Monday, July 1, 2013

My Ideal America: Civil Unions & Marriages

During a recent gay marriage debate, a friend of mine proposed this idea: we should have both civil unions and marriages for everyone, but the civil unions would be more lax in terms of expectations and laws about fidelity and divorce, and the marriages would be more strict.

I love this idea.

People talk about the sanctity of marriage, and I've argued before about how it's a weak rationale for banning gay marriage. On a societal level we've consistently had about half of marriages end in divorce for decades. In other words, gay marriage won't change anything because marriage already isn't sacred, so who cares?

But, first of all, I see how that would not be reassuring to someone who wants marriage to be taken more seriously. And secondly, I personally would feel a lot better about marriage if I thought society took it more seriously.

Then again, even if our divorce rates were nice and low, I still think gay marriage should be legal. I don't think there's anything wrong with homosexuality or homosexual relationships. I do, however, have a problem with some of the products of the gay marriage debate. Specifically, I have a problem with this:

First of all - love does know limits, especially romantic love. People fall out of love all the time, sometimes quickly, sometimes after many years. But secondly - that's okay, because marriage is not--or at least, in my opinion, it shouldn't be--simply about whether you're in love.

I think marriage should include love, sure, but also other-centeredness and commitment. I mean "commitment" both in terms of longevity but also in terms of committing to be respectful even when you're pissed off, to put your spouse's interests ahead of your own, to be kind even when you don't feel love at all.

Seriously, how many relationships have you had in your life where you even liked the other person 100% of the time? Much less loved them? People think of love as an emotion, and as long as it is, it's a secondary concern of mine. Love should be an action, a way of treating someone, not a feeling. And to my mind, the way people think of love is directly related to the way our society treats marriage--if love is a feeling that must be sustained at all times in order to stay together, then yes, of course, many people will get divorced. 

What does this have to do with the gay marriage debate? I mean, I think gay people are just as capable as straight people of either falling for the juvenile understanding of love and marriage or taking the more sustainable, less fluffy approach. However, at least from what I've seen, the gay marriage debate has been a lot more about the "all you need is love" version. 

It's really just the idealistic flip side of my cynical "marriage doesn't mean anything anyway, so who cares?" Both "all you need is love" and "it doesn't mean anything anyway" are stances that dismiss the idea of marriage having any real substance beyond publicly announcing that you're in love and getting (very significant) government benefits. If we assume from the get-go that marriage is just about being in love, or marriage isn't about anything in particular, then of course, no, gay marriage won't change anything.

However, if marriage is about more than that, gay marriage could change the institution. For example, some argue that homosexuals are more likely to embrace open marriages--not unfaithful marriages, in which one spouse wants monogamy but isn't getting it, but open marriages, in which both spouses are okay with non-monogamy. I don't see a problem with this. I don't care what people do as long as everyone involved is involved consensually and is okay with the setup. However, marriage is associated with monogamy, and if a high enough percentage of marriages become publicly open marriages, that association may change. You can argue about whether that's a good or bad thing, but you can't claim it has no effect on the institution of marriage. And the same argument applies to the extent that the rationale for gay marriage completely opens the door for polygamous marriage.

Anyway, I'm rambling. The bottom line is in "my ideal America," people could commit to each other regardless of sexuality, and marriage would be taken a lot more seriously. Therefore I love the idea of letting gay and straight alike be able to choose between civil unions and marriages. 

Civil unions would be basically the way marriage is (or is becoming) now--all include no-fault divorce, whatever prenup you want (or none), whatever setup you want. Kids? No kids? Monogamous? Non-monogamous? Married for a few months? Married for years? Whatever. It's not our business, do whatever you want. 

Marriage, on the other hand, would be more old school, in the sense that no-fault divorce wouldn't apply. Adultery and abuse and the like would be grounds for divorce, but you have to have reasons, you have to show cause. Maybe people would have to have kids or adopt kids within a certain time frame...I'd want to think more on that. This still would not break down based on sexuality--gay or straight people could get married. But the point is the Institution of Marriage (TM) would be a separate, more serious institution reserved for people who truly want to commit for life and, possibly, reserved for people creating the family unit, which, I agree, is the building block of society.

