Whose Marriage Is It Anyway?

Jun 22, 2006 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Our marriages are more than simply an expression of mutual affection. They affect the people around us, and are in turn affected by those around us.  

At first glance, Black Jack, Missouri (named for a local species of tree, not the card game) — population 6,792 — doesn't seem like the kind of place that would make national headlines. But that's exactly what happened when a man named, suitably enough, Loving moved into town. More precisely, it's who moved in with him that created a stir and ultimately raises a seldom-asked, yet important, question: whose marriage is it anyway?

Fondray Loving moved to Black Jack from Minnesota with Olivia Shelltrack, their two children, and a child of Shelltrack's from a "previous relationship." Their initial application for an occupancy permit, filed under Loving's name, was approved. When Shelltrack tried to amend the permit to include herself and the children, her request was turned down. Why? A Black Jack ordinance prohibits more than 3 people from living in a single-family home unless they are related by "blood, marriage or adoption."

Since Loving and Shelltrack weren't married, either he and their two kids or she and her three kids could live in the house but not all five of them. That left them with three choices: get married, move or fight the law. In March, the city council declined to amend the law to include arrangements such as Loving's and Shelltrack's.

Thus, the couple plans on suing the town. Shelltrack is outraged that the town sees "family in a certain way and that's the only acceptable way " and "wants to send a clear message that they don't want children born out of wedlock."

The nerve. While town officials have no plans to evict Loving and Shelltrack, they do intend to "enforce" the ordinance and defend it against any legal challenge by Loving and Shelltrack.

Seven hundred and fourteen miles away in Washington, DC, Ross Douthat, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly, asked what should have been an obvious question: why don't Loving and Shelltrack just get married? After all, they've "been together" for 13 years and have two children. They apparently view their union as permanent. What's more, the correlation between marriage and the well-being of children in matters such as poverty, educational attainment and even domestic abuse, is as close to indisputable as matters get in social science. (If you're curious about this correlation, a good place to start is Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's "Dan Quayle Was Right" in The Atlantic Monthly.)

On his website, The American Scene, Douthat wrote that "the pro-family movement might be better served defending laws like [Black Jack's] and the broader right of local housing codes to discriminate based on marital status where children are involved...." This idea became the subject of a discussion that Douthat had with Mathew Yglesisas of The American Prospect at Blogging Heads TV. (Yes, I am a nerd and a geek.)

Yglesias' reply to Douthat's argument in favor of using zoning and other regulations to encourage marriage, at least when there are children involved, was "I think that's kind of crazy," as well as "creepy and weird." While he agreed that there are "real externalities" (more on that in moment) associated with the decision to marry or not marry, the "quintessentially personal" nature of this decision makes these kinds of efforts seem especially obtrusive. The idea of a zoning board influencing people's decision to get married was, in Yglesias' opinion, "bizarre."

He's right: it is bizarre. He was also right when he pointed out that the "real issue" is the "erosion of a set of social norms" that would make laws like Black Jack's unnecessary. In the absence of a broad social consensus, enforced through stigma, that people with children should be married, all we're left with is legal "harassment" and coercion.

Without this social consensus, this kind of coercion can only be justified with appeals to the "externalities" of the "quintessentially personal" decisions that Yglesias, whom I often agree with in matters not related to religion, culture or baseball, speaks of. ("Externalities" is what economists call "the effect of a transaction between two parties on a third party who is not involved in the carrying out of that transaction." The quintessential example of an externality is pollution.)

The problem with this appeal to "externalities" is that the impact of any one "personal" decision to forego marriage is practically imperceptible. For instance, Loving's and Shelltrack's children may experience no negative consequences from their parents' "quintessentially personal" decision. It's only in the aggregate that the impact is felt. (A society where foregoing marriage is more common will experience more of the negative consequences I listed above.) Thus, any specific appeal to personal autonomy in matters of marriage and family will likely trump an appeal to some abstract larger good. Or, to put it in Star Trek-speak, "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."

That bring us back to the question I began with: whose marriage is it anyway? For nearly all of human experience the answer has been "in a real sense, it's everybody's." (I say "experience" and not "history" because in many parts of the world, this viewpoint still holds sway. For instance, arranged marriages are still common in places like India and Pakistan, and not just among the rural poor. Three years ago, Sabaa Saleem, an intern at the Washington Post, wrote about how her parents would select her husband for her, a process she expected to be complete by the time she graduated from UCLA.) The "boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; and, boy and girl get married (or not) irrespective of other people's wishes or even opinions" is a very recent innovation.

In the more communal view of marriage, marriage was certainly personal. After all, the spouses are the ones trying to make their union as happy and fruitful as possible. What it wasn't was individualistic, that is, it didn't take place in a cultural and/or social vacuum. Our marriages (or lack thereof) were more than simply an expression of mutual affection. In that sense, they were other people's business.

To be honest, this communal idea of marriage was sometimes abused. Jane Austen wrote about the terrible "impolitic cruelty ... of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other" for ignoble reasons. And Thackeray mocked the way that the Victorian upper classes bought and sold each other's daughters as if they were cattle at an auction. There's no shortage of other examples from other cultures of how downplaying the obvious personal dimension of marriage resulted in "impolitic cruelty" and unnecessary suffering.

The problem is that, as often happens, we have swung too far in the opposite direction. Our understandable and rightful reaction to past abuses has led us to think about marriage and family in almost completely individualistic terms. We've come to think of marriage as a largely private "transaction," albeit with undeniable "externalities."

That leaves us unable to meaningfully affirm what we know is true: people with children should get married and stay married or that success or failure of our marriages affect more than the couple. This individualistic view of marriage also means that people who do marry can expect less support from a larger community. After all, "my marriage is no one's business but my own" cuts both ways.

Do I expect this cultural take on marriage to change? In a word: no. The modern view of marriage is inextricably intertwined with modern ideas about the self and its relationship to others that, as sociologist James Davison Hunter has written, have been in place for going on a century.

What I do expect, or at least hope, is that Christians might avoid falling prey to these ideas. Christian teachings about marriage, whether it's marriage as sacrament — as Catholics like Douthat and me believe — and/or marriage as covenant, a binding commitment before witnesses, who in turn pledge to support the couple in their commitment, are antithetical to modern individualistic ideas about marriage. While Christians may not be able to change how their contemporaries answer the seldom-asked, yet important, question, they should at least be able to answer the question correctly for themselves.

Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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