Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Meaning of Marriage: "Un-Divorced" Edition

[Cross-posted at Our Big Gayborhood]

In the federal Prop 8 trial (Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which the equality side just won!), "marriage defense" attorney Chuck Cooper argued that:

"[T]he central purpose of marriage in virtually all societies and at all times has been to channel potentially procreative sexual relationships into enduring stable unions to increase the likelihood that any offspring will be raised by the man and woman who brought them into the world."

This definition of marriage is also known as the Responsible Procreation argument. Yet, because marriage in reality means different things to different people, Cooper's statement would have been more appropriate as a normative statement rather than a descriptive one. That is, he should have told us what "marriage defenders" believe marriage should be and why it should be that way, rather than trying to arrogantly tell us what marriage is and has always been for all people and to all of society.

Incredibly, Cooper deigned to tell us what marriage was without providing evidence for his conclusion, and while utilizing the testimony of sme-sex marriage opponent David Blankenhorn, whose opinion testimony was deemed "inadmissible" and given "no weight" due to his lack of expertise on the very issues he was called to testify.

The evidence that marriage means different things to different people is all around us. Accordingly, I have been compiling small bits of evidence from pop culture demonstrating that many people do not view or define marriage in the narrow Responsible Procreation terms that professional "marriage defenders" claim. Today, we see how a New York Times article explains that, for many, marriage is about finances and practicality.

This article is an exploration of the so-called "un-divorced." That is, married couples who separate, yet who remain married for years, despite living apart and having other romantic relationships:

"Society is full of whispered scenarios in which spouses live apart, in different homes or in the same mega-apartment in order to silence gossip, avoid ugly divorce battles and maintain the status quo, however uneasy. In certain cases, the world assumes a couple is divorced and never learns otherwise until an obituary puts the record straight.

Separations are usually de facto, rarely pounded out in a contract, and family law is different state to state. But even long-estranged couples are irrefutably bound by contractual links on issues like taxes, pensions, Social Security and health care.

Divorce lawyers and marriage therapists say that for most couples, the motivation to remain married is financial. According to federal law, an ex qualifies for a share of a spouse’s Social Security payment if the marriage lasts a decade. In the case of more amicable divorces, financial advisers and lawyers may urge a couple who have been married eight years to wait until the dependent spouse qualifies." [emphasis added]

A therapist elaborates on the appeal of staying legally married:

“'Many people I’ve worked with over time enjoy the benefits of being married: the financial perks, the tax breaks, the health care coverage,' said Toni Coleman, a couples therapist in McLean, Va. 'They maintain a friendship, they co-parent their kids, they may do things socially together. Sometimes they’re part of a political couple in Washington or have prominent corporate positions. But they just feel they can’t live together.'

What Ms. Coleman finds surprising is that the primary consideration is practical and financial, not familial. The effect of endless separations on the children rarely seems a priority.

'People split up and have these God-awful joint custody arrangements, so you would think that they stay separated for the kids’ sake, but I’m not seeing that,' she said. 'It usually comes down to money.'” [emphasis added]

The "marriage defense" argument that marriage exists to channel procreative sex into some sort of stable, enduring relationship belies the reality that heterosexuals often work around marriage's expectations of monogamy and responsible procreation whether they broadcast it or not, while nonetheless remaining in the institution because of the benefits it provides. For such "un-divorced" folks, marriage has nothing at all to do with channeling their potentially procreative sex drives into the legally stable and enduring relationship of marriage; indeed, the very point of marriage for such folks is to retain the legal and financial benefits of marriage while having potentially procreative sex with people who are not their spouses!

When confronted with this reality, the argument that marriage in our society is about responsible procreation rings hollow. Interestingly, or not, we don't see the National Organization for [Heterosexual] Marriage devoting its sad summer tour or speaking engagements to addressing the issue of heterosexual married couples who "mis-use" marriage in this way. Certainly, the threat posed to marriage by those far-more-numerous souls already within the institution is exponentially greater than that posed to it by couples that comprise, at most, 10% of the population.

Not only that, letting heterosexual couples get and remain married when they have no intention of procreating together and raising resulting children together in the same household while not allowing same-sex couples to marry precisely because we cannot procreate together looks suspiciously like a bigoted, after-the-fact justification for disallowing same-sex marriage. What it means, in reality, is that heterosexuals get the special privilege of having marriage mean whatever the couple wants it to mean, including childless, non-monogamous, financially beneficial arrangements- ironically, often the very relationship characteristics that anti-equality folks use to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

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