Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Few ceremonies are as confused as marriage.  Let’s look at it in layers.

1.  The primal biological pair-bonding that is provably connected to genes.  The proof came from experimentation with the evolution and speciation of voles.  Meadow voles pair bond; their close cousins in the mountains do not.  The rest of their genetics is the same.  We know which gene flips the switch.  But it only turns on the sex for a short breeding season.  Humans are the only mammals always on.

In people, some are clearly pair-bonders and others are not.  The rest are mixed, dependent on conditions, or psychologically influenced.  Effective birth control has changed the terms of marriage and sex, both.  Until the pill, pregnancy and birth was a significant cause of death for women.  It still includes the possibility of postpartum depression, a serious derangement.  Once enforcers, now weakened, were the stigma of birth out of wedlock and the impossibility of identifying the father so that men could claim exoneration.

As far as ceremonies go, they are about courtship rather than consummation, driven by the need to choose the best partner from among the possibilities.  Dancing is the birds’ choice of indicator.  Some end up with a pair bond and some just “hook up” for the season and some are one-incident stands.   Many birds have been thought to pair-bond for life, but DNA studies prove that even in flock contexts and even if pair-bonding seems eternal, there are cheaters.  Cats can be fertilized by a sequence of males, only ovulating when coition begins.  One batch of kittens can have several different fathers.

In some insect pairings the ceremony is post-connubial.  Once fertilized, the female eats the male.  In fact, at the sub-mammal level (forgive the implication of mammal superiority) arrangements are so various, inventive and shocking that it’s best not to think about their practices in mammal terms.

2.  Marriage is always an economic relationship that once meant men were responsible for the support of a wife and children, as well as the provision of a home for them.  This is disrupted by war, drought or other crop failure, change in the nature of work, ease of evasion and disappearance from accountability, death, disease, drugs and disablement.  Sometimes temperament.  Catastrophic events like earthquake, volcano, tsunami.

Ideologies and emergencies push these terms around: child marriage, same-sex marriage, mass marriage, long-distance marriage, marriage by proxy.  They can be called weddings, but the real substance comes after that.  Certificates and registration are of two kinds:  those who give permission from the state to marry, and those that certify that the marriage took place.  The latter is what the clergy affirm.  Whether they approve is not documented.

3.  The institutions of state, county and town come into the issue because of collecting taxes from owned land, keeping legal records of responsibility, and providing oversight through laws against neglect, cruelty, health issues, and whatever other local culture demands, including inheritance and ownership.  Marriage and children loom large in the legalities of who can inherit, the terms of divorce, family violence, sexual practices including with those who can’t give voluntary consent or who give commercial consent or in the case of incest.

Getting the state involved, esp. when there are various jurisdictions involved, leads to problems.  For instance, if a Native American child is removed from his or her natural parents and then adopted by a non-tribal person, a practice commonly kept secret, is likely not to know about tribal privileges and income that are based on genetics.  It didn’t seem a problem at the time, but has become a hot problem now that tribes have communal incomes through casinos.  Conversely, some tribes will claim adopted children back, which can be very painful.

One of the means used to regulate marriage by the state is licensing, which usually means certification of freedom from disease, acknowledgement of extended family, no pre-existing marriages, and registration in a database.  Because all this is generally at a lower level than the state (but not always) what is legal in one place may be illegal in the next town over.  Reservations are sovereign jurisdictions in some ways and not in other ways.  They may contract out the functions of child and family services and generally accept state jurisdiction about marriage and divorce, but maybe not.  

Before marriage a prudent and cautious person should investigate.  Reservations often have many citizens who move out and return, raising questions about who has jurisdiction over some matters and considerable difficulty in finding registrations of documents.  In a time of much immigration between nations, this is even more problematic. People disappear and the terms of declaring them legally dead might be quite different in different places.

Because same sex marriage is not culturally or legally accepted in some places and confuses those regulations having to do with children, institutions have a major struggle figuring out legalities.  Generally, individual custom contracts about property ownership and custody of children can be employed instead of state boilerplate about the same matters, unless the criminal law addresses some practices.  And if the custom contract turns out to have no usefulness, falling back on the public template might not be comfortable.

As the significance of sex fades from the public standards, the influence of money increases.  Sequential marriages with an accumulation of children presents problems.  Wives sometimes contribute to the economics of the family, maybe within a family business or by bringing income or property.

But probably the biggest challenge to marriage licensing today is the ease with which people simply cohabit, sometimes in multiple households.  Partly this is related to economic patterns where men have lost ways to work but women have access to what used to be gender-assigned, like military service or highly educated professions.  

4.  The next most problematic force in these negotiations is the commercialization of emotion.  Partly this is done by mythologization of marriages through music and movies.  Partly it is through the juju of objects like diamonds and white dresses.

5.  THEN comes institutional religion, totally confusing everything.  With many immigrants entering the country, people moving around whole continents as they look for work, constant small wars messing up identities and families, all chance of consensus is challenged.

At one point decades ago, Margaret Mead, an anthropologist used to thinking in terms of various resourceful arrangements of people’s lives, suggested that marriage be understood as a two-tiered commitment, one to regulate ownership of money and land, etc., and agreed-upon relationship between two adult people who don’t wish to have children.  People have begun to do this already, platonic friends drawing up private contracts in order to buy a house together and the like.

The second kind of marriage license would actually be a parenting license, but persons wishing to share the raising of children of children would have to accept a marriage licence for a period of time to demonstrate a stable relationship.  This is already happening because of sequential marriage with children from different relationships.  I’ve attended weddings where the previous children had their own vows to take.  In a society as loose as ours, sometimes people raise left-behind children whose parents can’t or won’t raise them.  These situations are major challenges to judges who must use existing law to sort out what can or should be done.

It’s clear that responsible people can control their fertility to a major degree, that urban people who delay children and who have lived indulgent lives can become sterile, and that it’s impossible to suppress fertility in all unsuitable parents.  Children arrive in war, in madness, in addiction, and if it were not so, the species of “human” would have died out long ago.  

No one I know has proposed marriage for adolescents or any licensing of what are often intense relationships and surprise pregnancy.  In some countries a man takes a pre-sexual child as his wife and then finishes raising her with his family and his own children.  In some situations a man might marry a set of sisters or a woman might be seen as belonging to a set of brothers.  These ideas often come from the practicalities of hard lives.  

Even the Mormon multiple wife idea was devised in a time when a great number of women died in childbirth, so that other women would have to raise her children.  The Buffalo Plains Indian tribes allowed one woman to have a number of relationships when the warriors were killed often enough to leave her widowed with children.  They elevated the status of what we call aunts and uncles to surrogate parents for all their siblings’ children even when the biological parents were living.

As circumstances shift around the world, the law has a hard time keeping up and sometimes the institutional religious ideas even become ridiculous.  People as property, violence in relationships, management of children — all are necessary but unreliable.  One solution has been the fantasy that marriage is justified through biological, emotional, and spiritual forces that are expressed in a poetic ceremony called “wedding.”  It’s a lovely idea.  Sometimes it works.  But I refuse to perform wedding ceremonies as I did when serving communities.  I consider weddings to be theatre.

On the other hand, theatre and the sacred have always been wedded, even when institutions butt in.

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