In Sunday's post, in which I dismantled the bishops' argument about how marriage is for procreation and therefore gay people can't get married, I wrote about how some of the initial reasons for marriage (paternity, inheritance) are not very relevant in America today. I started to write about what benefits of marriage are still relevant today, but it got really long and I cut it out... and then immediately got called out for it in the comments:
Interesting. And here you've said what marriage isn't for - any thoughts on what it is for?
It's a difficult question to answer for a number of reasons:
- There are various legal benefits that come from marriage as a civil institution. This is a big reason many gay couples want to get married. In college I took a class on LGBT history and current issues and we had a lesbian couple visit our class. They had a huge stack of legal documents that they brought with them whenever they traveled anywhere in order to ensure that they would have the same rights that a married couple would have automatically. (Some of these rights have since been granted for same-sex couples by the Obama administration.) But I don't think the legal benefits are why most people get married.
- Similarly, there are health and financial benefits. You can save money on car insurance and get better loan offers when you get married. Various studies have claimed health benefits ranging from "married people have more sex" to "married people live longer." The health benefits of marriage have even been compared to the benefits of giving up smoking. But again, I don't think most people are this calculating when they choose to get married.
- Many people get married because they were brought up to get married. The acceptance of unmarried couples raising a family together is a lot higher now than in my parents' generation. Growing up I didn't know anybody who lived with two parents who weren't married to each other. And I don't want to overlook the role that societal pressure and expectations can play in a person's decision. Now that gay marriage is legal in New York, some gay individuals have been pressured to get married. Religion, obviously, can also have a lot to say about when and why you should get married, and if you are a compulsive rule-follower like I am, that may play a role in your decision to get married. But it's a cold and incomplete explanation to say I got married because I was supposed to.
- Marriage is about love... except when it's not. Arranged marriages still happen. One girl I went to high school with was totally comfortable with the fact that she would eventually have an arranged marriage, and she explained how arranged marriages begin with respect and develop into love, rather than starting with love, which can be fleeting, and expecting it to develop into respect when the passion subsides. I wouldn't have wanted that for myself, but I can understand why she was OK with it. Marriages don't all result from the same kind of relationship.
So all I can share with you is what marriage means to me. How my relationship with Mike was different, in my eyes, after we said our vows at the altar.
First, I need to explain what I consider to be the difference between unconditional and conditional love.
Unconditional love is, by definition, love that has no conditions. It's most often talked about in the context of a parent's love for a child or God's love for us. It means that no matter who you are or what you do -- no matter if you're totally ugly, or you become disabled or ill, no matter how badly you screw up, no matter what -- you will always be loved. It is the love for the Prodigal Son. It is the love of a family and sometimes of close friends.
Less talked about is conditional love. When you are dating someone, your love is conditional. It has to be. You don't know enough about the person to know if you will always love them. You date them to find out if you're compatible, whether you have the same goals, and whether there's anything about them that you absolutely couldn't live with -- like, if it turns out they're a jerk. You may date many people, and when it doesn't work out, one or both of you ends it. You agree to stop having the same kind of relationship that you had. If you said, "I love you," you probably stop saying it. If you continue dating someone, you're both aware that it's a choice, that your significant other has the option to end the relationship but chooses to stay with you.
When I said yes to marrying Mike, I said yes to making my love for him unconditional. And at our wedding, I declared out loud, in front of family and friends, that no matter what -- no matter how much money we might have, no matter if one of us got sick, no matter how bad things might get -- I would love him. I would support him. I would join my life with his until death. I would look to God's unfailing love for me as a model for how I should love Mike.
That's how big of a commitment marriage is. It is not to be taken lightly. It is a commitment you make when you're absolutely sure that you can spend your life with this person no matter what.
I think this is why, before same-sex couples could legally marry, many still had commitment ceremonies or something similar. To make that official, once-and-for-all declaration and confirmation of unconditional love. It's something that can't just be assumed once you've been together for a period of time. Even Elizabeth Gilbert, who was entirely opposed to getting married again until she was forced to (see Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage for that story), and her partner had a private commitment ceremony and exchanged rings. Even she, suspicious of (maybe even outright hostile to) the idea of an official, government-sanctioned marriage, wanted to draw that definitive line in the timeline of their relationship.
That is what I think marriage is for.
What about you? What does marriage mean to you? If you are married or want to be, why is that important to you?
(UPDATE: Check out the What Marriage Means to Me guest post series for other responses to this questions!)