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.

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.

The four dimensions of marriage

Marriage has four dimensions:  personal, social, religious, and statutory.

This post is a follow up to our recent discussion of same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is a contentious issue precisely because of marriage’s four dimensions:

  • Personal:
    Same sex couples maintain that the decision to marry is a personal one. No one outside of the relationship should tell them whether they can or cannot marry.
  • Social:
    Some opponents of same sex marriage assert that changing the definition of marriage affects their marriages, too. It’s a weak argument, in my view. But it is true that all citizens have a stake in the institution of marriage:  it is a fundamental building block of society.
  • Religious:
    Traditionally, church officials are the public figures who solemnize marriages. Some churches insist that the state cannot change the definition of marriage because (in their view) the definition was established by God.
  • Statutory:
    The state is responsible for giving legal recognition to marriages. The state is obligated to treat all citizens equally. On the other hand, there may be public policy reasons for protecting and promoting one kind of family arrangement over alternatives to it.

Each dimension can come into conflict with one or more of the other dimensions. But all of the dimensions must be preserved and respected. In other words, we can’t resolve the same sex marriage controversy by pretending that marriage is one-dimensional:  for example, by emphasizing the personal (as same sex couples tend to do) or the religious (as Christians tend to do).

I intend to explore marriage’s four dimensions in a series of posts. As part of our discussion, I will outline the available data on marriages in ancient Israel.

Too often, Christians have a vague idea that Western traditions about marriage are derived from the Bible. On the contrary:  each culture has a distinctive “take” on marriage. We shouldn’t expect to find a close correspondence between the traditions of ancient Israel and the traditions of contemporary Western democracies.

In any event, when we consider marriage from the perspective of a different culture, that information will clarify the issues we’re debating in contemporary society. What did the four dimensions of marriage look like in ancient Israel?

My primary source for ancient Israel’s traditions will be chapter two ("Marriage") in Roland de Vaux’s book, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, 2nd ed. (translated from the French by John McHugh; published in London by Darton, Longman and Todd, 1968).

R&R at a B&B

Today, Ilona and I are off to a bed and breakfast on Big Rideau Lake. (Just for one night.) We’re celebrating our first anniversary.

Romance! Whoo hoo!

You’re Not Alone… seriously!

Ever seen that bus ad that reads something like “Pregnant? Afraid? You’re not alone!” I think it’s a birthright helpline ad or something like that. But its message has taken on a whole new meaning in this day and age.

An article on recently pointed out that our perception of single mothers is more than a little bit off-base. That those who are a bit older and pregnant unexpectedly really are not alone!

We still think of the archetypal unwed mother as a Jamie Lynn Spears—a dopey teenager who dropped her panties and got in over her head. A generation and more ago, that’s who most unwed mothers were. But according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers account for only 23 percent of current out-of-wedlock births. That means the vast majority of unwed mothers are old enough to know what they’re doing: Unwed births are surging among women ages 25 to 29.

In the last 50 years, there has been an extraordinary decoupling of marriage and procreation. In 1960 about 5 percent of births were to unwed mothers; that figure is now a record high of nearly 40 percent. Out-of-wedlock births used to be such a source of shame that families tried to hide them: Singer Bobby Darin was born to a teen mother and raised to believe she was his sister. But now out-of-wedlock births are greeted with a shrug. Some say they’re an understandable response to economic realities. Others say they’re a liberating change from the shotgun-wedding ethic that shackled two unsuitable people together for life.

I was pretty astounded to hear some of those later statistics. I don’t know what countries/regions are figured into those numbers, so I can’t say for certain that they reflect the nature of Canadian or American society. In fact, since I believe Slate is based in England, it’s probably not linking to our cultures directly. However, that effect is undoubtedly still present in the world more immediately around us. So they’re worth noting.

The article is worth a read, since it goes on to defend that marriage is still the optimum choice for children:

Readers also like to rebuke me for my preference that two decent people who are committed to each other and find themselves procreating without intending to should provide the stability of marriage for their child. “Having a child will be stressful and life altering enough. Parents need to work on their relationship on their time schedule.” “I feel that a baby is its own blessing. Have that blessing before you get married.” “How dare you imply that an unexpected pregnancy should lead to marriage? You are simply out of touch with modern culture.”

