Monday, June 19, 2006

In Defense of 'Til Death Do Us Part, Monogamy, and My Joint Bank Account

Marriage ain't what it used to be.

I called my bank last week to request a new ATM card for my husband. Our old cards had expired, and apparently, they'd sent our new cards separately, with his going to our old address. The bank representative cancelled his card then told me, "We'll send another card when your husband calls to request it."

I repeated her instructions, doing everything I could to keep my head from exploding. It seemed ridiculous that I, as my husband's legal wife, couldn't make a simple request for him on a joint bank account we've had for six years. Did the bank not recognizing the sanctity of my marital bond?

This is, apparently, some new bank security policy. Perhaps joint accounts don't signal "unwavering faithfulness and trust between all parties involved" to the bank anymore. Business partners have them to keep tabs on each other. Parents track their college students' spending with them. Even divorced couples have them (who knows why?). You could call these arrangements "joint accounts of convenience." They're joint for now because of a particular need. But at some point, that joint account likely is getting closed.

This got me thinking about the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA)--you know, that proposal that's been circulating in Congress for years that would define marriage as solely between one man and one woman. Some say it will preserve the sanctity of marriage.

I began to wonder, who's really a threat to marriage? Who's making it less than obvious that married couples have given each other full access to one another's lives--like truly joint-functioning bank accounts?

The FMA seems to point to the gay community as the culprit. An episode of The Simpsons, titled "There's Something About Marrying," focused on the issue of gay marriage and was criticized by many conservative groups. But I think some missed the brilliant points of the episode: 1) Rev. Lovejoy refuses to marry gay couples (and is strongly criticized for it), and 2) When Homer Simpson runs out of gay couples to marry, he posts a sign, "Will marry anyone to anything." That includes Brandine and Cletus, who are close relatives, and even people to inanimate objects (As Rev. Lovejoy protests Homer's actions, Homer pronounces the Rev. as married to his Bible).

Christian churches that support the FMA are a bit like Rev. Lovejoy: mocked for their stance on gay marriage, and told the biblical teaching on homosexuality is outdated and unjust by current American legal standards. Equally, those legal standard of fairness are moving government toward an increasingly Homer way of life: Anyone can do anything they please. While this approach is indeed "fair," where does it leave us as a society?

To me, the Simpsons episode was a poignant illustration that, left to the politics of fairness, marriage is in danger of declining further. I can already hear the deep sighs, "Oh, Holly my dear, are you really saying The Simpsons provides evidence of the decline of marriage? Surely you can't believe legalizing gay marriage really would lead to the same comedic ends as The Simpsons portrayed!"

Well, I'm not gonna provide The Simpsons as my primary evidence. I hold up, for your inspection, exhibit C: Canada. Just two weeks ago, the Canadian media uncovered evidence their country has secretly acknowledged polygamous marriages (unions between three or more partners). Religious leaders there had warned the legalization of gay marriage would lead to other claims on marriage, including polygamy. The evidence seems to show they were correct. What will our neighbors to the north do when a man wants to marry his sister? Or his dog? Will they continue to make their marriage laws even more fair?

This brings up another issue: Who gets to define marriage? According to the Christian church, marriage is for life. But is it fair to insist couples stay together forever?

I believe the biggest threat to marriage is the glossing over of " 'til death do us part." Look up the word "marriage." Unless you have access to your great-great-grandmother's dictionary, you likely won't see the words "forever" or "lifelong" in the definition. You might even see the words "dissolve" and "divorce" accompanying the entry.

It seems the new marriage standard is "happily ever after." If one partner doesn't feel happy on a given day, they can simply dissolve the union, then seek another ever after. There's a plethora of jokes about the duration of celebrity marriages, and many people laugh when they hear about stuff like Britney Spears short-lived Vegas nuptials. No one blinks when Hollywood couples discuss prenuptial agreements--as if financial loss would be the biggest tragedy if a marriage vow is broken. Isn't it sad our society defines marriage as temporary, dissolvable, a joke?

Biblical considerations about homosexuality aside, what about committed gay couples? Would recognizing their unions pose any greater threat to the institution than Britney's minute marriage? Are Christians being unreasonably unfair in defining marriage as a heterosexual union?

Let's look at the messages coming from the gay community. On a PBS special supporting gay marriage, one top leader in the movement proclaimed the real issue was the right of gay divorce. Property and individual rights need to be protected, he said, when relationships dissolve. By this spokesperson's definition, marriage is, again, about individuals. Fairness.

Regardless of how we want to

define it, marriage is hardly

fair. It's about sacrifice. Giving

up our own individual rights.

Regardless of how we want to define it, marriage is hardly fair. It's about sacrifice. Giving up our own individual rights to meet one another's needs. No one wants equality in marriage; sometimes we need to get more from our spouse, sometimes we need to give more. And it can be a great joy when we're called on to give.

There's a sentiment in the gay community that doesn't measure up to total commitment: a lack of regard for monogamy, even among committed gay couples. Gay male couples seem to differentiate between emotional and physical monogamy. Some would say that's a fallacy cooked up by right-wing, religious conservatives. But my perception doesn't come from the right--it comes from published studies about gay sexual fidelity (many by gay researchers), and direct from the mouths of gay male friends. Being physically faithful simply isn't necessary or desirable, they say, and many gay men believe it's impossible.

Sexual monogamy protects each partner physically and emotionally. As a heterosexual woman, I can't say I know exactly what a homosexual man needs or thinks. But I can follow simple logic: If one partner's had a bad day, comes home seeking emotional support, and finds his lover is out painting the town, there's eventually gonna be trouble. The security of monogamy goes far beyond the sex act itself.

In that Simpson's episode, Rev. Lovejoy warns, "Homer, your impulsive marriages are going to lead to a lot of divorces." Maybe that's what happened when, after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, homosexual couples went running to the alter. Seven months later, some of the first gay married couples were filing for divorce--a short marriage, even by Hollywood standards. As one couple explained on their divorce paperwork, "Our interests have grown in different directions." My take: Maybe they married to swoop up the right to which they felt entitled. Again, the evil side of fairness at work.

Personally, I don't think it's fair when others' light approach to marriage makes the institution seem less valid. Less faithful. Less strong. I don't think it's fair when children--who hold our hope for a better society in their hands--are given the idea they don't have to work hard at marriage. Divorce is a heavy emotional and financial drain on society. Researcher David Schramm has estimated divorce (and its direct and indirect economic consequences) costs the United States $33.3 billion per year, or $312 per household. That's not fair to me and other taxpayers.

It wasn't fair when my bank didn't acknowledge the jointness of my joint bank account. But, out of fairness, I hadn't yet defined my idea of marriage to the bank. Maybe I'd better start getting my definition out there, before others define it for me. After all, what's fair isn't always what's right.


What's Next? Marrying Your Dog?

Polygamy Allowed 'Limited' Status

First Gay Marriage, Now Gay Divorce

To ponder:
1) What problems do you see with the idea of fairness in government? In marriage?

2) How do you define marriage? Do you think marriage is accurately defined by our society?

3) If you could create new laws about marriage/divorce, what would they be?

No comments: