The Purpose & Definition of Marriage

Prompt: What do you believe should be the purpose of marriage in our society today?

Life can be tough, you may have noticed. We humans have a tendency to stick together, to help each other, to support each other in small groups. This is generally regarded as a good thing. No one exists alone; we exist in relation to others.

Some relations are defined by blood, such as the parent-child relationship. As a general rule, we can’t choose our blood relations, though adoption provides a valuable means of replicating this relationship in the absence of actual blood.

Others relations are defined by choice. Sometimes the choice is ours: We “hang out” with friends. Sometimes the choice is made by others: We “do time” with fellow inmates. Our lives become bound up and intermingled with the lives of others. When this social union is sufficiently intimate and sufficiently formalized, it may be called a marriage. Some marriages are like friendships, based on mutual affinity. Some marriages are like prisons, forced on the spouses against their will.

The intimacy implicit in the notion of marriage can take many forms, such as spiritual unity or romantic entanglement or sexual relations or domestic cohabitation. However, no single one of these is essential. A marriage does not depend upon sexual relations, for example. People may be married without having sex, and people may have sexual relations without considering themselves married. People may be married without living together. And so on.

What is essential in marriage is a sense of separate lives intimately bound up or intermingled with one another. This is not an unqualified good, but in the best cases it can be very good indeed.

Such a union is often celebrated and made public via a wedding ritual. The ritual may include vows to one another, such as vows to be loyal, supportive, steadfast, and so forth. (An alternative to the wedding ritual is handfasting. In a handfasting ceremony, the celebrants may take vows that are limited in time, perhaps to a period of a year and one day. After that period they may decide to dissolve the union or make it into a full marriage. There are many other approaches to handfasting; this example illustrates one possibility.) Such rituals provide a valuable means of making intentions concrete and inviting others to support the marriage.

Marriage is not necessary for everyone, but many people find the mutual support of marriage helps them to thrive. This, indeed, is the best purpose of the institution: to help individuals flourish through mutual aid and support on the most intimate level.

Some deem the institution of marriage to strengthen society as a whole. On this basis, it may be argued that society has a legitimate role in recognizing and sanctioning marriage. But the question of legality and the role of the State significantly complicate matters.

A thought experiment may muddy the waters instructively. Consider this simple question: Were Romeo and Juliet married? Search your memory. Some people will say yes, some no, depending on their recollection.

Memory can deceive us, so let’s consult the text of Shakespeare’s play. Act II ends as Friar Laurence leads the ill-fated couple offstage:

Come, come with me, and we will make short work;
For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till holy church incorporate two in one.

It is not shown but it is strongly implied that the Friar performs a wedding ritual offstage. Does this information change your answer? Were they married? On the basis of this textual evidence, most people will say yes: They were married.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to the law of the time, this marriage may not have been entirely legal. Given Juliet’s youth, parental consent was required. Further, a marriage had to be announced three times in church prior to the wedding ceremony. Neither condition was fulfilled, because the wedding ritual was done in secret.

Now let’s get experimental. Just to make it interesting, let’s imagine that their wedding was clearly and unquestionably illegal according to both Church and State. Friar Laurence was a rogue priest, acting outside his authority, perhaps an imposter, and he will be punished.

Does this change your answer? Were they married? Legally, they were not. But many people will assert that they were indeed married in spite of the law. This suggests that marriage has some other meaning besides a legalistic construct, that we can make some other sense of marriage, some deeper and truer sense.

Continuing the experiment, consider the case of Mildred and Richard Loving. They were married in 1958 in Washington D.C. But they lived in Virginia, where their marriage was illegal because they were of different racial backgrounds. They were arrested and essentially run out of the state Virginia. They took their case to the Supreme Court, which found in their favor in 1967, overturning miscegenation laws across the United States.

Clearly, the Lovings were married in June of 1958. When they moved to Washington D.C. in early 1959, they were clearly still married. But what about the six-month period in between, when they were living in the state of Virginia, where their marriage was illegal? Were they married then? Did they become unmarried during this time? If so, then how did they become married again when they moved to D.C.? They must have remained married even, though their marriage was not recognized by the State of Virginia. There must be a sense in which marriage can exist without sanction from the State, a deeper and truer sense of marriage.

This exercise should make it evident that neither Church nor State can be said to have ultimate authority over this most intimate of human institutions. The final arbiter of human relationships should be individuals and the community, not the State. A purely legalistic approach is not sufficient for defining marriage.

Now, by way of contrast, imagine two people who live together, love each other, and raise a family together. Call them Brad and Angelina. Let us suppose, for the purposes of the experiment, that they resemble a married couple in every significant aspect of their lives, but one: They have never been legally married. Let us further stipulate that they do not live in a jurisdiction which recognizes common-law marriage, and they do not consider themselves to be married.

Are they married? Most people would answer no. Yet, if we knew them and interacted with them, we might be forgiven for forgetting this fact from time to time. The only sense in which they are not married is the legalistic sense, which as shown above is insufficient for a complete and satisfactory definition of marriage. In the deeper and truer sense of marriage, they surely qualify.

In Western society in the early 21st century, marriage is generally regarded as being limited to the smallest group possible, that is, a group of two people. The respective sex of these two people is currently a matter of some anxiety in certain quarters. But there’s no reason why the number of people involved or the sex of those people should factor into the definition of marriage, in the deeper and truer sense. Any group of consenting adults can form a marriage.

The question of legal recognition remains. Currently in the United States a battle rages over this question. It is not the first such battle (see Loving v. Virginia) and it will probably not be the last. It is crucially important to recognize that all consenting adults have the right to marriage. But as the battle rages, we must never lose sight of the fact that the truer and deeper definition of marriage is not codified in the rules and regulations of the State. The truer and deeper definition lives in our hearts and minds.