What We Talk About When We Talk About Marriage

What We Talk About When We Talk About Marriage December 4, 2010

My support for covenant marriage led me to mix it up recently on facebook with several friends, including Stephen of The Last Delta-T.  He’s written a post laying out his opposition to covenant marriage and atheist or feminist-unfriendly aspects of marriage generally.  Stephen and I both want to redefine modern marriages, but we want to do it in very different directions, so I’m going to start by laying out some of our basic points of disagreement, and then I’ll explain the reasoning underlying my positions in later posts. Here’s the first and simplest difference between our positions: I would strongly consider/prefer seeking a covenant marriage if I get married, while Stephen disapproves of that institution.Stephen writes:

Marriage sans God, as far as I see it, does make marriage look a lot like a long-term co-habitation with a lot of pretty legal things (which are important, yes, but not in the roughly metaphysical sense we’re talking about). The way we conceptualize marriage is what’s different, and I think that conception is unhealthy — it posits that there’s a fundamental change in essence in a relationship when a wedding vow is made, a bright-line distinction. I’ve never been married (shocker!) but it doesn’t seem to me that, in the minds of the people going through the vows, that the love signified by the wedding ceremony and to a broader extent the marriage is different in kind after the “I do”s than it was before. Different in degree certainly, but it doesn’t seem like the love looks different.

As a fellow atheist, I also don’t see any transcendental, metaphysical phase shift that happens when a couple says ‘I do.’  If a meaningful change occurs, it comes earlier, around the point of engagement, when a couple decides they want something more than a long-term cohabitation.  This isn’t a shift in ‘love’ necessarily so much as a shift in the level of responsibility each partner wants to take on for the other.  We love many people, all in different ways.  Marriage isn’t a way of recognizing a love that has cleared some kind of benchmark for depth or profundity; it recognizes a commitment meant to be binding on both parties, and love may be one of the feelings driving couples to make that commitment. The centrality of love to the definition of marriage, along with the substantial legal benefits of marriage in America have helped blur the distinction between marriage and cohabitation.  Many of the legal benefits (allowing a partner to visit you in the hospital, being able to take leave during a partner’s illness, etc) are based in love and affection, not any institutional bond or affection.  A legal system that limits these benefits only to married couples creates pressure to marry and diminishes the cultural value placed non-marital relationships (especially friendship). I’d like to see more of these benefits available to unmarried couples.  I’d be happy if more people sought civil unions, if there were more legal respect for personal contracts, or, perhaps, even if there were ‘temporary unions’ that could award a couple these benefits for a certain period of time, with an expiry date.  But I only support these adaptations if they aren’t all lumped under the heading of marriage, diluting the definition. After all, that’s exactly what Stephen is up to:

To follow the reasoning, what we should be doing is playing with the word “marriage” and applying the term to a whole bunch of different things to make “marriage” the concept show itself for what it really is: not that much of a change at all (but still meaningful for the people involved!) This lets us change how the word works culturally, to strip away the problematic elements that come along with marriage as understood in a religious context and overthrow the religious framework that creates the way we conceptualize “atheist marriage” in the first place.

I’m sure Stephen will make progress in altering the definition of marriage, so I’m all for promoting an alternative that is centered on responsibility and commitment, rather than on rights and affection.  Covenant marriage may not be the best model of an alternate system, but it seems to me to be the best available. More posts will follow this introduction to covenant marriage, all of which will be grouped at the covenant marriage index.

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  • The first question (for me) is why get married? Shortly followed with – what is the purpose of marriage? Both are mixed with giant philosophical consequences. Further down the rabbit trail is – what keeps the two together in a co-habit type scenario when life falls apart (i.e., money problems, children learning difficulties, legal problems with kids, role problem as life moves on, etc.)? It takes more than "love" to hold a marriage together. Fear of going through a divorce can (and sometimes does) have a "gluing" effect when the you-know-what hits the fan. The law has power. In the co-habit scenario what is the glue when the love and/or "commitment" fails? Marriage is probably not the cure-all, however it may very well be the best of what's out there for the long term (long term being the key). 50% may end in divorce and yet that means 50% made it.Food for ThoughtIf you are HungryAgain, great post and great questions for society!

