Who Defines Marriage?

The government? Or the people?

One day, we got a letter from the Social Security Administration addressed to my wife's maiden name.  I called and found out that although we had told them of our marriage decades ago, their records had been altered at some unknown time and the feds thought we weren't married.

Some people were bothered that I'd admit that the feds believed that my wife and I were living together without benefit of clergy.  This would only concern someone who believes that government decides whether people are married or not.  I've seen enough government mistakes that it made no difference to me that the government did not regard us as married.

On the other hand, our government offers benefits to married people such as higher taxes for filing joint returns.  Since my wife might someday want to collect her widow's mite from Social Security, I asked the simplest way to correct their files.

They told me that they were used to late filers but that correcting their records was so difficult that it was effectively impossible.  The simplest fix was to pretend we'd never told them, get a new copy of our marriage license, and start over, which we did.  The feds now officially recognize that we're married.

This got me thinking.  Who defines whether someone's married or not?  Is that a government function?  The government defines who's eligible for rewards such as widows' pensions, but who defines marriage?

There are three choices:

  • Marriage is an inherent human right.  If any two people claim to be married, government must recognize their marriage regardless of other people's opinion.
  • Marriage is a right, but it must be regulated in the long-term interest of society.  Government wants children to be born healthy, so it should forbid close relatives and people with genetic defects from marrying and may impose conditions such as health checks and blood tests before granting people the right to marry.
  • Marriage is a privilege; government defines marriage as it defines incorporation.  People who want to be married must meet any and all government conditions before and after marrying.

Government doesn't issue licenses to have children, although the Medical Journal of Australia advocates a tax on parents when they have a child.  At least for now, when a child is born, government is required to issue a birth certificate.  A birth certificate is not permission, it's recognition of something that happened without government permission.

Incorporation, on the other hand, is completely up to the government.  A certificate of incorporation is not recognition that someone wanted to form a corporation, it's recognition that someone met all the government conditions and was given permission to form a corporation.

Is marriage like birth or like incorporation?

Linking Fathers to Children

The ways in which men and women relate are deeply embedded in every culture.  Given their druthers, most men would rather wander from woman to woman than settle down with one woman.

Women figured this out a long time ago.  Men are generally bigger and stronger than women and tend to take charge in most cultures, but women have a great deal of influence over time.  In order to cope with men's tendency to wander, women formed a cartel in that women agreed that a woman shouldn't have sex with a man unless he married her.  They also got behind customs which were designed to encourage men to stick around.

Historically, marriage had three purposes:

  • Make sure there that someone would feed the woman and her children.
  • Make sure that some man would connect each child to society.
  • Establish alliances between families, tribes, and groups.  Sharing grandchildren often brought people together.

The purpose of stigmatizing bastardy and of many other social pressures to marry was to overcome the fact that most men would rather wander than settle.  Marriage has gone out of style to some degree, but feminist opinion to the contrary, being associated with a father benefits a child:

In all human societies, the father is regarded by tradition as indispensable ... no child should be brought into the world without a man--and one man at that--assuming the role of sociological father, that is, guardian and protector, the male link between the child and the rest of the community.

- Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski quoted in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Family and Nation, (San Diego CA: Harcourt Brace, 1986) pp. 169-170.

Senator Moynihan was vilified for "blaming the victim" when he pointed out that too many black babies were born out of wedlock, but his concerns were valid.  As more and more children lack strong ties to fathers, rates of juvenile delinquency, child abuse, and other social pathologies have increased.

There's no debate about live-in fathers being a stabilizing influence on children.  Any society should try to support fatherhood, but our society is deliberately undermining any and all ties between fathers and their children:

  • Courts have ruled that a woman can have an abortion without asking the father.  If a man has no say in whether his child lives or dies, why should he care for it if it should happen to be born?
  • If a man and woman live together, he gets "creature comforts" at no cost, especially if she's liberated enough to pay her share of the rent.  She can stop taking pills without telling him and tag him for child support, but if he marries her, she can walk out at any time and hit him for alimony and child support.  What sensible man would marry?

Confucius pointed out millennia ago that strong nations are built on strong families.  Men don't seem to be naturally inclined to assume responsibility for taking care of children; sensible nations have laws and customs to urge men to form families.

Our nation is tearing down longstanding laws and customs that were designed to induce a man to help raise his children.  We see the results in family court, in the juvenile justice system, and in sensible women realizing that they can't count on a husband's help and deciding not to marry at all.

As Senator Moynihan pointed out, if families fall, the nation won't be far behind.

In the past, the answer to the question "Who defines marriage" was simple - women defined marriage by insisting that men marry them before having sex.  Who did all the wandering in Homer's Odyssey - Odysseus or his wife Penelope?  He did the wandering, she stayed home; it appears that many men would rather wander than settle down.  Based on historical records, men don't  appear to have been particularly interested in marriage and modern dating patterns suggest that modern men are no different.

Most of the impetus behind men's desire to marry was that women got together and formed the equivalent of a closed shop - no sex without marriage.  There were always exceptions, but women who were the arbiters of acceptable social behavior made it clear that only bad girls had sex outside marriage.

