10/31/2012 08:01 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST

Does Marriage Still Benefit Society?


The reaction to my last post about same-sex marriages took me a bit by surprise. While I did write it with an intent to evoke a reaction to what I felt was the thrust of my words -- a need to generally define or re-define marriage within our modern society -- I was not expecting the intensity of the responses. My lack of clarity and the sole use of same-sex marriage as the vehicle for my argument, no doubt, stirred this passion; the title that was given to my piece clearly adding to the fury. My simple desire was to raise an issue and that issue is not just same-sex marriage but marriage in general.

The basic question is: What is marriage? The responses of a large segment of those who commented presented a view that is shared by many. To them, marriage is a public statement between two individuals in love who wish to legally commit to each other. Key to this definition is that marriage is based on the romantic love between two individuals. However, if the definition of marriage necessarily incorporates romantic love, how, then, can the term also be used in regard to non-romantic arranged marriages? Clearly, since society calls arranged matrimonial unions "marriages," the definition cannot be so uni-dimensional. So, what then does this term mean?


It was with this in mind that I raised the issue of marriage as a societal concept. It would seem that marriage is some form of societal construct that allows for two individuals to create some type of life partnership and, in a gestalt manner, to be legally recognized as such. The result is that in an array of legal matters -- from taxation to insurance to inheritance -- these individuals are now perceived within the rules of this partnership.

What is necessary to exist, though, between these two individuals to enable them to form this specific partnership? Perhaps, the answer to this question should be nothing, implying that any two individuals should thereby be allowed to form this type of partnership. Still, that only raises more questions: Why should this partnership be limited to only two individuals? Why should sexuality in any form even be a factor? Why not allow a brother and sister to "marry"? A parent and child? A board of directors of a small entrepreneurial endeavour?

Historically, the fact that marriage was specifically between a man and a woman reflected a societal value that this form of partnership would only be available within a certain context. So what were the elements that were deemed to exist in the nature of these two individuals that caused society to accept this new legal entity with its beneficial rights for its individual members? This is not to say that we need to and/or even should return to this standard. I simply raise the question within this broader context of the need to re-examine marriage as a whole.

In that arranged marriages were deemed to be legitimate forms of this partnership, it would seem that romantic love was not a necessary element in its formation. The first thought, then, that comes to mind as to why society gave this male-female partnership of marriage a special status would be procreation. Inherently, though, there is a limitation with this being an essential element of historical marriage as the term also included a union without procreative potential, even when clearly known (such as when the woman was post-menopausal).

A second possibility may be the perception of marriage as the base of the family unit with its responsibility of raising, as opposed to creating children. Many would argue that it was specifically with this in mind that marriage was given its special status. Historically, though, marriage could still exist without family and so it would be difficult to define marriage solely within this context.

More significantly for us, though, are the historical movements of the past century. Changes that have challenged many of the assumptions upon which the historic view of marriage may have been based. For example, marriage was deemed to have an almost permanent status given that divorce was rare. In that divorce is now much more common, the nuclear family unit can no longer be assumed and this must be recognized as having some effect on our understanding of marriage. Have we truly examined -- not just tweaked the laws -- regarding how society should now understand and relate to marriage (and, by extension, the family unit)?

There has also been a major shift in our perception of sex roles and the status of women. Many of society's rules regarding marriage developed in a world where this union was seen as existing between individuals who would assume separate and distinct roles (and rights) in this new marriage-partnership setting. If that is not the case today, shouldn't society also re-examine its relationship to this partnership?

Another historic consideration for the special societal status of marriage may have been that it was deemed to be the only forum for permitted sexuality. It was with this specifically in mind that the advent of the sexual revolution included promotions to just live together and not get married. The argument was that there was no need for marriage, as sexual activity did not require it. If that is still the case in our post-sexual revolution world, why then the call for marriage today?

This brings us back to the issue of pronounced love. In this regard, we may now also ask why this mutual declaration of love should bring forth legal benefits from society.

It is against this background of the dynamic changes that have occurred in society in the past century that I raised my point regarding same-sex marriages. The reality is that society saw in the marital unit a structure that was beneficial to society, for one reason or another, and so it responded accordingly. The fact is, though, that changes in society have made marriage irrelevant in regard to those original benefits to society.

One discussion could be whether this is good or bad (with the answer most likely being, as is usually the case, in the grey). My issue, though, is the need to re-examine marriage -- its pertinence and effects within our legal system -- and, indeed, all family law, given these major dynamic changes in society in the past decades.

What I feel is that rather than truly examining the entire matter in a thorough manner, we have basically adjusted it as the need arose. The fact that family law is still part of the general adversarial legal system is a perfect example of this. This is my issue with same-sex marriage.

As for the rights of individuals within such unions, they should be fully the same as the rights of individuals in a heterosexual relationship -- but what should the benefits, rights and duties be in those relationships as well? I am just not in favour of another amendment in a system that is, in so many ways, problematic.


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