The Meaning of Marriage

Our youngest of five children will be married tomorrow, and it will be a moving time for our family. We have had quite a bit of discussion about the meaning of marriage, and the assaults upon that meaning, and this reminded me of a column I wrote some years ago on this topic. So I am re-posting it here, as the institution needs defending more than ever.

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Society: The Third Marriage Partner

In times past, if you wanted to understand the mysteries of human life it was sufficient to plunge both hands into the warm gut of a sacrificial goat and read the entrails. Now we have to read the desiccated entrails of Supreme Court judgments.

The Bracklow case of 1999 was one such, and it startled a lot of people by saying something everyone used to take for granted. Namely, that “when two spouses are married they owe each other a mutual duty of support,” a duty that (in some cases, at least) arises “from the marriage relationship itself.”

Unlike my more libertarian colleagues, I was cheered a bit by the idea that after decades of marriage-devaluation by the courts, here was a hint that marriage might have some reason and purpose greater than economics or than the sum of the two spouse’s intentions. The struggle to redefine marriage boils down to this: is it just a deal between two people, or between two people and society at large?

The marriage-lingo of courts and commentators across the country has pointed to the former notion for too long. It is mostly about “support” and “compensation” and “contract” and economic “factors,” or – yuck! – about “partners” in a “joint venture.” And through it all we are assured that the law wants to encourage “the self-sufficiency of each spouse” when “breakdown” happens to “happen.” Decoded, this means that spouses are not responsible, society could care less, and the last shred of nobility for the law is to ensure we are all eating well.

Well it’s time to get a grip. Until very recently the natural family – a married mother and father living with their dependent children – was considered the very foundation and living model for a healthy and free society. Not the only way to live, of course, but the best social arrangement. The main aim of marriage was not primarily to please the “partners” but to ensure that society could provide a morally and economically stable private environment for the rearing of its millions of children, and a haven for the care and feeding of millions more citizens – such as aging parents and infirm spouses – who are no longer “self-sufficient.”

Originally, freedom-loving people in the West insisted on this moral idea of marriage as a religious, or at least a social sacrament, largely because they did not want human life secularized and controlled by the state. So in contrast to today’s pathetic notion, the promises made by bride and groom were understood as made not merely to each other, but to society as a whole, and not as a joke – a so-called “contract” subject to unilateral dissolution by the first disgruntled party – but as a serious compact with all of procreative society. Dissolution, if permitted at all, required the consent of both parties, of course, but also of society. It was a good method for keeping parents and their children out of the hands of the state, and a powerful warning to let society do the job of organizing itself.

That’s why the radicals of Western civilization from Plato, to Rousseau, to Marx and modern feminists, have expressly hated this idea of marriage and the family. They know it engenders overwhelming loyalty to a free society, to home, hearth, and blood relations instead of to the state, and even worse for them, it diverts wealth to private purposes instead of public coffers. So Plato proposed removing all children from parents at birth to be raised in national daycare; Marx and Engels, ditto. The humanity-lover Rousseau, who styled himself “a child of Plato,” gave his five kids up to an orphanage where they all promptly died. And as for radical feminists … they have always wanted the rest of us to look after their children so they can duke it out with men in the marketplace.

So it was that the chief social challenge for the ideological juggernaut that rolled over the last century under the flag of collectivism (Marxism, Nazism, and Fascism in Europe, social “progressivism” in North America) was to get rid of all competition for loyalty: the State must be the only family. The social prestige of the private family would be ended by removing its traditional legal and tax privileges and scoffing the moral and religious appeal of marital union. Stripped of all sacramental or transcendent purpose, marriage would then be only a pragmatic, even a temporary sexual and economic deal between autonomous individuals, for mutual convenience.

What is so disturbing about the bevy of redefinitions of marriage in our so-called liberal democracies in recent years, however, is the terrible irony that we are very busy bringing about the same social breakdown as did the collectivist states, but this time through our peculiar species of hyper-individualist “freedom” talk that reduces traditional social commitments to a toothless personal contract. The language of modern democracy, of rights, freedom, and choice are used everywhere to justify dissolving the bonds of traditional society in favour of individual claims and appetites, as if private human behaviour were without any public consequences. The freedom lovers never learned the lesson captured so well by Edmund Burke when he warned that “liberty, when men act in groups – is power.” Just so, our radical individualists have unwittingly joined the collectivists they purport to hate, as architects of social breakdown. They have played into the hands of the state because whenever marriage and the family are eroded in the name of a personal, a-social freedom, pathology skyrockets, and the state and its agencies step in to assume formerly private responsibilities with public funds; proactively under collectivism, retroactively in “free” societies.

In commercial, and many other matters, the reality of contract is vital, of course. But to reduce something as important for society as procreative union to mere contractual considerations, to speak of a right to escape one’s marital and family commitments because of a spouse’s “inability to perform,” or to permit a louse of a spouse to abandon marital vows whenever he or she happens to see a spouse’s illness coming (both of which were issues in the Bracklow case), is a great folly and sadly exposes every marriage, especially those of the old or infirm who are failing by nature, to a charge of non-performance. Try to imagine millions of aging, Nike-clad Don Juans on Viagra, hormonally-prompted to demand that because their wives can’t keep up now, they want out. They know that hot younger babes in search of support and a handsome Will, are waiting for them in the wings.

Sadly, however, we have sunk beneath even this bare notion of contract, for a “deal” such as modern marriage, dissolvable by either party, is in fact no contract at all. A true contract means two must agree to make it, and two to break it, or a stiff penalty must be paid by one of the spouses. But modern vows are just so much unenforceable pre-nuptial salesmanship. In this respect, we can say that in contemporary “no-fault” marriage zones, it is now actually impossible to marry in any true contractual sense, for a deal that takes two (in my argument, three) to make, but only one to break, has no binding power at all.

Alas, the institution of marriage has become a blatantly inadequate protection for the honourable partner upholding the marital vows, and for the children increasingly exposed to the home-smashing whims of unsatisfied spouses. Both must therefore be represented and protected by society and by laws holding the parties in marriage to a standard higher, broader, and deeper than simply their personal intent. It is a standard we can only recover by re-socializing marriage. That is, by restoring the marital union to a three-way contract between the couple and a marriage-respecting civil society determined to restore the original meaning of marriage.

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