  • So my problem with covenant marriage has always been that I don't see how it gets around exactly the gender-power-dynamic problems that we see in not allowing divorce in the first place. If covenant marriage becomes popular in Christian communities, what I see happening relatively quickly is the emergence of two norms: that "only slutty girls want a non-covenant marriage" and "a non-covenant marriage means you aren't really committed to your partner." At that point, plenty of couples will become locked into problematic relationships (emotionally abusive, financially abusive, or even emotionally or intellectually shallow and unsatisfying – essentially, all the reasons we leftists like the availability of divorce normally). Sure, it's possible to argue that "pre-marital counseling" will solve all these problems. I don't believe it. If both parties to a relationship are influenced by a norm condemning non-covenant marriages and those who desire them, they will be able to sneak their problems past a counselor. It would become seen as a test to pass, rather than an actual chance for both people to benefit. Why do you think that no-fault divorce is a good thing in the first place? I can think of plenty of reasons other than "because most people are not introspective enough and will get into marriages rashly (but *I* am better than that)" but I think that almost any other reason should also be a reason why covenant marriages are problematic.

  • "This isn't a shift in 'love' necessarily so much as a shift in the level of responsibility each partner wants to take on for the other."I think that is exactly true, and it also marks a heightened level of commitment to keep the relationship together. The pre-marital counseling is a sign of that. Not that it is a guarantee it will help, but it shows the couple takes the commitment seriously. People can find different and meaningful reasons to try to keep a relationship together, to remain committed to the marriage. But I suspect that the more idealist the reasons (metaphysical or otherwise), the more likely the marriage is to fail when pressed hard.

  • Roz

    I have a Catholic perspective (meaning a perspective taught by the Catholic Church, not necessarily one generally held by Catholics). Keeping that in mind, here are a couple of thoughts.A major piece of work on the topic of marriage is the Theology of the Body, a series of talks given by Pope John Paul II (and discussed widely in books much easier to get through than the originals). Although an atheist isn't likely to be interested in the derivation of how he got to his conclusions, the results can be rich resources when thinking about making a meaningful marriage.Among the key points is that the opposite of "love" is not necessarily "hate, but instead "use". In all our close relationships, we can tell the difference between wanting the good of the other versus choosing to be in relationship at that moment for what it offers us ourselves. Using can masquerade as love, but it sucks the life out of a relationship rather than deepening and strengthening it.From that perspective, the central focus of marriage can be seen as offering oneself and then receiving what has been freely given. When a couple enters into a relationship with the intention of loving and serving, rather than taking and using, there's freedom and love grows. Forgiveness, fidelity, truth and trust are big players in a marriage like this. Those concerned about a woman getting trapped in an uneven power dynamic may think this is a set up. I can understand that. But I ask you: picture what a truly reciprocal relationship like this would look like. Wouldn't you like to be involved in something like that?Now, in a Catholic marriage, this love flows from the fact that marriage is a way of participating (a bit dimly, certainly) in the strong but self-giving mercy of God for his people that's most perfectly imaged in the sacrifice of Christ for our sake. We believe that God himself helps us to live this love and suspect that without his help, it might not be possible. I'd love an atheist to try this and prove the doubters wrong, because my experience of this kind of marriage is incredibly rich, and I'd like anyone to share it who can.

  • Patrick

    Roz- We can't prove that you don't have a rich marriage. I'm not sure we'd want to.We can't prove that you don't participate in a magical cosmic soap opera metaphor with God, either, but then I doubt you can prove that you do.What we really want, as a sort of ground-level tactical matter, is for you not to assume that because your marriage is rich and rewarding and works in a certain way, that therefore everyone else's marriages are shallow and unrewarding. And we'd suggest that the fact that you suspect this is just another example of the degree to which religion is a form of supremacism.

  • The reason that marriage means a change to most Christians is that they don’t live together before they get married. THAT is the point, and that is the change.