That may be. But it also means that modern culture is out of touch with the needs of children. Some researchers identify out-of-wedlock births as the chief cause for the increasing stratification and inequality of American life, the first step that casts children into an ever more rigid caste system. Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children.

Single mothers are a major issue in our politics classes. Not only do they have the time crises associated with raising kids and earning a salary alone, but generally speaking they end up with low-end jobs compared to men or childless women, who can take more time to focus on their linear career. And yet, they’re a growing portion of society, and can’t be ignored. What needs to be done?

Well, I think the author is onto something when she focuses on the response of the readers. There’s this sense that the most important factor is what the couple wants to do — which is almost never the case! Yes, it’s understandable that you don’t want to subject yourself to years’ worth of torture with a partner you don’t appreciate. But the kids aren’t going to benefit from a decision based purely on what is “ideal” for the emotions of the couple. And do the couples move on to find a more emotionally satisfying relationship that they’re willing to commit to? Sometimes, I’m sure. But I’m skeptical that it’s a majority that succeed.

I can’t speak as much for women. But I do believe that a good portion of the issue here is the perception men have of a relationship. I don’t think that men are brought up thinking that the point of dating someone is to look towards marriage, anymore. Rather, they see it as something parallelling their relationship to their friends, their dog, and their Xbox: a relationship is something to benefit/entertain me!

Somehow, I don’t think women see it quite the same way. I think that most women know that if the relationship ends, they’re the ones who have to make the choice about the baby, and, should they choose to keep it, they’re the ones who will have to provide for it. As I am not a woman, I can’t say that with 100% certainty. But I know if I were in a position to have a baby, I would appreciate it if I could find a man who sees me as more than a joyride. Speaking to my female friends, I hear an overwhelming chorus of voices that say “I just can’t seem to find a really good man!”

So, though it would not solve everything, I wonder if all of the factors mentioned in the article — political pressure, economic pressure, media pressure, etc. — should be twisting the arms of the young men to get married, more than the young women. And more than just get married, but get their butts in gear and view the world as a bit more than just having one party after another.

And of course, there’s another pressure which I myself consider pivotal, even if it’s not as much so to a good portion of the population: The Church. Too much of the Church has abandoned young men, figuring that their obsession with video games and the likes is impossible to overcome. It’s not. Most of the people I know who are feeding off of video games are suffering within, wanting something a lot more substantial to do with their lives. Biblically, that should involve getting married and raising kids. Seemingly that would be good for society, too, if one follows the arguments on Slate!

How do you get the men to respond? There’s no perfect answer for every one, of course. But mentorship and living a positive lifestyle are part of the answer, to be sure. Those men who know what it’s like to be in a positive, committed relationship should share that knowledge with the next generation of men. And women, of course, can encourage those youthful women they come in contact with to be serious when dating, and not allow their guys to treat them like a video game! When you begin the cycle at 13, it can be aweful hard to break out of at age 25!

What?! Some people make money doing this?!

My wife wants to transition out of the caregiving grind over the next few years to become a professional writer. (Caregiving is a job for the young!)

This week she has landed her first paying gig. She’s getting paid to blog!

AisleDash is a wedding blog. It was officially launched today, but the contributors have been busily working behind the scenes so that they could immediately publish about 200 posts.

Here are some of my wife’s (fifteen!) contributions:

The concept is, lots of short posts, always with a photo and a link. The hardest part looks like coming up with a dozen ideas per week within the wedding theme. If you have any ideas to suggest, please feel free to submit them!

This professional writing business looks like it might actually involve work.

Quebec City

First, two honeymoon-type photos.

Quebec is a walled city, built to keep the damned English out. Now the damned English come to Quebec to celebrate their honeymoons.

Sitting on a park bench, somewhere over the moon. (“Over the moon” is located somewhere in Quebec City, I guess.) A nice shot, considering that it was taken with a timer.

Now on to the city of Quebec.

