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Marriage - John C. Kirk

Sep. 13th, 2005

12:16 am - Marriage

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In a change of pace from my normal blog entries, an opinion piece about marriage. Disclaimer: this may offend some people, in which case you're welcome to not read it or to comment on it and tell me how wrong you think I am, but I make no apology for posting it.

This is something I've been thinking about for a while, and isn't motivated by any particular current events. As much as anything else, I've now got round to writing it up after reading "Ex Machina: Tag", which has a storyline about gay marriage. The basic question is: "what should count as marriage?" Specifically, there are four possibilities.

1. The traditional male/female union that's (theoretically) a lifelong commitment.

2. Gay couples.

3. Polygamy.

4. Fixed term contracts, e.g. "we're going off to university together, so we'll commit to stay together for the next three years, but then we'll reconsider what happens after graduation, in case we want to go our separate ways".

There's some overlap between the last three, but I'll treat them separately here, and then it should follow logically about which combinations work out.

I used to be in the church choir, so I attended many weddings. More recently, I've been along to a few when people I know have been getting married. Anyway, the central part of the ceremony seems to be this:

"Do you take this [man|woman] to be your lawfully wedded [husband|wife], to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, until death parts you?"

"I do"

The precise wording may be slightly different, but those are the key concepts that define marriage for me. I remember something that Neil Gaiman said (although it was in a completely different context): "as a writer, whenever a word with a precise meaning loses it, I lose a tool."

That's my concern here - how far can you stretch the definition before you destroy it? E.g. if you wind up saying "We will stay together for as long as we feel like it, and we may get involved with other people too", then in what sense is that a marriage? One solution is to use marriage as a generic term (like "relationship"), and then have new words for the more specific forms of it (e.g. triad). However, I think it makes more sense to keep the existing term for the narrower definition, and then make up a new word for the generic concept (e.g. "shazbot").

So, with that in mind, on with the possibilities.

1. Male/female couples.

This is an easy one - it definitely counts. I'm not saying that this is the ideal state for everyone to aspire to, but if you change the definition to exclude this then you may as well just choose a different word.

2. Gay couples.

There's some dialogue from a "Friends" episode ("The One With The Lesbian Wedding") that's stuck in my mind:


ROSS: I don't get it. They already live together, why do they need to get married?

MONICA: They love each other, and they wanna celebrate that love with the people that are close with them.

ROSS: If you wanna call that a reason.


I think that makes a lot of sense, and I'd say it applies equally to same-sex/mixed-sex couples, so I'm in favour of gay marriage as a concept.

3. Polygamy.

One side-note; it strikes me as odd that the poly community refers to people being "monogamous" or "polyamorous", rather than "monoamorous" or "polygamous" to get the symmetry.

Anyway, this is where things start to get more blurry. My view on poly stuff is that I think it's a perfectly valid lifestyle, but it's not the right path for me. Personally, I'd like to get married one day, so that I can make a lifelong commitment to the [hypothetical] woman I love, where we can promise to stay together and be faithful to each other. I think the same description could apply to a closed group (e.g. if one woman has two husbands), but not when it gets more open-ended (e.g. if those husbands are free to go off and get extra wives in the future). So, I'd count this as "sometimes yes, sometimes no".

4. Fixed term contracts.

This is something I came across in a Star Trek novel a while back, and it's probably shown up in other science fiction stories, but I haven't heard anyone suggesting it in a real world context. I think there are advantages to this scheme, primarily so that it could reduce the divorce rate and also enable people to get out of a relationship that isn't working without having to break their word. However, I don't know whether it's realistic in practice - when I discussed this with a friend, he said that nobody who gets married actually thinks that it's going to fail. So, this would probably have a similar stigma to pre-nuptial legal agreements. As a side note, I'm reluctant to use Pamela Anderson as a role model here, but I think she and her husband had an interesting idea by getting each other's names tattoed on their fingers - the tattoo really is something that you're going to be stuck with for the rest of your life. I'm not sure how effective laser surgery is on this, but it's strange to think that it would be easier to get rid of the marriage.

Anyway, this is another case where I vote "no"; while it may be a valid thing to do, I just think that it's too far away from the central marriage concept.

Having said all that, I think there are some extra issues. Basically, my views here relate to the law, and I'll support any religion's right to impose further restrictions on this. For instance, if a Christian wants to marry an atheist, I have no objection to that, and I think it should be legal, but I'll support any church that says "if you don't believe the words you're saying then you shouldn't be here". I'd also like to separate out some of the legal issues that are currently tied to marriage. Specifically, I think that anyone should be able to nominate a next-of-kin who isn't a relative.

