Marriage: Defining it properly to help get a handle on the debate

What do we say marriage is? Defenders of traditional and gay marriage could perhaps speak a lot more positively to one another if we at least shared a definition. (Let’s leave out legal questions for now, since laws don’t make morality).

Is marriage just two people agreeing to commit to live together and love each other for their whole lives?

Now, let’s really take this seriously part by part. It’s not that simple. Why two people? Cannot three love? And I guess we really mean something sexual by “love” because a group of friends agreeing to live together and love (platonically) isn’t marriage—even if it’s one man and one woman, for instance in the case of a brother and sister.

I think most people would admit that marriage carries with it the promise of sexual exclusivity, so let’s include that. Sexuality is actually very helpful in defining marriage because it rules out platonic relationships, friendships, and arrangements between elderly siblings.

So marriage is an agreement to live, love, and be sexually exclusive for life. But how explicit does this agreement have to be? Ie: what about couples who do not marry in a ceremony or through vows, but nonetheless live together for life as exclusive partners?

Yet, most people distinguish between such cohabitation and marriage on the level of commitment. So let’s add a vow to the definition, a vow being more serious and intentional than an agreement of any other kind.

Marriage is then a relationship between two people, designated by a specific vow, to live, love and be exclusive for life.

But why for life? Why not for ten years? And for that matter, we still haven’t been able to defend why only two should be part of this.

The answer to these remaining questions is tied up in our addition of sexuality to the definition.

And this is going to be the controversial part, I think, but the connection between marriage and sexuality is really important. The giving of our bodies to another person is a big deal. I won’t defend it in this post, but sex isn’t something to be taken lightly or dispensed to strangers or casual acquaintances just for pleasure.

If we take sexual exclusivity as an essential component of marriage (and really, what are we left with if we don’t?), there must be some significance to the act and to sharing it exclusively with this one other person. Here is the reason for the two persons in the definition of marriage, and why I think, and Catholics believe, that marriage is really only between one man and one woman.

At its most basic, biological level, sex is a reproductive act. The organs involved are defined as our “reproductive organs.” Pleasure is a byproduct, even if it happens to be the main intention of the couple at the time.

And for sex to fulfill reproductive role, it is an act that takes place between one man and one woman. This is at the core of the traditional definition of marriage. It’s why we recognize marriage as a relationship between two. It’s also why marriage is considered life long and a 10-year vow isn’t marriage. Reproduction takes its proper place within marriage, and so understood, the role of the married couple in raising the children dictates that their relationship be life-long both for their sake (trust, reliance) and for the sake of the children being raised. This understanding of marriage is simply based on what we are as human beings and what it takes to continue our species. [Yes, having more than one wife creates more babies, for the sake of spousal harmony and the raising of the children, one to one works better.]

Now, I know a lot of people disagree with this. Supporters defending divorce, non-reproductive sex (contraception, homosexual, etc), temporary marriages and other things will think I’m backwards and out of my mind. (Maybe I am)

But, for the sake of discussion, if we take away sexual exclusivity and its reproductive role out of marriage, what are we left with? And if we do, how then would we define marriage and where would this definition come from?

For instance, if reproductive sex is removed as an essential element of marriage, why can three people not enter into a marriage or can they? Why can’t elderly siblings be “married” or can they? Why are 10-year vows not marriage or are they? Why isn’t cohabitation the same as marriage or is it?

And if we have these new additions to “marriage,” where do they come from? Our own fancy or opinions? And if our definitions of marriage are different, how are we to have a meaningful discussion about it? Aren’t we just talking past each other?

And if the answer to all this is that “well, everything is relative,” how can one defend such an absolute statement as that statement itself? Or how can we condemn evil or atrocities?

What I mean to explain in this post is that I think much of the debate about marriage involves people just talking right past each other because both sides are talking about different things (something with a different definition) that they both give the same name: “marriage.”

The role of sexuality and reproduction within marriage is the elephant in the room. It’s not about hate or intolerance, it’s simply about what we say marriage is.

[Note: The reproductive in type act is still a standard for infertile couples. Sterile and elderly couples still engage in the act that is reproductive in type. Contraceptive and homosexual acts are not reproductive in type.]

What is marriage? Where does this understanding come from? And is there any accountability of the definition beyond personal pleasure?

5 thoughts on “Marriage: Defining it properly to help get a handle on the debate

  1. “But, for the sake of discussion, if we take away sexual exclusivity and its reproductive role out of marriage, what are we left with?”

    Two people who love each other and want to be considered, legally, as family.

      • I didn’t say without exclusivity. Though, of course, if they want to have an ‘open’ relationship that’s up to them. The majority of those types of relationships are heterosexually based, of course.

        I think 2 is a fine place to arbitrarily put the limit of marriage. But with full knowledge that it’s essentially arbitrary.

        If people want to be in a multiple marriage, it’s everyone’s choice and no one is being harmed, I see no problem with it.

  2. Very nice post. Keep up the good work! I have only comment:

    I disagree that people are “just talking right past each other.” I think most people understand they are talking about different things when they talk about marriage. The pro-gay marriage crowd wholly rejects the inextricable link between marriage and procreation. Many also reject the metaphysical reality of a vow. At the same time, theists and conservatives reject the postmodernist assumption that marriage is merely a human concoction that can be altered or abolised at will.

    The debate is not vitriolic because people (on both sides) are confused as to what they are talking about -they are passionate because they know EXACTLY what they are defending, EXACTLY what their opponents are attacking.

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