Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical
Sense of Life

by Joseph Rowlands

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
— Benjamin Franklin

Ask someone what they want in life. They might say a job that they enjoy. They might say success in their endeavors. They might say they want friendship and material comfort. And of course, they might say they want marriage.

The last one's a little funny, of course. After all, a marriage is defined as: "The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife." Do people mean that they want to be legally bound to someone else's life? Some perverse form of security where they don't care whom they're bound to, as long as they’re bound to someone and someone is bound to them?

Well, hopefully not. You can imagine most people who want to get married in the abstract are imagining something in particular. They don't just want to be legally bound to someone. They want to live happily ever after with someone. They're looking for someone to share their burdens and accomplishments. Someone to count on, and someone who will count on them in return. Someone to share life's journey with. A partner in living.

The word "marriage" denotes two very different things. The first is a legal status. The second is a relationship. The legal status is supposed to be a means to promote the relationship. It provides a legal foundation that allows the relationship to proceed where it would normally be difficult. It allows for joint ownership of property. It specifies a beneficiary in case of the death of one of the two members. It can provide terms of separation in the case of divorce. Etc.

Very few people get married for the legal status itself. Sure, some people may pay less in taxes. Others can get citizenship. But when someone says, "I wish I were married," they're probably not talking about any of that. They're talking about having a meaningful, lasting relationship.

So marriage has a static and dynamic meaning. The static meaning of marriage is just the legal state. If you don't get a divorce, no matter how bad the relationship is, you're still married. The dynamic meaning of marriage is the actual relationship a couple has. Do they like each other? Do they enjoy doing things together? Are they at ease when in the other's presence? Do they have the same or compatible goals and dreams?

This is true of any kind of relationship. A relationship is the way in which two people interact. It's how they cooperate on things. It's what they think of each other. It's the kinds of things they do together. Any label you add to a relationship, like boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife, is not the relationship between the two people. It's just a title. It's a convenient way of describing it, and it may have implications or expectations associated with it. But it's supposed to be secondary to the actual relationship.

Now let's define a term: equivocation — the use of expressions susceptible of a double signification, with a purpose to mislead.

Many people equivocate on the use of the term "marriage." They talk as if marriage were a value (the dynamic meaning), and then they go on and say that you shouldn't get a divorce (the static meaning). They lose sight of the actual value in the relationship, and just focus on maintaining the technical status. The state of being married becomes the primary goal. The title becomes more important than the substance.

This is why you hear the phrase, "making the marriage work." The goal is to avoid divorce. It usually involves learning to live with the other person. You learn to accept your lot in life, and doggedly continue the path that you're on. The marriage becomes a desperate attempt to avoid divorce, no matter the cost.

So the equivocation comes in the form of declaring marriage a value (i.e., the relationship), and that's why you should never end the marriage (i.e., the state). They bounce between them fluidly, as if they were the same thing, and that merely having a ring on your finger means that you're in love. Want an example?

A headline on Jan 14, 2004 on yahoo.com/news: "Bush to Promote Marriage in $1.5 Billion Plan, Report Says." The story says that Bush plans on spending this ungodly amount of money to provide couples with "training." Details are lacking, but it'll probably be voluntary. And that means the people signing up are those who think their "relationship is having problems." Yes, 1.5 billion dollars in marriage counseling.

Forget that there is no clause in the Constitution mandating federal involvement in "making things work." Instead, I want to focus on one small little detail. You see, this 1.5 billion dollars is supposed to "promote marriage."

Which meaning of the term do you think applies here? Do you think this money is going to be used to help people have a more fulfilling relationship? Or do you think it's going into marriage counseling, where the goal is to make the marriage bearable so that they don't get a divorce? Conservatives hate divorce, and see it as a social ill that needs to be cured. They see it as ending perfectly good marriages. So spending obscene amounts of money to try to convince people to live their lives in suffering and torment is perfectly consistent with their views. I'm reminded of the conservative position on euthanasia, where religious leaders claim that suffering is our moral duty. See the parallels? Unnecessary pain, and conservatives preaching that you shouldn't be allowed to have a quick end to it.

But if you see divorce as the cure to a bad marriage, the divorce rate can only be seen in a positive light. It's the divorce that's setting people free, and allowing them to refocus their energies on living their own lives and acquiring their own happiness. Sure, it's pathetic that so many marriages end in divorce, but it's not the divorces that are the problem. It's the marriages! "Making the marriage work" is just an attempt to evade the problem, instead of taking responsibility for it. It's an excuse to ignore the fact that they made a mistake in the first place. But the cost of that evasion is their freedom and happiness.

Marriage is not a value in itself. Some relationships can be valuable, but there are no guarantees. And giving it a label certainly won't magically make it better. In fact, often a label can improperly shift focus away from what's really important. In that case, you end up going through the motions, but they lose all meaning. No, if you want to be happy, or you want to have a positive relationship with someone, then those must be your goals. As soon as you feel they need to be sacrificed for their symbols, you'll be left with nothing.

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