Thursday, 27 December 2018

Three Marriages

Marriage is an important idea to many people. Whether as a matter of recognition of commitment, and the importance of equal access to legal recognition, or as a vital spiritual experience, it is important. Even for those who reject the concept, it is important in that rejection. One must acknowledge that there are some who consider it an utterly irrelevant idea, but that does not alter the fact it is important to others.
What is marriage, though? It has so many interconnected ideas, so much history – indeed, so much divergent history – and so much individual interpretation, that it is hard to form a coherent and consistent idea of marriage.
It has struck me, however, that there are three basic elements or dimensions to marriage. In fact, while these three do relate to one another and impact one another, they may also each stand entirely on their own. As such, we might consider them independent sorts of marriage, though in many marriages all three will be present.
(I should say at this point that many may consider a fourth element of marriage, the physical. While this is a vitally important element to many marriages, and a very important part of life for many people, I do not consider it a fundamental component of marriage. I am aware that canon law and/or doctrine of many Christian churches would disagree with me on that, at least as a one-off – as is the law of England and Wales if you wish a marriage to be recognised by the state, provided you are an opposite-sex couple.)
The first of these marriages can be the most practically important, and the one which the state has power of – legal marriage. This is that element of marriage which is recognised by the state, with possible implications for inheritance, taxation, property, adoption, and child-rearing, depending on what country you are in (and likely other impacts, either more rarely or less often of great importance). Legal marriage is important when it comes to the law, including dealing with governments other than our own – it often has an impact on immigration. It's also important to individuals because, if any relationships are to be recognised by the state, many people want theirs to be one of them. No-one wants to be excluded from such an institution by anything other than their own preference or conscience.
The second might be seen as the most important in a religious context such as this – religious marriage. This is the element of marriage recognised or sanctioned by a faith community, or otherwise conducted in accordance with the traditions or principles of the participants' faith(s). Those most sceptical about religion may consider it a purely social aspect, that one is simply satisfying the social expectation of a particular religious group – and religion may be seen as a social phenomenon. To me, it is more than that, though I struggle to say how. It is the recognition of a spiritual dimension of marriage, whether you see that as a solemn commitment before God, the joining of souls, or many other ways of putting it. Perhaps this can even exist without formal recognition.
The third, however, is the one that is the most visible and important in one's day to day life – social marriage. This is social in the sense that is to do with how people interact, both within the marriage and between the parties and others; it is also social in the sense that it has to do with the expectations and norms of society. However, this should not be confused with the sense the phrase “social marriage” is used in some other contexts; it has some meaning that I have not entirely been able to understand in India, and in the western English-speaking world it appears to mean a marriage that has become non-physical. This is about living life together, sharing the joys and sorrows, sharing tasks and supporting one another through life.
A legal marriage may exist without the others where all that is sought is the legal distinction, though even a marriage of convenience may have some external elements of the social marriage, and may be conducted in religious fashion in order to bolster its status and recognition. A religious marriage might exist without the others in the case of faiths that do not recognise civil divorce, where the marriage may continue to subsist sacramentally even where it does not exist in law and the couple are separated. Social marriage exists quite frequently without the other elements, as long-term cohabitation becomes more common in the global economic north. All sorts of combinations exist, and even where a marriage has all three components, the balance of those components varies.
Marriage is complex. I cannot say, and would closely examine any leading that seemed to suggest I should say, what a marriage “should” look like. But all these three elements are important to marriage as a concept.
Written December 2018
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