A related question to all of this is whether I support divorce. Whenever I think about this, I remember a line from a Supergirl comic ("It's 'until death do us part', not 'until I get fed up'!"), and I also remember an excerpt from Terry Wogan's autobiography where he basically said "I got married, and we made it work, because we never considered that there was any alternative". On the other hand, I've also seen couples who never should have got married in the first place (particularly when it's wound up with one of them physically abusing the other), and I don't necessarily think it's fair to keep punishing them for that mistake.

As I've written elsewhere, telling the truth is important to me, and so is keeping my word; it comes down to my sense of honour. But I also think about this quote:
"In my experience, the trouble with oaths of the form, death before dishonour, is that eventually, given enough time and abrasion, they separate the world into just two sorts of people: the dead and the foresworn."
(Miles Vorkosigan, "A Civil Campaign", p325)

So, I don't know. I hope that I'll never get divorced, but I'm not going to make any generalisations about whether it's a good or bad thing overall.

Anyway, I'll climb down off my soapbox now. Hopefully I've been able to pull this into a vaguely coherent form; I knew everything that I wanted to say, but it's taken me a couple of hours to do this.

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Comments:

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From:bazzalisk
Date:September 13th, 2005 01:24 am (UTC)
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Well, monoamory is an odd term - but polygamy and polyamory most certainly do not refer to the same thing.

In general Polygamy is a single marriage unit consisting of multiple partners - whereas Polyamory is a broader term which tends to be used for the "web" style relationships which occur when A can be involved with B, B be involved with C, but C not necessarily be involved with A.
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From:dwagon
Date:September 13th, 2005 08:45 am (UTC)
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iirc, polygamy specifically refers to one man with multiple female partners (polyandry is the reverse). Hence the use of polyamory to make it clear that there may be multiple members of either sex involved, and in a web-like manner like Baz said.

As for why monogamy as opposed to monoamory? I don't really know why, but it may be as simple as the fact that monogamy is the far more common term.
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From:bazzalisk
Date:September 13th, 2005 05:05 pm (UTC)
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That's the common usage, certainly. However I'm pretty sure that in technical anthropological usage polygamy can refer to either, and the specific term for one husband, several wives is polygyny (which is a mouthful, to say the least).

The fact that Polygyny is so much more common than Polyandry has led to the sloppy usage of Polygamy when Polygyny is meant, and the misunderstanding of this has lead to the popular usage of Polygamy to mean only Polygyny, when it was supposed to refer to either.

I believe this causes a hell of a lot of confusion ;)
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From:baratron
Date:September 14th, 2005 12:47 am (UTC)
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Some poly people do talk about monoamory.

For me, it was another one of those things like gender neutral pronouns. After struggling with 'zie'and 'zir' for a few months, I went "sod this, English already has a perfectly good GNP" and switched to 'they' and 'their'.

If you go round talking about polyamorists and monoamorists (monamorists?), everyone thinks you're a freak before you've even started your spiel :)
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From:alexmc
Date:September 13th, 2005 08:52 am (UTC)
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In other words monogamous has a real meaning which is the same as the one poly people mean, and polygamy also has a real meaning but it is totally different to the one poly people mean.


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From:baratron
Date:September 14th, 2005 12:11 am (UTC)
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Polygamy specifically means multiple marriages.

I am polyamorous (in love with multiple people), but I don't desire polygamy because I only want to marry my life partner/s. So far, I only have one life partner, so I only want one marriage.

My other partner is someone with whom I have a loving relationship and intend to be with forever or as long as it still feels good, but our relationship is less committed than life partnership. We would both go quite thoroughly nuts if we shared finances at all or lived together more than a few days a week.

Polygyny means one person having multiple wives, polyandry means one person having multiple husbands. Typically polygyny refers to a man having multiple wives, but it doesn't have to - "and the princess fell in love with the other two princesses and they all lived happily ever after" is a badge I have, and could describe polygyny.
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From:alexmc
Date:September 13th, 2005 08:53 am (UTC)
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Thanks for posting this. I wish more people were willing to discuss this topic - especially the people who actually do get married.

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From:alexmc
Date:September 13th, 2005 08:59 am (UTC)
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> "Do you take this [man|woman] to be
> your lawfully wedded [husband|wife],
> to have and to hold,
> for richer, for poorer,
> in sickness and in health,
> forsaking all others,
> until death parts you?"

I think that *all* of these aspects are optional but should be totally agreed upon by both parties concerned.

You can have a non legal marriage ceremony if that is what you want.
The "forsaking all others" is optional and works for a small percentage of the population BUT IT MUST BE SORTED OUT FIRST and not halfway through a marriage.
The "until death" is the bit that most irritates me. Does anyone actually believe it? I think that this is a major point behind marriage and if there is any possibility of a divorce then you should sort things out beforehand with per-nuptuals.


