Thursday, July 25, 2013

Marriage Under Reconstruction Part 2

Changing Marriage
Marriage under Reconstruction
Part 2

I left my previous post with a simple question: What can be done? Of course, the context matters. I’m writing about the reconstruction of marriage. So the expanded question becomes: What can be done about reconstructing marriage given its current status in western cultures?
I have some thoughts on what can be done.

Live your values

 People have changed the marriage construct by just living according to their values.

By successfully living as a single person, individuals documented that many people could live a fulfilled life outside of a marital relationship. That’s different for societies that held up marriage as The Way to live life. The change to the marriage construct is one of valuing. In a different way, some religious groups also valued single living as they encouraged some to enter a life of devoted service. Some Christians have interpreted what seem like unusual texts as evidence that being single was superior to marriage (Matthew 19: 10-12; 1 Corinthians 7: 10-16).

 People who live in unmarried relationships also influence the marriage construct by creating a socially accepted alternative. For some couples, cohabitation is a way of living. For others it is a transition between single living and marriage. A 2013 report from the U S Center for Diseases and Control Prevention (CDC) revealed that 48% of women cohabited with a partner in their first relationship compared to 23% whose first relationship was a marriage. There seems to be an educational factor. Cohabiting was more common (70%) among those with less than a high school education compared to 47% for those with a college degree. If the couple was engaged to marry when they lived together, their marriage was as likely to last at least 20 years as was the marriage for those who did not live together before marrying.

People who get divorce also live according to their values and influence the value of marriage within a culture. The divorce rate appears fairly stable with about half of first marriages ending in divorce. It does not seem to make much difference if you are a Christian or not when it comes to a divorce. The CDC report did offer interesting data for those interested in one religious dimension of how long a marriage lasts. The percentage of people whose marriage was likely to last at least 20 years was similar for Protestants (50%) and Catholics (53%). It was lower for those with no religion (43%) but highest for those from other religions (65%).

Be skeptical of simple poll research. In my view,
  the way people live out their relationships is a better indicator of their values than what they say.

Our social institutions have accommodated themselves to the reality of people lives. Governments have revised the questions they ask about relationships. Businesses offer benefits to domestic partners. Some governments changed their laws to care for the children born outside of marriage. Some churches welcome people who are living in ways other than as married couples.

  Every accommodation to support or not to support an alternative to marriage reflects a change in the valuing of the marriage construct.

Social activists work to define the marriage construct then take steps to promote laws that support their views. Laws come with penalties and incentives. The U S Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was one recent example of a major social act to define marriage for all U S Citizens. DOMA defined marriage as between one man and one woman. It had a negative impact on people in a same-sex marriage. The federal construct of marriage was different from the construct in the state of New York. As it turned out, the U.S. Supreme Court respected the state’s rights, and the woman who was to be harmed by a financial penalty related to differences in estate taxes for married and unmarried persons, was no longer harmed. I am not a lawyer but it seems to me that the 26 June, 2013 decision of the U. S. Supreme Court disallowed a particular marriage construct decided by the U. S. legislative and executive branch. Instead, the marriage construct defined by those in New York was supported. That New York construction of marriage allowed for same-sex marriages. The idea of a same-sex marriage as a marriage is a significant reconstruction of the marriage construct, which has only occurred within the past few years on a global basis.

When I thought about the U S Supreme court decision, I noticed that one vote made the difference. It seems to me, whatever way you conceptualize marriage, you could be the person in a given group who makes the difference in the reconstruction of marriage.

Other events are likely on the horizon. The popularity of TV shows about polygamy (e.g., Sister Wives starting a fourth season) has drawn attention to those living in multispouse relationships. Obviously, this bears some similarity to another traditional form of marriage throughout the ancient world and still a part of other cultures. The SCOTUS decision on DOMA did trigger warnings or celebrations related to the approval of plural marriage.

The recognition of cohabiting unions as marriages may become more common as those relationships increase in length and the couples increasingly interweave care of children and sharing of responsibilities. Despite the similarities of cohabiting relationships with common law marriages, there are important differences. Legal issues to be addressed and cohabiting couples should not assume common law marriage rules apply.

