The Meaning of Marriage

I wanted to comment on the following story because every piece I have read on it, in my opinion, really misses the point:

 This story about an elderly widow who was hit with a major tax burden because she was married to a woman and not a man is a sad read. The women were together for decades and made a series of great real estate buys, amassing quite a bit of wealth. Ms. Windsor (the surviving wife) cared for her partner for years through an illness, to which her wife eventually succumbed. Then, because of the Defense of Marriage Act, she was forced to pay enormous sums on her wife’s share of their assets — sums she would not have had to pay if she had been married to a man.

Let me begin by saying that I consider DOMA to be a disgrace and a vile piece of barbarity. I believe that equal rights need to be granted to gay people and that discriminating against anybody based on their sexual orientation is horrible and shameful.

However, I think that there is something else going on in this story that needs to be acknowledged. How come a couple who lives together in a loving, profound relationship and who didn’t go to the courthouse to put a signature on a piece of paper enjoys less rights than a couple who did? Why are there rights that are granted by putting signatures to a piece of paper rather than by entering into a certain kind of relationship?

There are countries that have chosen to acknowledge all couples equally. My sister and her partner live in Quebec. They have been together for over ten years and are raising a daughter. They haven’t had time to organize a wedding ceremony or even walk over to the courthouse just yet. But they have every single right enjoyed by the couples who did. They will organize a marriage ceremony when they feel like it. Or not. This will be a choice not based on any paperwork-related convenience but exclusively on when they choose to have a celebration.

I think it would be great if we all started moving towards this model. All couples within it would enjoy equal rights. Marriage, in the meanwhile, would have absolutely no legal or formalistic meaning. It will be nothing but a ceremony that some couples would choose to undergo because it entertains them. Of course, people in really shitty relationships who need to exclude large groups of people from having access to the same rights in order to feel like their bad marriages mean anything at all will be against this.

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11 comments on “The Meaning of Marriage

  1. I like the principle of separating what people choose to do to celebrate their committment to each other from their rights as citizens. But when I read posts like this, I always wonder about how the system would actually work… How does a couple without a piece of paper ‘prove’ they are a couple under your system for all the boring statutory purposes for which they will need some kind of proof (if only to separate them from sneaky singles who might lie and try to get their rights… <— meant to be mildly funny)? What about two straight friends who live together, or a pair of siblings, or adult child and parent, or multi-adult households? Do they get similar rights?

  2. I profoundly disagree with this post. And, for a change, feel sure that I know enough to judge well, unlike on many political issues. :)

    What if I want to live with somebody, but don’t want to let him become my closest relative in law’s eyes? F.e. don’t want to give him ability to inherit my flat OR if I am in a coma and doctors ask relatives (one can argue whether it’s right or not, but the reality today is thus, especially without documents specifying one’s wishes), I want my mother make all decisions & not him. Your position doesn’t leave such people any choice in the matter, you force them to be married (!). Imo, every 2 adult people should be able to get married, but nobody should be forced into it.

    They haven’t had time to organize a wedding ceremony or even walk over to the courthouse just yet.

    Marriage isn’t a wedding. You got married without any huge weddings, so you know it.

    I don’t measure couples whether they’re married or not (except legal rights in law’s eyes aren’t the same, as it should be imo), but if 2 people want to get officially married to get legal rights, they’ll be able to find time. So I am 100% OK that my approach doesn’t discriminate against very busy people.

    Why are there rights that are granted by putting signatures to a piece of paper rather than by entering into a certain kind of relationship?

    Because other people can’t know what you think or feel.

    Btw, I found great history blog in Russian. Among other things, she wrote RE marriage customs, when people yet didn’t have to be married by state or church to be considered married, and 1001 problems it created.

    http://mirrinminttu.livejournal.com/tag/%D0%90%D0%BD%D0%B3%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%8F

    I enjoyed among other things: Брачные преконтракты в Англии на рубеже 1600-х AND Лондонцы около 1600-го года: подарки и ухаживания.

