Friday, 13 April 2012

Love and Marriage

As the great man said, you can’t have one without the other. That’s the issue at the heart of the government’s reforms, and why calls for ‘traditional’ marriage are confused.

Traditionally marriage has little to do with romantic love, and only a passing dalliance with monogamy, at least as far as men are concerned. Marriage has historically been about blood and property, ensuring a father knows his children are his own and the inherited rights, privileges and titles he possessed were passed to the correct progeny. Indeed, this distinction is what led to the creation of the Anglican Church itself. Henry VIII could (and did) have as many bastard sons as he liked. No-one thought that was grounds for divorce, nor did they believe those children counted as a legitimate heir. This does not mean of course that no-one before the twentieth century loved their spouse. After all, social conventions to preserve property and noble blood only matter if you have either, and prior to The Marriage Act 1753 few cared what the poor did. But romance was not the point.

Slowly, and for a panoply of reasons, marriage has changed from a chattel contract to a union of equals in romantic love. Historians argue about the causes, but an interesting strain of thought is that it arises in that same post-enlightenment middle class that gives us the Protestant work ethic. Life is not a drudgery to be endured for the sins of Adam, but a gift to be celebrated. This was a lengthy process, trundling through the growth in the status of women, the decline of religiosity, contraception, and changes to divorce law. It was only in 1994 that the Law Lords put the matter of ‘conjugal rights’ to bed, saying a spouse could refuse their partner sex on demand. To stress this point, we now (rightly) send people to prison for an action which, until 18 years ago, marriage gave them every right to do. Straight people have repeatedly changed the definition of marriage as society itself has changed.

The understanding of family in which marriage plays a part has similarly shifted. The idea of the nuclear family itself is a nonsense, largely imported from the United States. It represents a curious moment in time when high wages and a still high birth-rate combined to allow some couples to have mum stay at home. Simultaneously, the spread of the motorcar allowed people to live far away from their places of work and previous small communities. Social security, in all its forms, alleviated the necessity for elderly parents or hard-up siblings to live under the same roof as their working relations. To reduce the definition of the family unit to two married parents and two kids, cut off from all else, is to do it a great disservice. It is hardly coincidental that the first generation in human history for whom this was common is the generation obsessed with trawling census records to find their ancestors.

Hence, defenders of ‘traditional’ marriage are defending a very recent institution on the basis that it is the foundation block for a very specific post-welfare state kind of family. The fact that many of these people simultaneously are the ones for cutting the very economic supports which allowed this (full employment, child benefit, state housing) makes the contradictions even more apparent. The biggest contradiction however lies with why these people are not campaigning for the abolition of divorce. After all, Mark 10:9, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Whatever damage can be to the institution of marriage, both sacred and secular, is surely done via the half of straight married couples who break their solemn contract. And just as religious institutions are under no obligation to recognise this legal division, they will be under no obligation to recognise the legal contract between two men or two women. However it is surely an affront to religious liberty to say that the Quakers, who have the legal right to perform marriages and make no distinction between opposite or same-sex unions, will be prevented by law from having same-sex weddings in their meeting houses. Some Christian sects believe the entire world, as God’s creation, to be a place of worship. Does that make the local registry office one? You know a law is bad when its enforcement requires a theological debate.

We as a society bestow a contract. You can pick one other person in all the world to have it with. It is a symbol that this is the person you have chosen , because of romantic love, to spend the rest of your life with, and that they have taken the same decision. This isn’t about sex, in either sense. It is about all of us recognising that love. Because we are social creatures and recognition is important to us. Because we are a society of laws and legal status matters. Because finding that other person and making it work is hard enough without us putting other obstacles in people’s way. That’s a sentiment you can’t disparage.

This article was originally posted on the excellent

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You need to blog more often. I've seen many blogs over the past twelve months but none as insightful as this.

I am eagerly awaiting your next post and feel I may have more to say to you in the future.