Friday, March 22, 2013

Manners and Mysteries of Marriage

Next week is a big week for marriage.  The Supreme Court will be reviewing same-sex marriage laws for the first time ever and its ultimate decision on these issues could be as influential as Roe v. Wade has been to the abortion (and anti-abortion) rights movements.  Tuesday's question is whether California may define marriage as only between a man and a woman (Prop 8), and Wednesday's arguments will focus on whether DOMA (already declared unconst by Obama - can he do that?) can deny benefits to married gay and lesbian couples that are a right of heterosexual married couples.  As gay marriage is one of the most politically charged issues of our day, often debated in terms of religion and social custom, I think we have to ask, what is marriage really

At a recent wedding I attended, the pastor gave a beautiful homily on the definition of marriage.  I believe borrowing from a female writer Flannery O'Connor, the pastor talked about marriage as a combination of mystery and manners.  The mystery, as I interpret it, helps define the abstract fundamentals of marriage.  Marriage is, fundamentally, a promise.  It's a promise to live life as a unit, take care of one another always, and share in life's inevitable joy, disappointment, sadness and triumph.  Being able to keep that promise and endure in a such a way that each person is able to experience overall happiness is somewhat of a mystery.  After all, you aren't happy every single day, people evolve, and you have no idea what's coming at you 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road.  But we keep faith in the mystery.  No one, Supreme Court or otherwise, can dictate who we share that with.  It is intimate, intangible and a couple's journey to take alone. 

But there are many tangibles that breathe life into a marriage.  Manners that serve the mystery.  They are the everyday things like starting the car for your wife so it's warm by the time she gets in it, packing your husband's lunch, and saying I love you (or something ridiculous like me and mine do) before you leave the house.   There is calling each other husband and wife to other people (seems small, but there's something so meaningful about that, isn't there?).  There are also the legal ramifications that have long-lasting impacts on your life.  Perhaps sharing a last name, making financial decisions that bind the unit, having or adopting children together.  Or being able to cover your spouse on your insurance, spend the night w/ your spouse if he/she is in the hospital, and be assured you won't lose your house or children if your spouse dies.  No matter how long you date your sig other before you get married (and I dated mine for a LONG time), there is a distinct and wonderful shift that occurs once you say "I do."  I no longer believe in the, "we're basically married" concept.  You either are, or you are not, I think in large part because of all of the tangible rights marriage affords you and how those rights change the shape of your relationship.

A friend of mine getting married next month told me that she was most excited about the "little" things like being able to file a joint tax return and merging bank accounts.  Another two engaged friends are technically getting married in court well before their actual ceremonial weddings so their parents will be comfortable with them living together during their engagements.  But these things are not little, they are not technicalities.  These are just a few of the rights afforded to married couples so they can make joint decisions, and take care of each other and their children in life and after one passes on.  They allow couples to truly live a unified life, to fully trust in the mystery that otherwise binds them.  They are what gay rights activitists are fighting so hard for because getting married is much more than making a simple promise.  You need manners to keep it.