Hooray! We’ve solved the problem of drama! I’ll go tell everyone!……………………..Guys…..People are complicated!
‘Cause a ring don’t mean nothin’ if you can’t haul the weight
and some of them won’t even try but I won’t leave you high and dry
Love is a loyalty sworn, not a burning for a moment.
If we want to understand the form that marriage takes, we need to understand the function it is intended to serve. This function springs from a fundamental concern: that society needs civilised children for its continued existence. Whether out of a concern for the perpetuation of culture, or simply the administration of property, children are considered vital to the nation’s interests. The ancient Spartan Greeks, for example, took this so seriously that if a woman was not having children by her husband, then she needed to take up residence with another man so that she did have children. Similarly Greek law in general permitted infertility as a valid reason for a husband to initiate divorce.
There is a parallel concern that has also historically informed marriage law, demonstrated by the obligations that men have typically taken upon themselves when entering marriage relating to provision for and protection of the family. Whether legally or culturally, men have been expected to make sure that the wife and kids don’t starve (even at great risk to themselves), a concept that modern societies still try to enforce in an increasingly post-marital age via the notion of child support to unwed mothers.
None of this is to say that these particular policies are necessarily good or bad things, merely that they reveal the concerns to which cultural and legal support and organisation of marriage has been a response. It is one thing to say that a form is faulty, but it’s quite different to say that the function doesn’t exist.
So the first question is: are these concerns still valid in today’s version of civilisation? Do we still need children? Do we still need men to ensure that women and children are provided for? To the former, I think the requirement is fairly self-evident. To the latter, it seems we just can’t decide. The rhetoric of our age denies this requirement, yet our actions as a society suggest we think it’s even more important now than ever. The fundamental requirement of feminism is that men need to subjugate their own needs or desires to those of others, especially those of women. The only difference now is that this requiremenet manifests as a broader general claim, rather than a specific one.
Because marriage as a function is concerned with children and family, as a form it needs to be concerned with how children come about. Marriage then is, of necessity, a regulation of sexual conduct; not because marriage brings about children, but because sex does, and once children enter the picture things get far more complicated.
This is why marriage is traditionally entered into before sex takes place (or why sex *made* the marriage). It is foolish to reliably expect a couple to commit to each other after-the-fact, but that’s when the commitment becomes most important. Indeed, at various times in history, there was no requirement for any ceremony to be held in order to form a marriage. Once a couple started living *as* husband and wife, they *were* husband and wife, with all that that entailed. The expected commitments were implied and understood. This, by the way, is analogous to the consummation requirement of marriage legality today. Sex is when the marriage really starts, because that’s when the commitments actually start to matter from a societal point of view.
So what do infertile couples have to do with this? Should we deny marriage to heterosexual couples who cannot have children? The ancient Greeks certainly seemed to think it was legitimate to do so, and you can certainly have a rational debate about it. I believe, however that when you consider the form that marriage must take of necessity and why it must do so, you find an understanding that taking the form has value in and of itself. Remember, marriage is a regulation of sexual conduct, for the purpose of establishing families. The more that maintain that form, the more others are encouraged to do the same.
If this sounds heteronormative, that’s because it is, and I think we need to stop apologising for this. While how we treat those outside the norm is certainly vital (and we should remember that this is much wider than homosexuality – plain old singledom falls under this category as well, for example), and while it is true that you should not encourage people to follow a norm simply for the sake of a norm, it is not mutally exclusive with a recognition (and indeed celebration) that male/female commital bonds fulfill a specific function, and without them you might as well pack up your own particular issues and go home while it still stands.
Which brings us to Angelina.
What makes The Stigler’s invocation of Angelina Jolie as a counter-argument so bizarre is that Brad and Angelina have had 3 children together already! There is certainly a legitimate interest in encouraging the parents of those children to stay together, even though they have already been born, *especially* as they have already been born. Even leaving aside everything I’ve already said about infertile couples, the idea that her lack of future reproductive activity with Brad is in any way a issue is downright strange.
There is, though, an even more intriguing element to this particular example, which is Jolie’s self-avowed bisexualism, a fact that brings into focus what is really a reality for all people, not just bisexuals: although it is reasonable to argue that attraction in and of itself is not a choice, who we make commitments to, and the manner in which we treat those commitments certainly is. At the end of the day, love in the marital sense is a choice. Jolie could have chosen to establish a relationship with a woman, and then there would be no children. These kinds of decisions matter.
The way our culture treats love these days is as some sort of all-or-nothing, where you either find your one and only soulmate and live happily ever after, or you don’t and you suffer the consequences. Marriages built on this concept that succeed are exceptions rather than the rule, but we seem hell-bent on strengthening this view, both in our culture and in our law, and then wonder why so many marriages fail, and worse, blame it on the old-fashioned concepts of marriage that we have abandoned, believing that we just haven’t changed marriage enough to make it fit the hole we’re trying to cram it into, not realising that the only way to do that is to make it something else entirely.
Angelina Jolie is deciding to make public commitments to stick by the father of her children. That’s worth celebrating. I wish them both the best of luck. I hope it works.