Is there any adult ritual more maddening and yet more profound than marriage? I can think of none.
For most modern Americans, marriage is a voluntary rite of passage representing an extraordinary leap of faith and courage. Marriage binds a person to another in both an intimate and public contract loaded with obligations both moral and mundane – and fraught with as much promise of personal destruction as deeply satisfying joy.
Marriage can be both heaven and hell, and if you don’t understand that, you’ve never been married.
No one enters a first marriage fully cognizant of what they’re really doing; those of us who are old hands at this mysterious thing called marriage know that well.
How many of us have attended weddings and smiled at the couple getting married, sincerely wishing them joy and happiness while we were in our own personal marital agonies and praying for release? Yet none of us would ever dare stand up and shout to those beautiful lovers, “Run! Run like hell!”
Why is that?
It’s because there is something sublimely primal about the powerful need to couple. Even if we fail miserably at it, it’s in our nature to cheer on others.
We all know that anyone can copulate. Copulating is the easy part. Copulation has nothing to do with love, but coupling is all about love: Insane, crazy, lunatic love – and risk. Major, terrifying risk. Copulation can be eminently satisfying, comes with fewer risks and fewer obligations; it’s a temporary bivouac, a tent without stakes, an unanchored ship.
Coupling, however, is staking a claim, recording it, posting it and then working hard to mine nuggets of gold in the wilderness of human hope and folly – and maybe losing everything, including oneself, in the process.
One of the many hot-button issues in America today is who is entitled to stake that claim and mine for the gold of personal satisfaction.
That’s the bottom line in the debate about same-sex marriage: Who has the right to seek such joy and court such destruction, to stake claims and build homes out of the wilderness of our otherwise true isolation?
Who has the right to take such an emotional and life-changing risk?
Indeed, who has the right to forbid it?
At one time, Americans forbid miscegenation and criminalized interracial marriage. For some, miscegenation was said to be contrary to God’s laws; it was even likened to bestiality, called repugnant, depraved and declared anathema. We got over it, we grew up. We did what was right.
It is one of the many great absurdities of our time that some American religious leaders presume to possess the right to dictate the parameters of marriage. They have never possessed this authority in America; this authority is secular.
Americans, in their infinite wisdom, have never made an ability to procreate a condition of marriage; there is no law that people must prove fecundity to marry or stay married.
There is no law that people must pledge to bear and raise children for the survival of the species, produce workers and consumers for the economy or warriors for our defense. There is no law that a couple must be of a particular faith or no faith at all. Most of all, there is no law that people who choose to freely enter into this mysterious, magical and maddening contract need to have the approval of any religious authority.
Additionally, even when people do choose to be united in matrimony by a religious authority, that religious authority holds no legal jurisdiction over that union beyond that one-time ritual.
All of the rights and obligations conferred on married people are conferred by the state, and the marital contract is one that must be dissolved by a court to be binding.
When asked to produce proof of divorce, one offers a Divorce Decree issued by the court, not a letter from whomever may have officiated at the union.
This is true whether that marriage was performed in a church by a priest, under a canopy by a rabbi, on a cruise ship by a captain or by a justice of the peace in a chapel in Vegas. The law states marriage is a contract, not a sacrament or lifelong involuntary conscription.
The state terminates marriage, not the church.
It’s time to focus on the contractual aspects of marriage only, recognizing the only issue should be whether the parties are consensual adults.
Then let’s throw some rice, move on, and start solving some of our real problems.