The Unbundling of “Marriage”

May 12, 2010 Tagged with: faith, politics, society

Marriage is a bundle. It is, all at once, a contract, a romance, and a spiritual institution. But I don’t think it’s going to stay this way.

Marriage is actually three structures, layered on top of one another.

  1. As it’s most basic level, marriage is a contract. When you get married, you are entering into a contractual relationship with someone else, and there are laws that govern this relationship. In most cases, this is the only level the government cares about.

  2. At the next level on top of that, for most people, marriage is a romance. You love the person you’re marrying. But, in reality, this is optional. You don’t have to love this person, and with the exception of when it pertains to immigration fraud, the government doesn’t really care if you love your spouse. As far as the law is concerned, your actual feelings toward your spouse are incidental.

  3. At the next level on top of that, marriage is a spiritual institution. For Christians (or any religion, really), it’s a God-ordained structure that holds religious significance. But, if you’re not a Christian, this doesn’t pertain to you, and like romance, the government could really care less about it.

I think that over the next 20 years, the concept of “marriage” is going to “unbundle.” The government will get out of the marriage business. Because, in the end, the government doesn’t care about “marriage” as a whole, it only cares about the contractual, legal part of it. So the government is going to isolate that, and leave the rest of it up for individual interpretation or semantics – if you want to call your domestic partnership a “marriage,” go right ahead.

What I predict we’re going to see if that the government is going to genericize marriage down a contractual basis, perhaps discarding the name “marriage” altogether, in favor of something like “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships.” These could be between a man and a woman, two men, or two women. This legal structure will govern things like inheritance, benefits, medical authority, etc. All the things that are handled by the bundle of “marriage” today.

So, if this happens between two people of the same sex, is this “gay marriage”? It could be, but this concept of a domestic partnership doesn’t care – remember, it does not look past the first layer, so it doesn’t care about romantic intent. In the end, it’s just a contract between two humans, and for legal purposes, anything on top of that is just...fluff.

Take two spinsters, Alice and Lois. They are both heterosexual, but Alice never married and Lois was widowed a decade ago. They are wonderful friends and move in together in their declining years, in order to provide security and companionship to each other. They share expenses, share a home, and trust each other with their affairs. To ensure various legal rights, they enter into a domestic partnership.

Now, this clearly isn’t gay marriage – both women are heterosexual, after all. would it be perceived? Two women are living together, protected by a legal institution. Would people currently against gay marriage protest against this? Well, how could they? it’s not “marriage.” it’s just a contractual, legal relationship.

If this type of thing were banned, because it smells like gay marriage, then is that really fair to Alice and Lois? They’re straight, remember, and just for fun, let’s pretend that they’re both rabidly homophobic. They just want the legal rights, without any of the romantic or spiritual undertones.

So, if this happens, what would happen to traditional notion of marriage? I suspect, it will become the province of the church. Insofar as the government cares, your relationship with your spouse would be a just “domestic partnership.” The other two layers don’t matter to Uncle Sam.

Is this good? Is this right? It depends on who you ask. But, we’ve discussed here before the fact that gay marriage, in whatever form, is going to become the law of all 50 states eventually – it’s just a matter of changing attitudes. The current generation has been raised in a different culture, and the generation after them will be as well, and so on, and so on. Like it or not, it’s going to happen.

What it will do is strip virtually all of the current spiritual significance out of marriage for most everyone. While you can get married at a Justice of the Peace now, in common culture, the concept of getting married in a church has naturally intertwined the legal and spiritual aspects. That will be stripped away, and many people will find that they have the the legal rights and the romance, so they don’t need the spirituality. Getting married in a church will decline to the fringes of the “quaint” or “religious.”

I’m a traditionalist, so I’m a little dismayed by this. Perhaps I just haven’t changed as fast as the culture, but a big, built-in part of me just can’t bear to think this will happen.

But I’m pretty sure it will, no matter what anyone believes or wants.


cmadler says:

I agree with the analysis that marriage is being unbundled, but I think there’s more to the contractual level of marriage than what you mention. I like this quote from Speaker for the Dead on marriage:

“Marriage is not a covenant between a man and a woman; even the beasts cleave together and produce their young. Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman on one side and their community on the other.”

David Morefield says:

I think people are going to want to hang onto the term “marriage” – and the church ceremony that often goes with it – just because of the legal ramifications.

I didn’t sign a legal document when I got married promising half my possessions or kindness or fidelity to my wife, but I did stand in front of God and witnesses and promise those very things, so in essence the church ceremony became a spoken contract with about 75 witnesses, and it’s that “contract” – if anything – that Laura would invoke were I to break my vows, or present her with divorce papers.

When a spouse stands before a judge and asks for a certain settlement, it’s usually based on things like, “I supported him through medical school so I deserve some of the pay he now gets from that job” or “he cheated on me with another woman” etc. Without the church ceremony and the traditional notion of marriage, a judge will be left to say, “So what?” If you don’t have that culturally shared understanding of what “marriage” is, generated for the most part by centuries of religious tradition, you will – in your vision of the future – have to have those things spelled out in black and white in a legally binding contract, and in crafting said document the participants will have to pick and choose the things that matter to them: “The undersigned agrees to sexual monogamy with co-signer...the undersigned agrees to equal sharing of household income regardless of disparities in individual income levels...” or conversely, “Participation in this contract shall not be construed to mean signers agree to surrender rights to sexual congress with person(s) not named in this document”. It gets messy.

I guess my point is “marriage” in the traditional sense *does* have a legal weight to it beyond the simple license which says little more than “John and Sue are married”, and without those implied rights and responsibilities – implied by religious tradition, mind you – everything will have to be covered in a legal document under your scenario. Your spinsters may get legal, tax, etc benefits as a “union,” but they stand to lose out big time when that union is severed, IF they don’t have a clear contract stating what they’re entitled to, and what constitutes breach of contract. For that reason, I think the terminology will endure, because when you say “we’re married,” you’re saying you’re entitled to certain things from your partner, and if you don’t get them you expect a court to restore them, or compensate you for them. And though you think the system doesn’t care if you love your partner, the reality is the system is entitled to award your spouse money for things like “alienation of affection” and so on. So in a very real sense, it does matter.

Matt Smith says:

Nice article, Deane. I’ve never fully thought it through like that.

I would welcome a legally binding contract spelled out to the line item. Then, when I am getting grief for putting my feet on the living room table or not putting my socks up, I can say, “Too bad, it isn’t in the contract.”

Of course, I’m kidding about that.