples want the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to civil marriages, but heterosexual couples can’t seem to stay married. While one camp says Problem #1 is devaluing marriage, who says Problem #2 isn’t contributing equally?
And then we get into the religious aspect. Oh goodness.
Religion and Marriage
Disclaimer: While I consider myself a conservative, I’ll also state that I always listen to well-stated arguments for all issues and will refine my position as needed. I’ll also say I’m a practicing Catholic, but that doesn’t mean I subscribe to ALL the beliefs of the Catholic church. Does that make me a non-Catholic? Does it make me a sinner? No, it means I recognize and accept gray areas. I recognize that I am not the judge, but that I can influence the decisions of others. I must be responsible for continually educating myself on issues because I am accountable for what I say and do. Oh, and I’m neither Democrat nor Republican; I’m unaffiliated.
Conservatives will say that same-sex unions go against God’s or nature’s design and are plain wrong, even sinful. Liberals say that everyone should be treated equally.
But is anyone actually questioning if marriage makes sense anymore? We’re attacking it from a morality stance, but forgetting that it’s an institution created by society, for society. Sure, it could be argued that marriage was created by God (in the Bible) only for man and woman, but that argument is only useful for Christians and Jews. So where does that leave the billions of others that don’t accept the Bible as truth?
Now that I’ve totally, and purposely, danced around the topic of religion and marriage, let’s actually look at the logical side of civil unions.
Marriage as a Contract
Regardless of the religious implications, marriage is first and foremost a contract. No one should try to deny that. From the first marriage in the cradle of civilization to the the Williams, Hernandez and Gothapotras who just got married 5 minutes ago, couples enter into marriage agreements because either they, or their families, consider them to be both compatible with and suitable for each other. They believe they will be stronger together than as individuals. This means each party feels they can get something out of the deal.
For some people, they want kids and a partner to help raise them. For others, they want to confirm their lifelong commitment to their sweetheart. And others, well, they want a tax break, a fast-track to citizenship or some other government benefit. Hey, it’s not always about love. Heck, some people just want the actual wedding and could care less about anything other than that single moment. Whatever your reason, you’re getting something out of the deal that you couldn’t get as a single man or woman.
Government and Marriage
So going back to why the government has a vested interest in promoting marriage (stability), let’s look deeper into the government’s involvement with this contractual agreement. The feds, states and employers promote marriage through tax deductions, credits and other benefits. They basically hand you money to get or stay married. As a man in a marriage that is recognized by the federal and state governments, that’s a big win for me.
Why would I want to question, and potentially lose, these benefits?
Four years ago, I had a somewhat heated argument with a friend about marriage. I was adamant that marriage is between a man and woman, and to allow gays to marry (or have the same tax and social benefits as traditional marriages) would destroy the meaning of marriage and thus the stability of our society.
But as I was speaking these things, I was actually thinking “I don’t want gays to marry because I don’t want to lose my tax and employer benefits”. No seriously, that’s what I was thinking. I bet many of you think it too, don’t you? But that one thought plagued me for years. Once it got into my head, I couldn’t think of a logical argument against same-sex marriage because 1) I don’t like to argue who is right based on religion and morality (gray areas) and 2) it’s selfish to want to keep these benefits just for myself. I was being ignorant to the fact that many gay couples are just as committed to their relationship as Stacie and I. Very ignorant.
So does that mean I think same-sex unions should be officially recognized by the government and receive the same benefits as my wife and I do? Well, let’s ask the following question:
Should the government provide ANY benefits to married couples, regardless of sexual orientation?
I’m questioning the whole foundation of government involvement in the institution of marriage. You see, since marriage just boils down to a contract, much like a business agreement, does government involvement in marriage go against our capitalistic foundation? In a capitalistic society, free enterprise and the market should determine the success or failure of ventures and contractual agreements. Marriages are certainly ventures between two parties, and marriages are contracts. Would you agree?
Imagining a New Marriage Concept
Picture this: You can still have your traditional church wedding. You can have a wedding on a beach. Nothing changes there because you still need witnesses to the agreement, and you might as well have a public ceremony if you want. You must still register your union with the state so it’s aware of the agreement. But the biggest difference is that both parties draw up and sign a written contract, just like a business transaction. And what bigger transaction is there than a potential lifelong union?
