Who can get married?

Who can get married?
This morning, as the news reports about the Supreme Court justices’ questions and comments on gay marriage filtered in, I asked myself that question. And some other questions too: Who am I to refuse anyone the right to form a union with another person? What can we do if we are really interested in preserving the institution of marriage? What is at the heart of this issue and this resistance?
The good people of California, with whom I share some history and affection, have decided that marriage should be between a man and a woman exclusively. A man cannot form a legal union with a man. A woman cannot form a legal union with a woman. The argument goes, I have read, that gay marriage would destroy the institution of marriage itself and erode the American nuclear family. (I’ve always thought those last two words together were odd.)
News flash: the institution of marriage is not in great shape. Breaking news: the American family is sliding down the slope as well. Both of these social changes have nothing to do with homosexuality. Marriage is not the same as it was 100 years ago, not even as it was 50 years ago. Our ideas about marriage, as our ideas about love, are constantly changing and, as most of us realize, change happens faster these days.
Ask any sociologist how the nuclear family is fairing. Look around at your own friends and family and see the struggles within marriages, the aggression and violence, the divorces and the changing landscape of how we relate to one another. Check out blended families and see how the children of our former and new spouses are cared for, and not.
Marriage is one of our institutions that is complex and in constant flux. It is a phenomenon that exists on many levels and even our reasons for getting married vary a great deal. Marriage is a legal institution, a moral union and a social bond. It is also sexual, religious, financial and, ultimately, personal. While many marriages may look the same, I can’t think of a single person/couple who has a marriage just like mine.
How can we possibly regulate all that?
Tongue in cheek this morning, I thought: why don’t we ban marriage for people who have been married three times? Three strikes and you’re out. Why don’t we ban marriage for men and women who are addicted to drugs or alcohol? Why don’t we ban marriage for people with histories of marital abuse? Why don’t we ban marriage for young people who don’t know what they’re doing? Why don’t we ban marriage for people from widely different cultures and religions? (Statistically this is one of the biggest challenges.) Why don’t we ban marriage for men and women who are too poor to hold a family together? You get the idea. Where do we stop?
Apparently we have stuck here, at homosexuals. Perhaps at the bottom of this resistance to gay marriage is the fear of what homosexual energy, if you will, will do to us, all the rest of us; pure old-fashioned homophobia – fear of the same sex. What a great time to open a national dialogue on how it is to feel attracted to a person who happens to be the same sex as you are.
Just as we have learned—reluctantly—about other personal and social issues, we need to learn more about homosexuality in America. Just as we are learning about what it means to be a woman in this society, just as we are still learning what it means to be black in America, just as we are learning what it means to be a legal and illegal immigrant in our country.
Our country. Whose is it? Our families. Who do they belong to? Our marriages. Who owns those?
If we as a society are truly invested in breathing life, vitality and joy into our personal lives and in our families, we will invest in openness and education. We will encourage learning at all levels about relationships, what marriage is and is not, how to form intimate bonds, how to deal with power, how to avoid violence and what love is. Look at your high school and college curriculums and see how many courses you find on those subjects.
We as a country spend so much time and money promoting freedom in other countries. How can we go wrong allowing freedom at home?

John Wood

2 replies
  1. Maureen OH
    Maureen OH says:

    Interesting piece, John:
    I have always thought of marriage as a verb. It is a way of being with another person where the actions we take, the priorities and the choices we make (and don’t make) are shaped by mutual moment by moment commitments. It is a pas de deux choreographed not by our individual steps but by the promises and responses we offer each other.

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