They wouldn't accept a bad woman into society even if she persuaded a man to marry her.  Lady Hamilton was never accepted into society despite her close but illicit relationship with Admiral Nelson, a genuine military hero, for example.  Call this snobbery if you will, but it served women's interests by giving men a reason to marry and settle down.

The agreement among women not to have sex without marriage has broken down in recent years.  The incentives to marry aren't as strong as they were.

What's worse, changes in our laws have given men strong reasons not to marry.  In an article "Modern Witch Hunt--Child Abuse Charges," the Wall Street Journal of 4/15/93 pointed out that federal reimbursement money makes it profitable for state agencies to bring false abuse charges against parents.

This happened to a friend of mine when his mother-in-law got mad at him and called the social workers.  Even though the abuse charges were obviously spurious, he spent three times his annual income on legal fees fighting to get his children back, the state agency collected federal subsidies for having snatched the children the whole time, and his marriage was badly damaged.

Back in June of 1992, Playboy magazine published an article "Presumed Guilty" on p. 74.  The article pointed out that being accused of sexual abuse of children was tantamount to being convicted and that such charges could ruin a man's career.  The article showed how easy it is to nail a man for sexual abuse:

Almost always, you find kids who are three or four years old.  The two year olds are no good because they can't speak well enough and are totally unreliable in what they do say.  The five- and six-year-olds are already old enough to say `He didn't do that, lady, and nothing you say is going to convince me.'  But threes and fours are perfect.  After they've been worked over by a parent or zealous validator, they can be counted on because they believe it [the abuse charges] and will testify accordingly.

Without any legal penalty for making false charges, a wife who wanted to get sole custody of her children during a divorce action could accuse husband of abusing their children without fear of any penalty.  The child protection agency would back her claim in order to pump up their statistics for uncovering abuse and help justify a bigger budget next year.

With the up-side of marriage reduced by the general availability of sex partners and the huge, longstanding penalties for being associated with children when things go really sour, is it any surprise that men are less eager to marry?

What do Women Want?

This essay is the introduction to a series of articles about the way couples conduct their relationships in modern society.  It's pretty clear that women aren't happy with the way things are working out.  Since it was women who defined and enforced traditional marriage and it was women who changed their behavior to weaken traditional customs and render marriage unnecessary, the series is titled "What Do Women Want?"

The first article explores what women want from their lives and identifies the ways in which things can go wrong.  Most of the difficulties in relationships have simple causes, but since most men and women think with their hormones instead of using their brains to think about why things happen, they keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

One definition of insanity is to do the same thing over again and expect the result to be different.  If you aren't happy with the way your friends' relationships are working out, maybe you should try something different.  The series ends with a formula how you can avoid a great deal of unhappiness in relationships.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Interesting article, Will. However, I think you may overestimate the role of women in the rise of monogamy. Monogamy is actually critical to the rise of a civilized society, to wit: without monogamy a few of the most powerful men would be able to monopolize the majority of desirable women. The rest of the men would have to either pick up the least desirable women, or simply go without.

We see the effects of this in societies that tolerate polygyny (one man with multiple women, not necessarily married). The Muslim societies of the Middle East (not all, of course, but those that tolerate polygyny) allow for this, and we see the disaster that it gives rise to. Men who are politically or economically powerful can monopolize all the women. Thus, the young, disenfranchised men are left not only socially disaffected, but also sexually frustrated. As a result, they're ripe fodder for the kinds of mass movements we've seen prey on them throughout history, and easily become converts to whatever mob mentality is waiting for them in that society. Moreover, radical Islam is a particularly interesting case because we see that the promise for these young men is not just a self-justification from a moral standpoint, but also the sexual gratification that they're being systematically denied: in other words, the 72 virgins.

In a society that encourages monogamy, you have far fewer sexually frustrated young men, even if they're disaffected, simply because there are more women available. Even more importantly, the men who are sexually frustrated are less "quality" than they would be in a polygynous society because the higher quality men are capable of getting women.

Anyway, I think my larger point is that monogamy is good for society -- the story of Western societies is one of relatively strict monogamy. Whether or not this is brought about by an unconscious compact among women, by the same kind of thing among men, or by cultural evolution is a larger question, but we cannot deny that cultures that have favored polygamy and polygyny have not been as successful as those that have encouraged monogamy.
March 4, 2008 6:44 PM
RE: "women formed a cartel in that women agreed that a woman shouldn't have sex with a man unless he married her"

I don't there was any active conscious to do such. My guess is that women are born wanting, on some level, to be monogamous where men do not. Because women lacked the strength, individually and collectively, to enforce what their preference was for the first several millenia, men got their preference. When societies began sharing more power between men and women, women's preferences came forward. And we have them to thank for that. As Bastiat pointed out, those societies have flourished.
March 4, 2008 6:51 PM
You fail to mention paternity fraud and the irrefutable presumption of paternity in marriage.

Overall, your article is nice, but already an antique. Over 46% of mothers in America are single mothers. Only an idiot male would get married in states such as California, or Massachusetts, and the courts are already focused on family diversity over the traditional family. Traditional marriage is long gone in America.
March 7, 2008 12:24 AM
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