November 1, 2009
Like fish in the ocean having little awareness of water, our collective intellect has forgotten about the forces managed by marriage.
Say the word "marriage," and what is another word it brings to mind? How many of us would say "sex"? How many of us relate it to a father's parental rights? How many of us zoom directly into "parental responsibility" at the thought? More often, don't we associate marriage more and more with social status, a lifestyle, or a philosophy?
Many argue that marriage is an outdated institution. Others say it's changing, moving as society moves and evolving as lifestyles and philosophies evolve. Yet while marriage is a social state and a lifestyle, and it is based on a philosophy of well-being, it is also based on innate biological forces.
Imagine that first public wedding ceremony in unwritten human history. Doubtless, men and women had wed before, yet at some point it became necessary to put the union on public display, to make the union common knowledge. Why? In our species, only women get pregnant. The mother has about nine months to establish her maternity. Yet after conception, there is no similar biological way for the father to establish his status as such. Similarly, there is no comparable way a woman can prove the identity of the father.
Consider the cases today of women suing for child support, of men pleading their cases for parental visitation, of mothers and fathers seeking an orderly way to establish custody and support arrangements for their children when they are no longer together. Like any law, the institution of marriage does two things: it provides consequences and it teaches. Marriage, as strange as it sounds, makes divorce possible; or in other words, marriage improves the enforcement of parental rights and responsibilities when a couple parts. Secondly, but just as essentially, it teaches the importance of commitment before sex. It teaches pain avoidance.
Human nature does vary, but most of us have sex drives during some period of our lives. Yes, there can still be great pain and misery associated with marriage, but what marriage does is help us manage our sex drives to reduce the painful consequences. Imagine if no one had sex until he or she chose the best possible mate. Imagine if children were born only to parents who wanted to be together. Of course, people defy these scenarios every day, but the expectation of marriage correctly teaches that sex outside of these parameters is more dangerous and more painful. It teaches that he and she who tread outside these guidelines do so at their own risk, at the risk of their partner, and at the risk of any resulting children.
Curiously, in modern times, the refusal of marriage is shaded under the umbrella of women's liberation, despite the possibility that marriage is responsible for the progress of protection for women to this day. The female in a conceptual relationship does have powers. She has the advantage of having the child already in her possession, and without some formal acknowledgment, there is almost no way to establish the father's paternal position and rights. This force can also work against the female in the same way it works to her advantage. She has to carry the baby in her body, and it is difficult for her to establish the father's paternal position and enforce his paternal responsibilities. Marriage protects her by socially and legally acknowledging her parental partner.
And marriage helps for fathers as well. It gives the man more legal force for his parental rights than he would have purely biologically. It also provides a social institution that helps prevent forceful conflicts arising out of custody disputes and unwanted pregnancies.
We have advanced in so many ways since that first wedding. Our homes climb higher, becoming more detailed and functional. We transport ourselves farther and faster. We add elaborate tradition, rich ceremony, and extra cultural meaning to marriage. Marriage is a social state and a lifestyle congruent with myriad philosophies based on human well-being. Most importantly, marriage helps us manage our drives and their consequences toward the best possible outcome.
From this arises the question every fish in the sea wants to know. How much can water change before it is no longer water? How much can marriage change before it has no relationship to the forces it was invented to manage?
The raging debate over same-sex marriage passes over several essential points all too frequently. First, marriage is not about shaming individuals regarding homosexuality. In fact, marriage is not even about sexual orientation. Marriage is simply about managing the intrinsic forces of males and females making babies together. Marriage functions through legal consequences and social expectations. The problem with widening the expanse of marital functions is chiefly related to changing the social expectations that the institution of marriage produces.
Have we evolved as a society to the point where we are as safe and secure having sex outside of marriage as within it?
Mrs. Dalmas is a Texan mother of five young children. She currently resides in Switzerland.