The social dimension of marriage, part one

I wasn’t planning two posts on the social dimension of marriage. But when I saw this post by Tom Ackerman, I thought it was perfect fit for my purposes.

I no longer recognize marriage. It’s a new thing I’m trying.

Turns out it’s fun.

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

             She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
             “Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

             “How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
             “She’s my wife!”
             “Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another’s beliefs.

Mr. Ackerman’s little campaign might succeed in raising people’s consciousness — but I doubt it. More likely, he’ll succeed only in annoying his friends.

Ackerman can’t really put the shoe onto the other foot. He may not recognize the marriages of his heterosexual friends but, in general, society does recognize those marriages.

And so the marriages are legitimate. Not because the Church blesses them, or because the government registers them in a database somewhere.

Well, OK … in part because of the Church and the government. But the response of the broader community is just as important:  the people you encounter as you go about your day-to-day activities.

Neighbours, coworkers, the loans officer at your local bank, the doctor on duty in an emergency ward, family members, friends. They have the power to bestow legitimacy on a marriage.

Or not.

That’s the point that Ackerman illustrates so poignantly. What if society withheld its recognition of your relationship? You’d be powerless to turn it into a marriage without their participation:  no matter how much you loved one another, or how much you sacrificed for one another, or how many years you were faithful to one another.

A relationship isn’t a marriage until society respects it as such.

Let me return to the personal dimension of marriage for a moment. In the previous post I wrote, “To us [modern Westerners], marriage is not so much a social institution as it is a private agreement between two individuals.”

There’s some truth in that perspective. Society can’t declare you to be married without your consent. The first decision is always taken by the couple:  “We’ve decided to get married.”

Then it’s up to society to respond. “How wonderful!”

Or:  “You can’t get married. You’re both men.”

Whether we like it or not, marriage has both a personal dimension and a social dimension. Without both, a relationship can’t be a marriage.

In part two, I’ll talk about the social dimension of marriage as it was practised in ancient Israel. Then I’ll contrast Israel’s practices to ours.

But for now, I only wanted to drive home this foundational point:  A marriage isn’t a marriage until society recognizes it as such.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Zayna
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 15:37:04

    “Neighbours, coworkers, the loans officer at your local bank, the doctor on duty in an emergency ward, family members, friends. They have the power to bestow legitimacy on a marriage.”

    I find this part particularly poignant. I remember when my sister complained to me that she and her “common law” husband couldn’t get a loan.

    I told her to get married. She was incredulous, “What difference should that make?”

    I pointed out to her that as a young and unmarried couple, the bank would look at the investment as less secure than one given to a couple in a “recognized” union.

    She tried to argue that it wasn’t fair and I shrugged and said, “Well, it’s their money and they make the rules.”

    I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, truth be told, my sister and her “husband” have been together for over 10 years, longer than many married couples I’ve known.

    But it certainly adds credence to your point.


  2. Shawn Smith
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 06:37:56

    What you “no longer recognize” is one of the foundations of civilization whenever and wherever civilization has existed farther back than we can remember and without some form of which society would break down within two generations. What *I* don’t recognize is an amusing novelty which a small but obnoxiously loud minority has been calling for for not more than 15 years and which, at best, changes nothing and, at worst, further damages the real thing.

    I should congratulate you for being clever, but this is nothing like a meaningful argument.


  3. Bill
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 10:59:23

    Shawn Smith – A meaningful argument attempts to make you think about the point being made it does not simple state a point and say I’m right, and make a series of unsubstantiated further points as you did. First of all there are Many cultures aside from the ours that think of ,or thought of relationships differently such as marriage being temporary which is as incredulous to many as gay marriages and making them not fit the standard western definition of marriage (our culture is working on temporary marriages now, I guess we weren’t as civilized as we thought). The Celtic practice of handfasting and fixed-term marriages in the Muslim community. Pre-Islamic Arabs practiced a form of temporary marriage that carries on today in the practice of Nikah Mut’ah, a fixed-term marriage contract. So your first point is incorrect conventional marriage is the not the foundation of ALL civilizations. Secondly there is no way you could possibly know that society would break down within two generations you just pulled that number out of your hat (I was going to say some where else but this is a open forum). I know many single parent families (families where no marriage occurred) which work very successfully. Your insistence that there is some “real thing” to be damaged negates any other way of looking at things. Attempting to sound clever by asserting some erroneous position of superiority places you in a “small but obnoxiously loud minority” which the intelligent (not clever) of us find annoying. What is interesting is that divorce was once considered (to use your own words) an “amusing novelty” lets see you attempt to argue away that reality. sorry Shawn you may try to live in the last century but GAY marriage is here to stay at least in Canada eventually our less developed neighbors will follow suit.

    Now I am going to take a step back and say I am pro-marriage, (Both Gay and Hetro Marriage) contrary to some of the ideas I expressed above. The truth is Shawn just because you think yourself to be superior in some way does not make it so, unless you can come up with a better way of arguing your point, the person that looks superior to most of us here is Stephen.


  4. Bill
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 11:06:31

    Oh yes Shawn and as I read it Stephen was attempting to draw light on the hypocrisy of denying one marriage over another not totally agree with Ackerman’s campaign to not recognize marriage. Read his previous posts he is Happily married even by your limited definition.


  5. Stephen
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 11:27:12


    Actually, the point of this post was to illustrate that marriage is a social institution. That if narrow-minded people like you want to withhold recognition of a same sex marriage, you have the power to do so. That recognition by the state, or non-recognition by the state, is only one element of the battle; in the end, the opinions of your neighbours and relatives also matter.

    Why do I describe you as narrow minded? Please consider this part of the post:

    What if society withheld its recognition of your relationship? You’d be powerless to turn it into a marriage without their participation: no matter how much you loved one another, or how much you sacrificed for one another, or how many years you were faithful to one another.

    The reality is that many same sex couples live together for years or decades, doing all the same sorts of things as me and my (opposite sex) wife do. They love one another profoundly. They make personal sacrifices — looking after their loved ones when they are ill, or pooling their financial resources to repair the roof of the house, or whatever. And they are faithful unto death.

    Then, at death, blood relatives are considered the next of kin. Maybe those relatives make all the funeral arrangements without considering the wishes of the former partner. Maybe they don’t even invite the partner to the funeral. Maybe they don’t allow the partner to keep a single possession of the deceased as a memento — because they don’t recognize the partner as a spouse, even after decades of living together.

    Imagine for a moment that you are in that position: that your wife of twenty or thirty years dies, and then you are elbowed aside as a person with no rights or interests. That’s a pretty crappy position to be in, isn’t it?

    If you have any human compassion, you’ll acknowledge that it is. But the argument I’m making here goes beyond anything I said in the post.


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