The Thinker

What should marriage mean anyhow?

Barring a surprise from the Supreme Court later this year, it is likely that same sex marriage will be legal throughout the entire United States by the end of 2015. This train seems unstoppable. Thirty-five states now permit gay marriage. There are lawsuits by litigants protesting bans in all the remaining states. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does allow states to ban gay marriages, it probably won’t allow states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. This would effectively mean that the only extra cost for same sex couples wanting to get married would be to go to a state that does recognize same sex marriage and marry there, presumably a minor inconvenience. Here in Virginia, which still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage that was subsequently voided by decisions by federal courts, I noticed that the state’s tax forms this year includes changes that allow married same sex couples to file as a married couple. This is progress!

Mostly absent from the same sex marriage discussion is what does it mean to be married. Those of us who are married have already figured this out: it means exactly what the two people involved in the marriage want it to mean. If, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, you interpret your marriage contract to mean you cannot sit on a sofa with any adult woman other than your wife, go for it. Similarly, if you and your spouse want to have a completely open marriage where either of you can screw whoever you want whenever you want (with presumably the requirement to inform your spouse first) it can be this as well. In fact, a marriage can be anything the two in the marriage agree it will be, and even stuff they don’t agree it will be if it is tacitly permitted. It ends with a legal divorce. Thankfully, there is no requirement for a marriage inspector to pay periodic visits to determine that you are being monogamous or that you actually live together. This is in effect what marriage has always meant, at least here in the United States for the last hundred years or so.

What should the meaning of marriage be? In some respects the question is hypothetical because what it should be and what it actually is for a couple are often two different things. There are two aspects to this question. First, it should mean whatever it means to the couple based on their agreement or expectations going into the marriage. Hopefully, they will have had many long conversations about this before they tie the knot, ideally facilitated through premarital counseling. Both of them should have a common understanding. Ideally, it would be written down somewhere so that either can refer to it, or to renegotiate the terms from time to time. Many couples choose to have prenuptial agreements that give the force of law to certain aspects of their marriage.

The other aspect is what should the meaning of marriage be to civil society at large? As same sex marriage opponents like to point out, traditionally marriage existed to provide a legal framework for children to be raised. Before looking at what is should be, let’s look at what marriage is for society.

At least here in the United States, marriage offers no particular tax advantages. In fact most married couple discover they pay more taxes as a married couple than they did as two single people combined. You can claim your children as dependents, providing you actually pay for their care. However, you can take this claim outside the framework of marriage if you pay support for pretty much anyone who is your legal dependent. There are legal privileges to being married, and they vary from state to state. For example, if you are married you are generally assumed to be the first “next of kin”. There are also contractual obligations that come with marriage. In most cases you are libel for debts incurred by your spouse.

There are certain financial advantages to marriage as well. Health insurance may be cheaper if procured for a couple instead of individually. The biggest financial advantage of marriage probably comes from sharing housing. It’s much cheaper for two people to inhabit one household than for two people to maintain separate households. Two unmarried people can of course “shack up” and achieve similar savings, if the zoning allows this, but with less likelihood that these savings could be sustained over many years.

But what should marriage mean to society at large? As with the people in a marriage, it will mean whatever government thinks it should mean. Of course, society’s expectations for marriage often vary widely from the actual consequences of marriage. This is borne out in divorce and domestic abuse statistics. Society should expect that married couples will have nurturing and healthy relationships, and because of this it will make society in general better. Society should expect that due to marriage, children of married couples should be happier and healthier than children raised in a single parent household. Crime rates for these households should be lower. Of course, at best the empirical data to support all this is mixed, although there is good evidence that crime rates are lower in general in communities where people own their homes compared to rental communities. In general though the expectation is that marriage should promote societal harmony and prosperity. This does imply though that society would be less of these if no one ever married. I doubt this argument could be empirically validated either. A lot of people get married thinking they will be happier. When they try it they often find out they were happier as singles. In truth, living with the same person for many years is more often harder than easy, at least compared with who you were before the marriage.

For me, I think that marriage should mean that two people are happier living together than apart; otherwise there is no point to being married. For society, if it actually promotes societal harmony then marriage should enjoy legal protections. The evidence here is mixed, to say the least. I don’t believe that the state should give special privileges to married couples, such as tax breaks, because it discriminates against single people. However, I see nothing wrong with society sanctioning marriage because it allows two people to have greater happiness. We formed the United States in part to allow each person to pursue happiness. If civil marriage can facilitate a sense of intimacy and closeness between two people, it’s a worthy thing for government to sanction.

Beyond that marriage should mean very little to society at large, the same way that my neighbor five doors down’s marriage means little to me personally. In short, I think marriage should mean a great deal to those who are married. For the most part though marriage should mean a lot less to society at large than we ascribe to it. Those obsessing about it should just take a chill pill.


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