Wow. There has been a LOT of talk about marriage lately. Between the Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage* and the rush of summer wedding ceremonies*, it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s someone loudly declaring their belief in the divine/magical relationship that is the union of marriage. And so I feel compelled, once again, to remind us all: Marriage is a human relationship–nothing more, nothing less.
(Throughout this post, I linked to several of my past pieces, in addition to a few outside references. You can click those links if you’d like elaboration on a specific point.)
Usually, the rhetoric exalting marriage to a supernatural level comes from people with whom I share Christian belief. It never crossed my mind I would hear similar rhetoric from a Supreme Court justice. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes (emphasis added):
“From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”
To paraphrase: According to Justice Kennedy, being married grants you dignity, fulfillment, higher status of personhood, and the launching pad to your hopes and dreams.
I hope that statement sounds just as ridiculous to people who are married as it does to people who are not married (and all of the people who don’t fit in those two narrow categories). Marriage gives many things, but if you enter marriage expecting to find fulfillment, you will be sorely disappointed. Even what marriage can give is neither guaranteed nor exclusive. Not everyone will find comfort and companionship in marriage, and other relationships can be equally gratifying and shaping.
Justice Kennedy’s statement is also terribly demeaning to anyone who is not married (for example, people who are single, divorced, and widowed). I’m not going to get into that here, but I highly recommend you read Michael Cobb’s excellent op-ed, The Supreme Court’s Lonely Hearts Club.
Maybe Justice Kennedy got his strange superhuman view of the marriage relationship from attending too many weddings. Although, he would probably only have needed to attend one wedding to get the idea that not only is marriage the best thing that can happen to a person, it’s the primary way we find fulfillment in life. It may not have even mattered whether the one he attended was religious or secular.
Below, I create a wedding homily from memory as a combination of several ceremonies. While it’s my own creation, it’s not remotely an exaggeration. I’m aiming somewhere in the middle of religious vs. secular with this example, but you can easily use your imagination to make this more secular (insert fate/destiny) or more religious (God/Gospel).
“Today we are here to witness _____ and _____ as they join to become one. Their entire lives have led to this moment, and the rest of their lives flow from this moment. They now enter into this blessed, historic union, through which they will abandon selfishness to be able to know and show the selfless love unique to the marriage relationship. Let us hope and pray that through their bond, they will raise up their children so that they, too, may one day stand before their friends and family to declare their undying love.”
This kind of rhetoric flies in the face of my deepest beliefs about what it means to be human and what it means to be a Christian. As I explained in this post, Me & Marriage: A Summarizing Statement, everything I write is founded on two beliefs:
- Every person has the same intrinsic worth and value.
- As Christians, our central call comes from the two greatest commandments (love God and love neighbor).
In contrast, ideas so often promulgated in marriage ceremonies assert that you and your spouse are the only significant person in each other’s lives (or, at least, the most significant), and the point of your life is to be married to them. The corollary to those ideas–that you are not called to be loving towards anyone else, that you are not called to any other purpose–is devastating.
These ideas are not only devastating to people outside of a particular marriage relationship, they are devastating to the marriage relationship itself. No human relationship has the kind of power that Justice Kennedy or wedding officiants believe that it does. Wanting it to have that kind of power builds expectations that will never be met, which not only breeds anxiety and resentment, but prevents couples from loving each other (and themselves) as they truly are and from addressing real issues.
Relationships can be beautiful and wonderful and live-giving. Relationships can also be ugly and terrible and suffocating. Most relationships are a mixture of both extremes.
But they’re all relationships. Relationships between humans. Nothing less, nothing more.