A good marriage is one which allows for change and growth in the individuals and in the way they express their love.
Pearl S. Buck
What are we to make of the word marriage? Its history shows us a pageant of many different meanings over the centuries, and that's just in the Western world. Marriage was seen as an individual matter, a partnership, a family affair, a way to control property or a means to establish alliances between countries. It often gave a man control over his wife and children and served practical purposes. Romance entered the scene only over the last century or so. Depending on who was in charge, marriage was sometimes held to be a lifelong commitment or easily dissolved, usually by the husband.
Currently in the United States, marriage means a civil contract between two people conveying certain rights and responsibilities. Most religions maintain that marriage was ordained by God as a sacramental union bestowed on one man and one woman rather than by society. Some churches have expanded their view to include gay marriages.
Governments and religions have their own rules about how to begin, conduct and end a marriage and what happens afterward. So how do we untangle these intertwined and contradictory views of marriage? It's not just words which confuse matters. Emotions and money further confound our attempts to sort out the issues.
Taking all this into consideration, it seems clear to me that marriage has no fixed meaning but has evolved for better or worse over the centuries. The current controversy over gay marriage reminds us that marriage is still evolving.
Marriage clearly means something different to governments and to churches. In the United States there appears to be general agreement that a marriage should be between two people although lately not as much agreement about whether the two people must be of different genders.
Governments and churches often disagree about whether divorce should be allowed, how difficult it should be to obtain and what happens to rights and responsibilities (children, money and possessions) after divorce. Civil laws about such matters differ among individual states and rules also differ among the various religions. Although the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, it does allow a marriage to be annulled as if it never took place if a spouse can establish an impediment to a marriage being considered valid in the first place.
It doesn't seem very likely to me that all these competing views will ever be reconciled to the satisfaction of governments and their citizens or religions and their adherents any time soon. I wonder whether the word marriage may have outlived its usefulness. Could we reach a mutually agreeable solution by finding new names for what society defines as civil marriage under its laws and what religions define as marriage in terms of their beliefs? Stay tuned to the rumblings of society.
Life Lab Lessons
· What does marriage mean to you?
· How would you feel about new terms for the various forms of what we call marriage?
· Do you think marriage should be a lifetime commitment?
· What would lower the divorce rate?
· How does gay marriage affect your view of marriage on the whole?
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