The personal dimension of marriage

(Part two of a series. Part one is here.)

Contemporary Westerners regard marriage, first and foremost, as a personal matter. The two people must decide for themselves whether their relationship has the right stuff, such that they wish to spend the rest of their lives together.

The government, the Church, the couple’s neighbours — all of them should basically butt out of a matter that is not really their business.

The legitimacy of this emphasis on personal choice seems self-evident to us Westerners. We are aware that other cultures practice arranged marriages, but we would never submit to such an arrangement ourselves.

This is really only half of the equation. As I will soon demonstrate, there is an essential social component to the institution of marriage, even here in the West.

But even the phrase the institution of marriage is liable to grate a little. To us, marriage is not so much a social institution as it is a private agreement between two individuals.

In ancient Israel, the scales tilted in the other direction. Ancient Israel placed tremendous emphasis on the social dimension of marriage.

Accordingly, Israelite marriages were typically arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. The parents’ primary consideration was the social connections that would result from their child’s marriage.

Nevertheless, parental authority was not such as to leave no room for the feelings of the young couple. There were love marriages in Israel. The young man could make his preferences known (Gn 34:4; Jg 14:2), or take his own decision without consulting his parents, and even against their wishes (Gn 26:34-35). It was rarer for the girl to take the initiative, but we do read of Saul’s daughter Mikal falling in love with David (1 S 18:20).

Actually, young people had ample opportunity for falling in love, and for expressing their feelings, for they were very free. 2 M 3:19, it is true, speaks of the young girls of Jerusalem being confined to the house, but this text refers to the Greek period and to an exceptional state of affairs. The veiling of women came even later. In ancient times young girls were not secluded and went out unveiled. They looked after the sheep (Gn 29:6), drew the water (Gn 24:13; 1 S 9:11), went gleaning in the fields behind the reapers (Rt 2:2f.) and visited other people’s houses (Gn 34:1). They could talk with men without any embarrassment (Gn 24:15-21; 29:11-12; 1 S 9:11-13).

Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, p. 30.

Wherever young men and women come into contact with one another, sexual attraction is liable to follow. Parents in ancient Israel were not so hard-hearted as to completely disregard the romantic longings of their children.

Still — the social dimension weighed more heavily in ancient Israel; whereas the personal dimension weighs more heavily with us.


Proponents of same sex marriage prefer to emphasize the personal dimension. Their position is, Who I marry is no one’s business but my own.

It’s a strong argument. It is consistent with our Western emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. For example, freedom of conscience suggests that individuals can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and order their lives accordingly.

Some people deny that the prohibition against same sex marriage is discriminatory. Homosexuals are free to marry just like anyone else, they claim:  they can marry someone of the opposite sex whenever they choose to do so.

It’s a facile (even contemptuous) argument. Sexual orientation is deeply personal and evidently involuntary. (That is, homosexuals do not choose to find people of the same sex attractive, any more than heterosexuals choose to find people of the opposite sex attractive. It just is that way.)

If a woman is attracted to others of the same sex, of course that is who she would choose to marry. To deny her that option is, indeed, to discriminate against her. It is to deny her the personal choice that is open to heterosexual couples.

On the other hand — proponents of same sex marriage can’t deny that there are three other dimensions to marriage:  the social, the religious, and the statutory. Those dimensions also must be taken into account.

Marriage is not solely a personal matter, and it can’t be treated as such. That will be our focus in the next post on this topic.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Zayna
    Nov 28, 2008 @ 14:39:14

    Okay, not intending to throw a wrench in here but it occurred to me…

    What of “common law” marriages? These too are personal agreements that, though not sanctified by any authority, are still recognized by the state (after 3 years of co-habitation) as legitimate unions.

    I’m not arguing any point your making and I’m not even sure if the point I brought up is relevant, I’m just wondering if this is a consideration or are you just talking about marriages officiated by the Church or State?


  2. Stephen
    Nov 29, 2008 @ 08:06:25

    Thanks, Zayna. I think it’s a good question.

    From a legal perspective, I don’t think there’s much difference, here in Canada, between marriages and common law relationships. (There may be some differences with respect to the division of property at the dissolution of a relationship, but I’m fuzzy on the details.)

    But in the USA, there’s a big difference. For example, same sex couples may be denied any role when hospitals are making life-and-death medical decisions. That’s why Barack Obama is talking about civil unions for same sex couples. Federal legislation would give same sex couples the same legal rights as a heterosexual married couple.

    It may be the best Obama can do, politically. But are civil unions really an adequate solution?

    Symbolically, same sex couples want to be regarded just the same as anyone else. They don’t want “separate but equal” institutions because, though they may be equal in law, they will still be regarded as inferior in terms of social status.

    Indeed, the whole point is a sneaking suspicion that to open up marriage to same sex couples would somehow defile the institution. It doesn’t exactly communicate social acceptance of same sex relationships.

    A court might find that “separate but equal” institutions still constitute unjustifiable discrimination by the state against same sex couples.


  3. Juggling mother
    Nov 30, 2008 @ 17:09:27

    Not sure about you guys on the American continent, but over here in the UK, much to the man on the street’s surprise, there is no legal concept of common law marriage.

    As I keep telling all my friends, if you want to split up, make sure you get married first! (we do have civil partnerships which are excatly the same as marriage except they can only take place between same sex couples, the state doesn’t change your name for you, and certain nullity rules do not apply). There are several laws that can be called upon to protect the less financial stable person when a relationship ends, but they are complicated, multi-faceted, variable and expensive to pursue through the court system. If you’re married/civil partnership, it’s all done for you dueing the divorce/separation.

    Historically, people were married when they said they were & they lived together. no state ratification required:) I agre with Stephen ion this one, if your society accepts the marriage it is so, reagrdless of pieces of paper. Equally, if it doesn’t, you are not, regardless of pieces of paper.

    This is easy to see in practise if you move around a bit. Imagine how marriages which are perfectly acceptable in one country are treated if they move to another country. (think about the age of the parties, or the number of people involved for example)…. I was trying to explain this to someone the other day, when pointing out that the UK does not recognise many foreign marriages.


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