    • ” I want my mother make all decisions & not him”

      - Write a living will specifying this.

      “F.e. don’t want to give him ability to inherit my flat”

      - Write a will.

      ” Your position doesn’t leave such people any choice in the matter”

      - In which matter does my sister, for example, not have a choice? She can write a will disposing of her property any way she wishes and she can write a living will which will determine who will make decisions about her in case of a coma. This all takes 2 hours, at most. And there is no need for a costly divorce if she changes her mind. She’ll just tear up the old will and write a new one.

      “Because other people can’t know what you think or feel.”

      - If you are so into signing papers, sign a will. :-)

      “Marriage isn’t a wedding. You got married without any huge weddings, so you know it.”

      - I think it should be 100% ceremonial in nature.

      • Suppose a person dies or is in a coma without a will, which happens quite a lot. What should courts do in practice?

        Also it isn’t all that simple. Gay couples today (not in another 50/100/200 years when marriage is 100% ceremonial) that tried to get all married rights in case of disease f.e. by writing wills & other documents found it very costly and complicated. To give another person a right to visit unconscious you in hospital, a will is not enough, as I’ve understood from reading about numerous documents gay couples signed and still came short.

      • “Suppose a person dies or is in a coma without a will, which happens quite a lot. What should courts do in practice?”

        - Suppose a person dies or is in a coma without a marriage certificate.

        “Gay couples today (not in another 50/100/200 years when marriage is 100% ceremonial) that tried to get all married rights in case of disease f.e. by writing wills & other documents found it very costly and complicated. To give another person a right to visit unconscious you in hospital, a will is not enough, as I’ve understood from reading about numerous documents gay couples signed and still came short.”

        - That happens precisely because marriage is invested with legalistic meaning it should not have. Which is what I denounce in this post. Marriage, in my opinion, should be a purely personal decision with no legal ramifications. Remember my post on Terry Schiavo? The so-called “husband” had the right to kill her off long after staring a family with another woman. How is that reasonable? The courts recognized that a piece of paper signed a gazillion years ago mattered more than the lack of any actual relationship between them and his subsequent relationship and procreation with another woman. How can this make any sense?

  3. Suppose a person dies or is in a coma without a marriage certificate.

    That’s what I meant without either a marriage certificate or a will. :)

    The so-called “husband” had the right to kill her off long after staring a family with another woman. How is that reasonable?

    I agree it’s unreasonable. After starting a new family OR after X time without contact between spouses, the rights should be nulified.

    We may disagree to a certain extent about which rights marriage should or shouldn’t give, but probably you’ll agree with me that in practice what we have today is:
    A) marriage giving rights and responsibilities
    B) a couple may be treated by law as married without their agreement
    And I find the combination horrible. First, make marriage 100% ceremonial and only after that say “let’s let law see them as married without their agreement”.

    • “After starting a new family OR after X time without contact between spouses, the rights should be nulified”

      - This just complicates things.

      “First, make marriage 100% ceremonial and only after that say “let’s let law see them as married without their agreement”.”

      - It has been done in Quebec and I find the system to be optimal.

  4. We have a sort of hybrid position here – there are merits and flaws to each legal position. Will come back to this tomorrow if I can.

  5. I agree with Clarissa and would actually take it a bit further. In the first comment, Jane B asks “What about two straight friends who live together, or a pair of siblings, or adult child and parent, or multi-adult households? Do they get similar rights?”

    My answer to the above question is yes. They should get the same rights. I don’t think that the sexual status of the relationtionship should matter. Once we get away from a system that privileges the “couple” above all else, the better.

    • “Once we get away from a system that privileges the “couple” above all else, the better.”

      - I think so, too. This attitude of privileging marriage is sold to us under the guise of simplifying property rights. But, in reality, it causes more complexities than it solves.

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