Last night I got to play faculty spouse at a party celebrating the other half's promotion to full professor. I don't always do well at these events. I am not generally comfortable in groups and I tend to get into heated arguments with other academics. But if the crowd and my BAC are just right, I can be quite the wit. Last night, all was good.
As the evening was drawing to a close, I was talking to a visiting Scots academic and her partner. We began talking about the intricacies of American law, the relations among the various branches of the federal government and between the federal and State governments, the end of common-law marriage, and the laws and cases regarding same-sex marriage. My Scots interlocutor, having told me that marriage was, after all, a worn-out institution, asked why we had gotten married—of course, she and her (male) partner had not. Was it because we felt we had to? Was it to prove a political point? Was it a statement about rights? What reason could we have had beyond the practical reasons?
I'm not sure that she was ready when I asked her what reasons there might be beyond the "practical" ones. We got married largely for all those practical reasons. I suppose this sounds strange. To me it is the only one that makes sense in a secular setting.
There is a discourse that is shared both by those who reject marriage as hopelessly outmoded and by those marriage advocates who too often take themselves to speak for the gay and lesbian community that sees marriage as primarily about a particular picture of a romantic relationship, a particular image of love. It is all tuxedos and white dresses and cakes and, ..., well you know the rest.
But of course civil marriage is a contract, one we have inherited from the Romans as much as from anyone. And contracts are about practical purposes.
I don't need to be married to validate my love—and the highest title I can bestow on the other half isn't "spouse" or "husband"; it's "friend." There is love and romance in our relationship, but the marriage didn't create that and isn't, primarily, about that.
Nor does being married define our relationship. I am married because the contract allows us better to pursue many of our practical goals; and, the contract provides an impetus to continue to work on those goals together. And, within the framework of that contract, the relationship itself can be worked out in a number of ways.
Marriage may be an old institution, but to see that it has played out in any number of horrible ways in the past doesn't mean that the outlines of the contract cannot be put to good use. You can have the frame without filling it in in exactly the same ways. Sometimes it might make sense to put new wine in old skins.