The St. Lawrence River. Or fleuve Saint-Laurent … same river, other official language. I suppose you could say that this is Canada’s equivalent of the Mississippi, in terms of its historic significance. It was the original highway which brought European explorers inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
New France tried and failed to defend its territory against the English. General Wolfe’s victory on the Plains of Abraham (which is where this photo was taken), in September 1759, is generally regarded as marking the birth of Canada. (At least, that’s how anglophones remember the history.)

As I said above, Quebec is a walled city.

The Jeanne d’Arc garden (jardin) is quite beautiful … my photo doesn’t do it justice. It was built by an anonymous American benefactor who loved France. He was delighted to discover that Quebec was a bit of France transported to North America. Joan of Arc had nothing to do with Quebec, of course.

Perhaps an allusion to a notorious incident in Canadian history: "On July 24, 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle causes a political uproar when he exclaims, ‘Vive le Québec libre’ to an ecstatic crowd in front of Montreal City Hall. De Gaulle was one of many world leaders invited to Expo 67 to help celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson is outraged by the comment and issues an official rebuke saying, ‘Canadians do not need to be liberated.’ De Gaulle cuts short his trip and returns to France."

The Quebec legislature, which the residents of Quebec refer to as the "National Assembly". I thought the national legislature was in Ottawa. It’s so confusing being Canadian!

It amused me to see this statue in honour of former Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis. He was an utterly dominant figure during that era of Quebec history, but he came to represent everything that was backward about Quebec:

"Quebec, under the Duplessis era, was supposed to be characterised by traditionalism, conservatism and, generally, a rejection of contemporary ways and values. In consequence, the province had fallen behind, had acquired increasingly negative characteristics and had had to live through ‘les années noires’, a sort of a Quebec equivalent to the ‘Dark Ages’. This perception is broadly challenged by many social scientists today. However, there is no doubt that the death of Duplessis, and the subsequent election of the Liberal Party of Jean Lesage [in 1960], ushered a period of intense changes and activities, the sum total of which seemed to amount to a Revolution" (the “Quiet Revolution”).

Oh well, I guess Duplessis merits a statue, even if he did plunge Quebec into its own Dark Ages!

This statue also amused me. The francophone population of Quebec values history far more than the anglophone population anywhere in Canada. Here we have a very prominent statue in honour of a historian(!), Francois Xavier Garneau.

Garneau "wrote a three volume history of the French Canadian nation entitled Histoire du Canada between 1845 and 1848. … He argued that Conquest was a tragedy, the consequence of which was a perpetual struggle against the forces of English Canada for the French Canadian nation [a prediction which has certainly turned out to be accurate]. … The book was originally written as a response to the [notorious] Durham report, which claimed that French Canadian culture was stagnant and that it would be best served through Anglophone assimilation."

Anglophones hardly know who Lord Durham was. But Francophones … they remember. (Je me souviens)

In other words, Garneau continues to be celebrated because he was an ardent anti-English nationalist.

The Ursulines are a religious order (Roman Catholic, of course) which originated in Italy. The Ursulines of Quebec started a school (founded by Mother Marie de l’Incarnation, depicted in the statue):  it is regarded as the oldest school for women in North America.

The school was founded in the 1640s! The great pleasure of visiting Quebec City is that we have very little history of such vintage elsewhere in Canada. (And 1640 is yesterday by comparison to Europe, I know.)

This painting was part of an exhibit at the Musée nationale des beaux-arts du Québec. It depicts Vashti, a Persian queen who, according to the Bible, refused to obey a command of the king. The king wanted to show Vashti off to some visiting dignitaries, which presumably offended her dignity.

The 1878 painting, by English painter Edwin Long, depicts Vashti just after she had disobeyed the king. She knows she is in a perilous position. Long isn’t regarded as an outstanding artist, but the picture has real pathos, and Long was quite popular during his lifetime.

Finally, a video of some mobiles, spinning in a shop window in lowertown. (“Lowertown” refers to the area along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, outside the city walls).

So that’s our honeymoon. We didn’t spend all of our time in the hotel room, you know … you people have dirty minds.

Actually there’s more! MaryP has some other photos up on her blog. And the complete set is available on my Flickr site.

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