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Marriage Equality as a step on the road of reform, not a final destination

The discussion on gay marriage has been in the forefront of my little sphere of social media lately, especially with this case being in the news.

I've already been asked by one person why I haven't changed my facebook photo to the big red equal sign everyone in support of gay marriage is using for a public statement on the issue. I've already had to explain that it isn't because I don't support equal treatment of various partnerships. It's because I don't support "marriage" in the U.S. as it exists and is treated today, and I don't support federal use of the word marriage.

My argument for the latter:

The first amendment of the United States Constitution is often paraphrased with "separation of church and state." That's not what it says, but what it does say tells me that the state cannot use a religious term and dictate what it does or does not mean. The first half of the first sentence in the text of the first amendment is as follows:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

The meaning of this is that the government may neither force upon the populace a religious doctrine, nor force upon the church a secular doctrine. The government may not make a legal standard strictly dependent on a religious standard, and the government may not restrict the religious from adopting among themselves and adhering to a religious standard.

If our government is going to use and recognize a term to describe a legally binding agreement between adults to form an intimate partnership, application of the first amendment dictates that the term cannot 1) require the partners to adhere to religious doctrine in order to make the agreement, or 2) require the religious to admit into their existing definition of the term a status or standard which is contrary to their doctrines. Using the word marriage, the government would have to do one or the other.

I was unable to take a position on this until a few years ago, when I first heard suggestion that the term Civil Union be used for same sex partnerships. My first and consistent thought on this has been, why just same sex partnerships? The term has no religious connotations. Use of it would not inflict upon any group the religious subtext that goes with the term "marriage," which really doesn't cover open partnerships, same sex partnerships, polyamory, or any other arrangement which doesn't fit into the strict religious use of the word.

Government use of the term Civil Union for all legally bound intimate partnerships would not prevent people from calling their partnerships marriages. It wouldn't stop churches from having wedding ceremonies using the term "marriage" or its variants. It wouldn't stop communities from referring to partners as spouses, husbands, or wives. It wouldn't change what goes on in the home, in the workplace, among family members, among friends. It wouldn't stop religious partners from adhering to religious tenets related to their partnership.
It would only keep the citizens and our civil servants from having to choose between inflicting a religious standard on a government action (recognition of a legally binding agreement) or secularizing a religious term, and would therefore invalidate religious objection to inclusion of currently excluded groups from the access to government sanction for their partnerships.

I honestly do not understand why this has not been previously suggested at the state or federal level. It is such a simple solution to the debate: Because the objections to the use of "marriage" to describe same sex partnerships are religious, we should simply stop using religious terms to denote government recognition of any intimate partnership.

My argument against government-sanctioned, government regulated marriage in general, on the other hand, is a little more negative. I will start with the fact that yes, I am a married woman, and I am not going to give that up because of this argument. My husband and I have a great partnership because we put ourselves into it, and we put each other first. Our marriage isn't just about how we feel about each other. It's about having goals together, having a committed interest in each other's welfare, each other's success, each other's happiness, and each other's experiences, each of us having that relationship to the other as part of our accepted identity. We don't focus on fairness. We don't focus on 'what's in it for me.' We focus on enjoying our lives together.

That's not to say that we don't also have separate interests. We're still individuals, not joined at the hip. I'm a men's rights activist with libertarian leanings. He's not politically active at all, but he fully supports my interest in politics. He's a prolific artist and hobbyist, always working on interesting projects. I'm not generally involved in his creative endeavors, but I fully support his efforts. We take pride in our own accomplishments, and in each other's accomplishments. We have friends in common, and separate friends. Our separate interests do not take precedence over our home, our family, or any aspect of our connection with each other, and we do not allow any interest to jeopardize our connection to each other. There is nothing either of us can do or have that is worth inflicting hurt or even risking inflicting hurt on the other.

That's not a balance that just happens. We work for it. We sacrifice for it. Sometimes, we suffer for it. Sometimes, the effort required involves keeping our attention on a bigger goal than the immediately obvious one. When we do not agree on a topic or issue, discussion happens with a subtext. No matter what the argument may be, it's made with the fact in mind that each of us is talking to that person to whose welfare, success, happiness, and experiences we're committed, not an individual whose relationship to us is scant and shallow. When we talk to each other, we're applying a sculpting knife to the structure of our relationship, and we're mindful of that, taking care to continue to shape it for strength, endurance, intimacy, and (to us) beauty, and to not cut chunks from the supporting foundation, slice away the defining features, or tack on distracting, ruinous scraps.

