Marriage. Whenever I hear that word I can’t help but also hear the intonations of the impressive cleric in The Princess Bride. Peter Cooks’ elaborate lisp and towering hat lend both gravitas and ridicule to the great institution. The real crux of the matter, in any case, is ‘true love.’ Marriage – however otherwise understood – is simply a formalization of agreements made in other ways. Marriage vows barely carry the surface meaning of the ‘marriage of true minds.’
I know whereof I speak. I’ve been married four times, each time undertaken with full solemnity and with every intention that it be forever. As the law requires. And as the heart desires. It is only in retrospect – hindsight being twenty-twenty – that one realizes that the agreements undertaken were in some way flawed or insufficient to the task.
No matter what any religion or moral system might proclaim, marriage is, more than anything, a legal state – a legal state that exists even when the formal state has not been proclaimed. Increasingly, we understand and treat marriage as existing as a matter of common law – indifferent to the manner that the relationship is created. This, perhaps, is as it should be.
Quite apart from the niceties of state-sanctioned unions, two people who have chosen to live together and to act as if they were married should be recognized as having the same rights as those who are joined by the most holy ceremony. That is often what is at the crux of the marriage debate – equality before the law. When two people of the same or different sex are denied those rights, then the law must intervene – must change – to provide them. Those who don’t want to permit gay marriage are not upholding the institution of marriage – they are defending their own belief that such relationships are invalid under any terms. Bigotry, not religious freedom, is what lies behind the resignations of marriage clerks. I wish them luck feeding their families and paying their mortgages with hate. But I digress.
What then is at the heart of every marriage? It is, in the end, a matter of agreement – not necessarily formally stated or written down, though that is sometimes the case. It is by way of an informal contract, a spoken or more frequently acted out agreement as to the rights and obligations of each party. We may not realize that when we marry – but we learn it when we split up.
My mother used to advise me to start as you mean to go on. That is, your behavior today will determine your outcome tomorrow. Almost any arrangement is acceptable (though abusive ones are not) but, when willingly entered by both parties, they form a tort. If a couple shares the financial burden and split the efforts of housekeeping and childrearing, that is the nature of their agreement. If another prefers a single breadwinner while the other carries the load at home, that is theirs. If the relationship dissolves, no-one should be surprised that the courts will impose conditions reflecting the agreement the couple made themselves. Though child custody has fortunately been largely separated from the issue of marriage breakdown in many jurisdictions, men or women who supported their spouse to stay home will be expected to continue to do so after divorce, at least for a while.
Not that anyone should ever enter marriage with the expectation it will end. But, like a boy scout, perhaps one should always be prepared.
But that’s ten minutes.