While we frequently think of marriage as the beginning of a relationship between two people who love each other, it is hard to deny to cold reality that marriage is an agreement to be contractually bound to one another. Love, honor and cherish sound romantic and sweet, but there's a reason in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part is in the vows. We are committing ourselves to an obligation that cannot be overruled by changing circumstances.
I think it's fair to say that divorce rates have sky-rocketed over the last few decades, not because people are less faithful than they were in the past, but because marriage has been understood as an arrangement purely for the sake of love. When those loving feelings disappear, then why continue to be married?
You can see this in the way popular culture portrays the weight of entering marriage. The doubts we hear voiced concern themselves with whether a person can love someone forever, or be sexually faithful to one person exclusively. Emotionally, that's important. Yet, that's not the real point of marriage.
The core of marriage is strengthened by the fact that a couple has legal and financial rights which are upheld by the legal system of a particular society. The protections not only guard the rights of the couple as a unit, but obligate the spouses to one another in the case of shared assets, inheritance rights, providing for future children and providing care for a spouse who has become disabled or ill.
In the past 40 years, divorce has become an economic luxury. Because women have gained more access to legal rights and economic opportunities, it has become easier for them to divorce without the fear of poverty or destitution. In the past, divorce was a huge financial risk for women. They had few options, especially if they had children.
The recent decline in divorces as the economy has soured backs up the notion of divorce as an economic luxury. People have been sticking it out, unable to divorce because of the financial strain.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the people who aren't divorcing are happy.
Then again, marriage isn't about happiness.....as any married couple can tell you.(cover your ears DH!)
I'm kidding...but only partly. Marriage isn't about "happiness". It's about choosing to build a life together. It's a partnership. It's having shared goals and using the commitment given to one another to reach those goals.
I have often wondered why people choose to live together for years, and yet never marry. They will share income, have kids, stay sexually faithful to their partners, but never quite pull the trigger on marriage. They'll say things like "it's just a piece of paper" when questioned, which gives the impression that they view themselves as being "married" in an emotional, love-oriented way.
But...they're not married. What's the difference? They haven't obligated themselves financially to one another. They can at any moment leave their partners with very few financial repercussions. A man or woman can decide after ten years to break up with their partner and sell a house which is solely in their name, leaving no recourse for their partner. They can take any assets they choose, unless the partner can prove they have some claim to the assets, a difficult thing to do when you have co-mingled your finances without being married.
When a couple is married, almost all assets are considered marital assets. Even a home in the name a single partner must be distributed equally, unless it can be proven that the home was owned free and clear before the marriage.
Marriage is much more than a piece of paper...it's a piece of paper with enormous power.
I wonder if we counseled more young couples on the economic commitments of marriage if we would do any better at preserving the seriousness of marriage. If we really want to see marriage strengthened, we would increase the benefits of being married, and lessen benefits extended to domestic, heterosexual partnerships.
If you want the government to bless your love union, then you should be expected to financially obligate yourself to preserving it. If marriage has a high cost associated with it, chances are that those entering into it will think twice before doing so recklessly, or divorcing so easily.
In some ways, granting Same-Sex Marriage may help turn the tide on divorce and co-habitation because all legal rights would be available to anyone who chooses to marry. Anyone choosing to simply co-habitate would have no case for claiming discrimination by health insurance companies or the government.