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Marriage as a 'social institution'

By Eric Porter - posted Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Supporters of same-sex marriage campaign for "equal love". This means that, according to some unspecified social benchmarks, homosexual love is of the same status as heterosexual love. If all love is "equal", then all couples should be treated the same, regardless of sexual orientation. Extending marriage to include homosexual relationships is taken as recognition of this equality, confirmation that same-sex love is accepted by society broadly. By implication, those who reject same-sex marriage must have a low opinion of same-sex love, regarding it as unworthy of the exulted status of marriage.

Is this true? Do opponents view same-sex love in this way? Do they think of marriage as proof the love between two people is of a certain standard? Probably not. For most, I would venture, marriage itself is not measure of the quality of love. Think of all those marriages that end in divorce and mutual loathing; or all those who tie the knot without adequate knowledge or understanding of their partner. Equally, most would find quite unintelligible the notion that the quality or worth of love can be judged according to someone's sexual orientation. As supporters of same-sex marriage say, "love is love".

Paradoxically, while this slogan explains in part the success of the campaign for same-sex marriage, it actually undermines the campaign's credibility. A lot of people seem to think that if two people love each other, why shouldn't they marry? However, if it is possible to agree "love is love" but then reject same-sex marriage, then the rejection must be based on something else. So, even if "love is love" and, hence, all love is equal, there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, differences that can make opposition to same-sex marriage quite rational and even quite compelling. It also means that rejecting same-sex marriage is not ipso facto an insult to same-sex love.


We have all heard the phrase, "marriage is a social institution", but what does it mean? First, it means that marriage is public and not private. In the west, it is commonly viewed as a public affirmation of love. While this is generally true, it really is only a statement about the wedding ceremony, not the institution of marriage itself. On the wedding day, friends and relatives usually gather to celebrate. However, the point is, all marriages are public even if the only people present at the wedding are the couple, the celebrant and two witnesses.

There are two ways that marriage is public. Firstly, it is a legal contract between two people. This is not a private arrangement negotiated on terms simply expressing the interests of the parties involved. The terms of the marriage contract are already specified in advance according to the law. For instance, the law stipulates, among other things, restrictions on the age of the parties, their biological relationship, who can be a celebrant or a witness, things that invalidate a marriage and so on. The parties must provide evidence of their current conjugal status, lodge a Notice of Intended Marriage with the celebrant in advance and sign a certificate of marriage immediately the ceremony ends.

Now while all these legal specification are culturally contingent, they do demonstrate just how seriously the state takes marriage. It sets up laws to define and support marriage and to specify what is required to dissolve a marriage. And it keeps a close eye on who marries. Not only must celebrants notify the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages within fourteen days but the ABS is obliged to keep statistics on how many people are marrying and how often, and how many end in divorce.

The question is why? Why does the state take marriage so seriously? If marriage is only about love, why doesn't the state take a similar interest when people fall in love, registering every boyfriend or girlfriend and perhaps even documenting those whose love remains unrequited? Every one of these relationships could be defined at law and registered centrally so the government could oversee and regulate the terms and distribution of love in the community. And then perhaps, if that love passed some test of "authenticity" and was recognised as "worthy" then those involved, whoever they are, could be "rewarded" with marriage.

Clearly love is an emotion and thus private, not public. Individuals can attest to the depth of their love but there is no way to verify this independently. We observe their behaviour and infer how they feel but they might be pretending – and sometimes they are! Neither can we be certain that they mean the same thing as we do by the word "love". I can love my partner, my parents and siblings, my children, my cat and ice cream – it really is a slippery term with many possibilities.

In this sense, love is not essential to marriage. The Marriage Act actually makes no mention of it. Indeed, if marriage were simply about love, it would render all the legal infrastructure redundant. While love certainly enhances marriage, it still isn't essential. By way of analogy, eating a meal with friends or having a gourmet chef do the cooking can greatly enhance the experience but neither is essential to eating. Love really enriches marriage but is not essential. In western culture, it's the preferred means for deciding who marries whom. But marriage itself has its own logic, an existence and rationale separate from love.


So why is the state interested in marriage but not every manifestation of "love"? Answering that question brings us to the second meaning of the phrase "marriage is a social institution". The state is interested in marriage, not because "love is love", but because it provides the nucleus of the family. Thus marriage is a social institution because it serves an important public social function. Despite all the major social changes of the last fifty years or so, the family remains the absolute bedrock of society as it has throughout history. Without the family, society has no future because the family is the institution reserved specifically for the purpose of reproduction. Marriage and family are intrinsically related.

Here we are talking about an ideal. In reality, marriages can go stale and break down, families can fail to live up to their potential and the individuals involved can end up miserable and financially ruined. No one can guarantee marriage will work as intended any more than they can guarantee a car will work every time they turn the key. But that does not detract from the value of the ideal. The state has set aside marriage to serve this vital social function and thus has an interest in having it work. An ideal sets a standard, something to aspire to and seek to realise. It is like a blueprint which embodies the intent behind a design. As such, it is the blueprint or ideal that should be defended.

Because marriage provides the nucleus of the family, it is linked inextricably to reproduction. Reproduction has two aspects: one biological, the other social. The latter is called "socialisation", meaning the process whereby moral norms and cultural practices are passed from one generation to the next. Socialisation means teaching a child to be an adult. Ideally socialisation and biological reproduction are kept united. There are good reasons for this. A mother in particular has a unique relationship with her child that can provide the best foundation for socialisation. Equally, making men accountable for the upbringing of their progeny also helps restrain them, tying their personal sexual urges to public social responsibility.

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About the Author

Eric Porter is an historian who until recently taught politics and political economy at RMIT.

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