Again, there is nothing either of us can ask or insist that is worth inflicting hurt or even risking inflicting hurt on the other. It doesn't mean we can't get frustrated or impatient during a disagreement. It means that feeling that way is not an excuse for either of us to lash out at the other. It means taking the time and making the effort to better communicate, and listen to each other, and arrive at an understanding even when we can't arrive at an agreement. And it means knowing and trusting in each others' strengths, and knowing and accepting our own weaknesses, so that we each know when to capitulate and fall back on the other's judgement, even if we feel adamant about the point. When issues come up that are deeper or broader than we're accustomed to confronting, and we have the occasional slip-up, we have to be ready to admit our roles in that. We each have to be able to admit, I screwed up. I was selfish, arrogant, careless, short-sighted... whatever lapse in effort and judgement led to the failure to adhere to the formula that has made our partnership last. And it can't be something only one partner does for the benefit of the other. We both have to be honest in our self-assessment for the benefit of the relationship. Nobody can always be right, and nobody can always be the one to compromise.

I will fully admit that we sometimes drive our circle of friends and family nuts. We're obnoxious. We finish each other's sentences. We flirt like we haven't been together all this time. We hold hands and kiss in public. We go on dates. We giggle at each other about inside jokes like teenagers. We razz each other like buddies. We get asked "How long have you guys been together?" and answer honestly, "not all that long... just fifteen years." It doesn't seem that long to us, especially when we have seen family celebrating 50th and even 75th anniversaries. It seems like an eternity from the outside, in today's 'disposable relationship' environment. 

Looking around, I don't see that level of effort in a lot of other marriages, or a lot of other relationships. My peers don't just discuss things with their partners and come to a conclusion or stasis; they fight. Often, partners end up fighting like siblings or even enemies, totally losing sight of their concern and consideration for each other during a conflict, lashing out like they're dealing with someone they do not love. Outside the home, they are focused on themselves; their careers, their hobbies, their political or religious interests, their outside relationships, their continued desirability. This leads to hurtful, selfish behavior that chips away at the foundation of their relationship with their partner, and pollutes the structure with extraneous factors. It is very common to see people put everything from their own interests before the unity of their partnership, and still expect the partnership to work. That's not productive, and it isn't ever going to be.

The people I see working hardest at their long-term partnerships, the ones whose focused, concerted efforts are on their partnerships and their families, are those whose relationships aren't taken for granted. Those who haven't had legal wedding ceremonies or whose relationships have been under attack, who have to fight back against a tide of disapproval or destructive effort, have had to do what we do. They've had to make their relationships their highest-rated personal interests. They've had to put up a partnered resistance to the potentially damaging effects of outside influences. They've had to accept compromise, to rely on each other, to refine themselves in terms of their ability to team up, and to assert their unity upon an environment which is continually assailing it with toxic elements. That environment breaks relationships like a ship slammed against a rocky shore when the partners involved do not maintain a level of commitment to each other that is sufficient to resist the natural opposing forces life presents. It strengthens relationships when the partners involved determine to be that committed and follow through with that determination.

Too often, people treat the marriage ceremony as the conclusion to a journey instead of a step into the next phase of it. They get on the boat, but don't expect it to ever sail on rough waters or through rough weather, or they expect to be able to sail it in separate directions, and they end up fighting over the helm. When they hit those rough times, they fail to work together to stay afloat, and they end up shipwrecked, clinging to the flotsam and jetsam of their shattered partnership, plunged into the icy and shark-infested waters of government sanctioned, government regulated divorce.

