For some time now, there has been a trend to take perfectly good words and tweak them into meaning something subtly, if not completely different. This has been a matter of some distress to those who are fond of the terms that have been tweaked. With the definition altered, it actually becomes difficult to express the original meaning of the term. This has certainly been the case with the word “marriage.” The meaning of marriage has been shifting for 50 years at least, to the point that it has apparently become necessary to flee to courts and ballot boxes, in order to conscript the statutory system itself as a kind of Académie française on marriage.
I don’t particularly blame the homosexual community, although there is a tendency there to steal words and make them their own. (A gay divorcée means something entirely different from what it meant when Ginger Rogers was one with Fred Astaire, and “camp” has come to mean something very different from the silliness and joy that goes on at camp meeting revival.) I suppose that, when you are creating a new culture from whole cloth, based on no commonality other than similarly unconstrained sexual urges, you’ve got to grab what words you can.
No, long before we had “homosexual marriage,” we had “open marriage” and “marriage of convenience,” and (good heavens!) “amicable” and “no-fault” divorce. But for the longest time, these other kinds of marriages were considered aberrations, and the stuff of dynasties and patriarchy was looked on as the real deal. No more! The culture is shifting, and I foresee a day not long off when, government regulation notwithstanding, the colloquial idea of marriage will be nothing more than a collection of persons who are known to have sexual relations with one another, and sign each other’s insurance documents.
I think that’s a great loss. It’s almost certainly a loss to the culture at large, but without a doubt it is a loss to those of us who still live according to the old ways. The relationship that I have with my wife is something very different from any kind of sexual union defined by the pleasures and benefits that accrue to “I, the undersigned.” Stiff financial penalties and the promise of endless heartache could not have kept me from marrying her. Nor did we agree to create a new way of living, just the two of us. Instead, we took on roles and responsibilities handed down from the foundations of history. As a husband I lead, provide, and protect. As a wife, she submits, nurtures, and supports. In private times, she calls me ‘lord’ (as Sarah did her husband), and twists my heart with a glance. I guard her from all the troubles of the world, and she guards me from all the troubles of my heart. The commitment is for a lifetime, and is regulated by laws far stronger than human government.
I submit that marriage in many minds has already been redefined, that the paragraph above is strange and frightening, perhaps offensive, to a vast number of people in the western world. THAT is what used to be called a marriage, but now it hasn’t got a name, because marriage means so many other things.
So here’s what I propose: I don’t want to give up on marriage yet, but these mindless modifiers have got to stop.
“Are you married?”
It isn’t clear enough, and doesn’t have the moral heft it needs. After all, marriage is the stuff of civilization. So I propose we merely use the terms “husband and wife” as often as possible.
“Hey, I got married last week, husband and wife!”
This has several advantages, the first of which is that it’s clear, because “husband and wife” refers to specific roles. A homosexual marriage could be “man and man” or “woman and woman”; it could even be “dom and sub,” but never “husband and wife.” Witness the Massachusetts marriage application. You will see “Subject A” and “Subject B”, but never husband and wife. Another advantage is that it has these nice churchy, Shakespearean undertones, which will of course, be avoided by people who don’t want to sound churchy or traditional. The third advantage is that it fits naturally into conversation in such a way as to hang on to the “M” word, but without sounding too awfully awkward.
But it’s really more than that. “Husband and wife” is the pronouncement that they make when the wedding ceremony is over, or maybe “Man and wife.” In other words, “husband and wife” already means marriage. When I say that I’m married, husband and wife, I’m not selecting one out of an array of types of marriage. I’m repeating myself, like a man with an ontological stutter. Every time I say “man and wife,” everybody knows I mean marriage, and nothing else, and yet, saying those words is somehow also an assertion that marriage means man and wife, and nothing else.