A Victory For Marriage

There is a well-known fallacy in economics called the ‘lump of labor’ fallacy. This presumes that there is a fixed quantity of work to be done and that, therefore, any job held by an immigrant is one denied to a native citizen. In fact, the relationship between the number of jobs available and total size of population is much more complex. There is a similar fallacy in the culture wars, which we might call the ‘lump of marriages fallacy’, the notion that allowing gay people to marry somehow undermines the marriage of straight people. Straight married readers, be assured: gay people marrying will not require any of you to divorce.

But attitudes to marriage have changed dramatically over the last century or so. In a Sherlock Holmes story, a villain plans to marry a young heiress who is ignorant of her inheritance. Having failed to persuade her, he kidnaps her and forces her to marry him at gunpoint. Watson is devastated to arrive too late to prevent the tragedy, but Holmes reassures him that the priest has almost certainly been defrocked. The modern reader is baffled. Surely a priest so corrupt as to conduct a forced wedding would, if not already defrocked, have become so very rapidly? English law has never recognized forced marriages and nor would the church. But the villain had hoped that the young woman would be so sullied by the ‘marriage’ that she would be unable to find another husband and thus accept her fate.

This is not some peculiarity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Some decades later, a Dorothy L Sayers novel tells of young widow whose husband had been killed in the First World War. By the 1920s she is happily remarried with children. Then her first husband reappears. He had deserted from the army after swapping identification with a dead comrade. He blackmails the young couple, who then murder him and flee to a neighboring village where they marry each other again. Again, the modern reader cannot grasp the premise. With what could the deserter blackmail the couple? They married in good faith, committing no legal or moral offence. A modern couple would laugh at the blackmailer. They would be left with some inconvenient paperwork, whereas he was confessing to the capital offence of desertion.

But the couple felt deeply wronged, and believed their children were the victims of a dreadful stigma. This was a deep social attitude, quite independent of law or religion. No court or church would have condemned this good faith marriage, and the legal impediment could be quickly removed by reporting the deserter to the army, where he would face trial and execution.

That people no longer believe in this mystical element of marriage – stronger than law or God – is a fundamental shift. But it is unconnected with the campaigns of recent decades for the law to recognize same sex unions. There is no coherent case for suggesting that gay marriage undermines marriage between straight people.

While earlier attitudes to marriage – see Doyle and Sayers – were absurd, the tendency by some to regard marriage, even when there are young children involved, as disposable, is a regrettable trend. New York’s law is a victory for marriage in the face of this formidable challenge. On the defensive for years, marriage is now welcoming new supporters.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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