Picture this: You know you both want kids, but aren’t sure if you want to stay together after they leave home at age 18. What if couples could create a contract where they both agree to create a child, raise the child and then have the option to renew the contract after 18 years? The contract would outline minimum requirements for both parties, such as and financial obligations and disclosure requirements. It would also state penalties for certain actions such leaving the relationship (thus breaking the contract).
Both parties would have legal counsel prior to entering into the binding agreement. If the situation changes, then both parties would have the option to renegotiate the contract, but the other party is only required to meet the original contract. If the situation is dire enough, then the first party can break the contract but be subject to the penalty clauses. Courts would still be involved in marital disputes, but from a purely contract law approach. If one party was found to be under duress when signing, then they can be absolved of their commitment to the contract.
Societal norms and traditions would still be upheld in the contract. For example, if your traditional belief is that the wife should not work and should take care of the kids, then that goes into the contract. Your potential spouse would have to agree to it or else you’d have to find someone that does. If you don’t want kids, then that goes into the contract and you’re both bound to it. But then there would have to be clauses to cover what happens if you do get pregnant.
This idea seems to remove all sense of romance to a relationship, but think a little more about it. How many times have you thought that people should really think more before they get married? Well this is one way to provoke that thought process. More people would discuss finances, children, hopes and dreams before entering into this major commitment of marriage.
I ultimately envision, as we grow to understand and accept this new tradition, that we would have our pick of numerous, standardized marriage contracts so we don’t need to write our own from scratch with each marriage. However, I also expect some people would skip through reading it all and trust the lawyer just like they do with mortgages and auto loans. Ultimately, though, it’s your butt on the line if you break any of the stipulations of the contract, so you better read through and agree to all of it!
Since we would consider “marriage” just like a business agreement, and recognize that both parties are entering into an accountable agreement, then why shouldn’t any party, regardless of sexual orientation, be allowed to enter into marriage contracts, as long as it’s a valid contract by law? If there are children involved, as long as the contract protects the interests of the child too, how is it not better than families currently jumping into parenthood without proper planning?
I don’t know where that leaves the government benefits like tax deductions, etc. for marriage, but I personally think the government should let capitalism run its course and not interfere in marriages. As much as it might hurt me if I ever screw up on MY marriage contract, I recognize that I’m a grown adult and should be responsible enough to understand the consequences of my actions. And for the people who aren’t responsible, well, they have to deal with the penalties per their contractual agreement, or they shouldn’t be allowed to enter into the contract.
And that begs the question, why would people even bother with a contract? What stops them from just having a kid together without a formal agreement? Well, the same thing that stops them now: fear of being burdened with the responsibility of a child on their own. Whereas alimony and child support are government-enforced duties now, in the future, if you didn’t have a contract, you’re out of luck. The government wouldn’t swoop in and save the day…unless it’s a forced relationship (rape, incest, etc.). Then it’s a criminal matter.
In the end, people would put more thought into having kids (hopefully) because they would have to agree to rules, roles and penalties. And if they don’t have a contract, then anything goes and they would need to consider that too. You would still have people unfit to be parents having a child, but the child would have the protection of a binding contract (as much as the parents respect the contract).
There’s still many holes to fill with this whole concept, and numerous gray areas to consider, but I think it’s one worth looking into. It allows consenting adults of any orientation to enter into a marriage bound by known expectations, and to answer for their mistakes if they go against the contract. It continues on the tradition of marriage as a union between two parties for the benefit of both parties, and ultimately to society. In the past, this “benefit” was children that could carry on the family name and share in the burden of running the home, but as our society changes and children play a different role in the family, the contract notion would account for these changes.
Share Your Thoughts
I’d like to know your thoughts in the comments below. If you have your own site, feel free to link over and comment on it for your own readers to join in. Our society is changing and we need to consider the impacts of these changes to our traditional thinking, but it doesn’t mean we should throw all traditions out the window. Societies create norms and rituals over centuries and millenia for reasons, and to discard marriage entirely would be ludicrous. But let’s see if we can salvage the meaning of marriage while adapting it to our ever-changing culture.