I like the idea of a five year contract - but have not heard of it happening in real life.


> vaguely coherent form

Well...... :-)

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From:baratron
Date:September 14th, 2005 12:43 am (UTC)
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I agree with everything you've said here (alexmc).

Something interesting I found out at the weekend. Quakers have no ministers or clergy - any member of the congregation is welcome to lead the service if they feel moved or called upon by God to do so. As a result, in the Quaker marriage ceremony, the couple marry themselves.

I like the idea of you declaring yourselves married a lot better than the idea of an external person declaring you married.
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From:rjw1
Date:September 13th, 2005 11:56 am (UTC)

Fixed term contracts.

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Fixed term contracts come in SF a lot because it makes sense if you are practiclaly immortal or indeed just very long lived.
especially if the technique is rejuvenation.

can you honestly say you want to spend the rest of eternity with the same person.
people change
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From:rileen
Date:September 13th, 2005 01:01 pm (UTC)
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As the son of divorcees, who divorced after 17 years of marriage but are definitely better off and happy in their respective second marriages, i agree that sometimes divorce is the healthier option in the long run. However, i do believe that you should not get married unless you have the intention to make it work - if it doesn't work out because you change too much in divergent manners, too bad, but not making a sincere effort is not on.

As for what connstitutes marriage, i'd say something similar to what you seem to indicate - a sincere long term commitment by two people to each other through all that life has to offer.

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From:princesslen
Date:September 13th, 2005 02:14 pm (UTC)

As a married person...

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It has to be what works for you as a couple (gay or not). As said previously, I didn't get married expecting to get divorced, if I had had any doubts, I wouldn't have committed to my husband, as it would have been unfair to say one thing and thing another. That said, I can't blindly say that I'll never get divorced as who know how I/my husband might change in the future, or what circumstances will have what effects on us/our marriage. At the moment things are just fine and we wouldn't have started a family if we didn't feel our marriage was secure. However, sometimes people get divorced and it's their choice and I'm fine with that - indeed, I'm sure it's a relief and the best thing, sometimes.

Marriage seemed to be a natural progression of our relationship and personally, I wouldn't have been content to live together as husband and wife without actually being married. Plus you get toasters and stuff!
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From:baratron
Date:September 14th, 2005 12:24 am (UTC)
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I definitely would be in favour of fixed term contracts for marriage. I'm surprised you haven't seen me suggest it, but that's probably because I've never bothered to get into an argument about Marriage Equality in my own journal :)

My belief is that one of the main reasons why so many people get divorced is that they enter into marriage "for life" without really thinking about how much they and their partner might change during the average lifespan. The idea of marriage "until death do us part" was set up many years ago when life expectancies were terrible. In medieval times, the average man lived to be about 40 years old, and one in two women would die in childbirth. People didn't live long enough to change very much. Whereas now, you enter into marriage at the age of 25 - and you can expect to still be alive 50 years later. That's a helluva long time - more than double the lifetime you've had so far.

I believe that one of the best models for marriage is the Pagan handfasting. iirc, there are 3 levels of handfasting, and you should always start at level 1, which is for 1 year. At the end of the year, if you still wish to be together, you have another ceremony and pledge to be together for a longer term - say, 10 years. At the end of the 10 years, you have another ceremony and pledge to be together for life.

I think that fixed-term contracts could work well. Initially, you pledge to be together for 5 or 10 years, and when 4 years and 11 months are up, you start renegotiating. Do you wish to remain together? Do you wish to stay married, but make a different set of promises (for example, opening up your marriage to outside partners, or having children together)? Or do you want to go your separate ways with no regrets?

One of my objections to legal marriage is that it's a contract with no fixed term - where else in the law does such a thing exist? Also, the government of the country I live in can unilaterally change the rules of my marriage without my prior consent - the government can randomly decide to change the divorce law, or say there's no such thing as rape within marriage, or some other crap I didn't agree to.

I argue that I like to not be married because I like to know that every single day, I get up and look at Richard and make a decision to stay with him. Every day, I say "Yes, I still want to be with this person", rather than being bound together by some arbitrary piece of paper that forces us to stay together. Of course, in practice we have a mortgage together, and it would be difficult for me to just walk away from the relationship - but I like the romantic idea of freedom. In practice, we will get legally married someday, when civil partnership comes in, because I'm sick of my mother being my legal next-of-kin (she has VERY different ideas with what should be done with my body after death than I do, and I am exasperated that in the UK's law, she is allowed to overrule my stated wishes). But this would really be our only reason for doing so - that, and inheritance law.
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