Government involvement seems to reduce everything it touches, bringing the standard down to the lowest, the laziest, the least considered, the least attended. The more involved the law becomes in an institution or aspect of human behavior, the more easily decayed and corrupted that aspect becomes. The problems that cause this are fairly simple; the larger the group to which a set of standards and conditions must be applied, the less likely those standards and conditions will be to fit everyone in the group, and the more likely it is that some within that group will evade or seek to avoid those standards and conditions. The larger the area over which an authority has power and responsibility, the easier and more tempting it is to abuse that power and neglect that responsibility, especially when social conditions and standards contribute to a lack of oversight where that authority is concerned, as is the case with government interaction in domestic relations. Abuse of such systems becomes easier and more tempting as they are more broadly applied and shallowly overseen.

The family court system in the United States is nothing short of a massive, community-encompassing train wreck, the fallout from which has impacted upon everything from individual family relationships to society as a whole. It is the executing agent of our society's greatest disaster outside of war, having destroyed from the inside some aspects of the strength and unity of our nation's populace. It has enabled and encouraged animosity between political groups, social groups, the genders, the sexualities, and the religious vs the secular. It incentivizes surrender in the face of adversity by paying a segment of the relationship's partnership to quit and move on, regardless of the value in the relationship, and the result has been a generation to generation decline in the structure of the family such that it has become more 'normal' to have a broken family than a united family, as  individuals within the population are no longer conditioned to cooperate and collaborate on achieving and maintaining united relationships. That entire system really needs to be dismantled, laid bare, and disempowered to make room for a more functional, less intrusive, less imposing system, but chances are that is not going to happen until we reach such a state of crisis that the mishandling of domestic partnerships and family law can no longer be ignored by the general public.

While this doesn't lead me to advocate treating same sex partnerships and other ways of life differently in terms of acceptance and acknowledgement, or in terms of the law, it is reason for concern over the potential consequences of inflicting upon these communities the conditions that come with government involvement in their relationships. Not that these relationships should ever be considered less valid, less deserving of recognition and rights, less committed, or less serious... I simply fear that expanding the current government handling of family relationships without addressing the problems inherent in the system will have more of a destructive effect than a benevolent one.

I believe that the effort to reform the government's involvement in human relationships needs to include both goals; the push to eliminate prejudice against relationships which do not fall into the currently accepted, religiously dictated standard for government acknowledgement, and the push to stem the tide of government poisoning of the spirit of human partnerships with incentives to eschew commitment and embrace conflict. I don't want to see the horrors of modern American divorce court inflicted upon those families within the currently excluded communities which remain strong through the long haul. I want to see the return of healthy functionality to modern American relationships brought in with the reform that eliminates their exclusion from social acceptance.

I support partnership equality, but I do not support polluting the currently excluded communities with the straight community's existing dysfunction. Reform of the government's recognition of and involvement in citizens' intimate partnerships absolutely needs to happen. But please, do not for a moment think that expanding the current model to include currently excluded communities is the solution. While expansion of legal acknowledgement and protection of partner relationships is a step that needs taken, it's vital to the welfare of American society that we don't treat it as a final step.

We will still have a long way to go.

This is the 21st century. We should already be past the point of arguing whether that step needs taken or not. It's time to get over our ridiculous, puerile arguments over religious opinion vs social behavior, accept the antiquity of the current system, and redefine government involvement in intimate partnerships in terms of civil law rather than religious doctrine: Adopt "Civil Union" as the government term for recognition of an intimate partnership, and eliminate religious criteria as required conditions for recognition. Create a standard set of conditions applicable to a civil union, and make allowances for variations on those conditions as long as those variations are put into writing and accepted by the involved partners. Stipulate that unless otherwise specified in writing by the involved partners, the contract qualifies them as partners for any benefits or conditions which apply to family units, such as joint financial status, insurance status, responsibility for the family's care of involved minors, ownership, control, and inheritance of property, and involvement in the medical care of one's partner (such as right of visitation and ability to authorize emergency care). Set up basic default standards for areas which can lead to legal dispute, and let individual families decide whether to alter these stipulations for their specific agreements, and how other aspects of their partnership are to be handled.

Once that step is out of the way, we as a society can begin working toward minimizing government involvement in and influence upon intimate partnerships, so that its destructive influence may be diminished and contained. Until we are able to acknowledge that we must do that, striving for "marriage equality" will only mean dragging currently excluded partnerships out into the storm with the rest of us, rather than pulling them under an umbrella of benevolence and protection.

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