I'd like to point out that I wouldn't get married. I would get a civil union, for sure. You see, I am straight, and--completely separate from the gay marriage debate--I have struggled a lot with the marriage question. I'm in my late twenties. I've been with the same man for years. For awhile people were wondering when we were going to get married, because it's just expected of a (heterosexual) couple if they've been together X amount of time, I guess. 

But I am afraid of getting married. I do think of marriage as a lifelong commitment, I take that very seriously, and I don't know if I could promise I would stay with one person my whole life. I don't want to mock the institution of marriage by going ahead and getting married because it's expected, when I'm not even sure, only to realize down the road that nope, I guess I was right, I can't commit for life. I don't think I am other-centered enough to get married. There are a lot of things less severe than abuse or adultery that I think I would leave over. I know legally I can leave for any reason I want, even if I do get married. But then why marry at all? What's the point of marriage if you can only feel okay going into it while reassuring yourself that you can always ditch if you want? Pathetic.

If marriage didn't have those connotations (at least in my head)--if there was another form of marriage where not just your spouse but society understood that you were making some sub-level of commitment but not the supreme commitment of marriage--I would feel more honest about it, and I'd probably do it tomorrow. That is, if civil union meant a less severe legal commitment, I'd get one.

And I'd love it if society divided it up like that. If we left marriage to be marriage, a commitment of more meaning, more devotion, less as-long-as-this-feels-good bullshit, and at the same time we also let people commit at an in-between level--commit to a more serious setup than just dating, but less serious than lifelong...that would be great.

I know it'll never happen. Even if we instituted it tomorrow, society doesn't work that way. People like me--who would love to have a civil union instead--would probably be the vast minority, as most people wouldn't like the connotation that they aren't every bit as serious about their commitment as everyone else.

Maybe we could set it up so that everyone starts with civil a phase after engagement but before marriage...and if they survive the first 10 years in a civil union or something, then they get married.

I don't know. I just want people of different sexualities to be treated equally, and I want marriage to mean as much to the rest of society as it does to me. The end.

So in my world, this guy would get married, and New Gingrich would have a civil union. Or several.


  1. Homosexuals and lesbians will often say that people who love each other, no matter what their gender, should be allowed to marry each other. After all, they say, that's what heterosexual couples do. Why shouldn't homosexuals have the same rights? It makes sense, doesn't it? It does but not that much.

    First of all, love is not the basis on which marriage is defined or justified. Marriage is defined by a public, legal commitment; and love is not a necessary component of the contract (though it is a good idea to love each other). Marriage is entered into by a mutual agreement that involves emotional and sexual faithfulness and the promise to raise children within its bonds. Of course, some heterosexual couples can't have children, and some adults marry knowing they will not have children. The issue is that marriage has always been the normal means in which children have been brought into the world. The marriage institution is supposed to provide a stable environment.

    Second, if marriage is justified simply because two people love each other, then what do you do with two married couples who don't love each other, but the husband of one couple loves the wife of another? If the reason is raised that love is what determines that they can/should be married, then shouldn't they each dissolve their present marriages and marry each other? Or, are there other moral considerations involved that should be considered? Should marriages be formed and dissolved under such circumstances? How would this affect society as a whole?

    Third, what about the collateral effect or redefining marriage and using "love" as the justification of legal bonding? Consider pedophiles. If a pedophile loves a young boy and the young boy loves the grown man, then shouldn't they be allowed to get married--if they are both mature enough for consent? After all, if love is the criteria that justifies two homosexuals or two lesbians getting married, then why can it not also be applied to pedophilia--or as the new term that has been proposed, "minor attracted persons."

    What about polygamy and polyandry? Would those who say homosexual marriage is okay as long as two people love each other--also advocate one man having many wives and one woman having many husbands as long as they love each other? It would seem that in order to be consistent they would have to.

    Where does it stop? Just saying that love is what justifies homosexual marriage can also be used to justify other things. It is a dangerous argument--illogical--and is wrought with problems and pitfalls.

    1. I don't think marriage is just about two people loving each other, actually. I talk more about that, along with polygamy and other issues, here:

    2. Actually I talk specifically about how marriage isn't just about love in the very post your commenting on. I'm not sure if you didn't read the post, or if you are just agreeing with me. Near the beginning I say:

      "First of all - love does know limits, especially romantic love. People fall out of love all the time, sometimes quickly, sometimes after many years. But secondly - that's okay, because marriage is not--or at least, in my opinion, it shouldn't be--simply about whether you're in love."