As noted previously, women and others worked for various changes in divorce laws, which indirectly changed the way society valued marriage. The previous restrictions on ending a marriage were removed in a matter of decades affording women and men various ways to end a marriage. In turn, some religious groups accommodated the societal changes as they became more and more responsive to the needs of those who were divorced and single as well as toward those who divorced and wished to remarry. Some Christian groups found their way around the adultery-only scriptures by annulling a first marriage. Annulment becomes a way for religious groups to reconstruct marriage.

Spiritual and Religious Individuals

Religious people not only change the valuing of the marriage construct but may also be involved in reconstructing marriage when their actions formally change the published statements of what constitutes a marriage within any particular religious denomination.

Some groups like the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) involved representatives from several religious denominations in their recent document, Theology of Sex, available on their website. The creation of such documents is a way to reconstruct marriage (or the sexual component of marriage) or reaffirm an existing construct. In the case of the NAE, they define Christian marriage for a large group of members. The same is true for documents explaining church teaching on marriage produced by Roman Catholics, which is the largest group of Christians on the planet.

Those who work in denomination-related relationship programs also work to restructure marriage. 
There are premarital counseling and marital counseling programs. The selection of existing programs or the creation of new programs inevitably defines the features of a marriage endorsed by that church or denomination. From a psychological perspective, the content of the program helps determine how much extrabiblical material the group believes they must add to the scriptural texts to have a viable program. In other words, a strictly fundamentalist group would presumably need nothing but scripture and sanctioned rituals like prayer. Those groups who go beyond the text would more likely fit an evangelical or progressive perspective. Such Christians allow varying degrees of human reason and science to inform what they do in these and other counseling or educational programs.

From an ethical perspective, the challenge for these religious-based programs is one of documenting effectiveness. It seems to be a reasonable assumption that groups would only offer a program that helped participants reach the published program goals and objectives. Participants invest their emotions, time, and in some cases finances, in these programs. Basic ethics suggests the programs should do no harm and should do some good. I have primarily focused on premarital counseling and related programs for heterosexual couples, or those going through divorce. But the recent apology by Alan Chambers of Exodus International to members of the LGBTQ community for problems they experienced in the Exodus program offers a challenge to all religious groups to evaluate the efficacy of their programs.

Whatever a religious group does for one group of individuals and does not do for another group demonstrates their commitment to the valuing of one form of relationship living over another. So observers can see how a church cares about singles, women, men, people who live together, married persons, engaged couples, divorced individuals, and members of the LGBTQ community by looking at the programs or ministries listed. How a religious group invests their resources in lives dictates how they are collectively reconstructing marriage and related lifestyles. It’s not just about published documents.

A final point. The way religious groups offer other services to the public also affects how they view members of society who may enter marriage or another relationship in the next several years. One example is the decision by churches hosting scouting groups. The Boy Scouts of America will permit gay youth to be members in January 2014. But gay men cannot be leaders. Some churches voiced continued support for scouting but others will no longer support BSA programs. How these religious decisions will influence the future relationships, including potential marriages, of the young men is obviously unknown.

If people want to redefine a religious group’s construct of marriage there is some evidence it can be done.

The most recent example comes from Christian congregations that changed their views on marriage by blessing or supporting marriages for same-sex couples. But most people are in heterosexual relationships so what can they do? Good question.

One answer by a well-known evangelical pastor, Rob Bell, offers a reconstruction for those living together. In his book, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, Bell discusses the unusual verses in Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 22 suggesting that when a man raped a woman he was to treat her as a wife. Sex appears to be a primary or even exclusive criterion of marriage in the ancient biblical world. Here’s a quote from page 130,
 “The point of the Deuteronomy and Exodus passages? Sex, in the ancient world, was marriage. If you had sex, you were married. All that needed to be worked out was the legal and financial consequences of what this man and this woman had just done.”
Bell also opines, “But maybe it’s already a marriage in God’s eyes, and maybe their having sex has already joined them as man and wife from God’s perspective. (p. 132)”

As with any such small quote from a book it’s important to read the author’s context. You will of course encounter various interpretations of these texts. My point is, religious leaders have defined and redefined marriage for millennia. And they continue to do so. Some churches invite the laity to participate in revisions of church policy or doctrine. Change is ongoing for at least some Christian groups.

I have more thoughts on reconstructing marriages. Future topics include:

  • Building healthy relationships—reconstructing real marriages- not just the social construct of marriage.
  • LOVE: Some thinking on a broad construct of love that includes psychological and spiritual dimensions. A way of getting beyond that sentimental-feeling-only type of love.

Most of the sources are in the article links.
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