The meaning of marriage

Marriage equality


The Government’s decision to bring forward legislation dealing with the wide variety of family relationships in modern Irish society in advance of the marriage equality referendum is to be welcomed. It demonstrates its recognition that in modern western society marriage and the formation of families with children are no longer the same thing.

This is a recent phenomenon. For much of human history marriage was fundamentally about regulating the procreation of children. With very few exceptions, it was the only acceptable role in life for adult women, and they were perceived as failures if they did not conceive. It provided a secure environment for the children born within marriage and ensured the transfer of property within the community and down the generations. For these reasons in many societies, including our own, arranged marriages were not uncommon. It is also the case that those children born outside marriage were stigmatised and discriminated against, along with their mothers. These priorities gave little emphasis to the quality of the relationship between the husband and wife, though undoubtedly in many marriages it was loving and close. It is not so long ago that rape within marriage was made a crime and that domestic violence became socially unacceptable. Women were expected to stay in abusive marriages “for the sake of the children”. Emotional warmth and personal fulfilment played little role in public discourse about marriage.

However, this has changed in western society in recent decades. Women’s economic independence meant marriage was a choice rather than the only possible escape from the parental home. The widespread availability of contraception decoupled sex from child-bearing, allowing people plan their families or to decide not to have children at all. Births outside marriage became widely accepted.

This has inevitably meant a redefinition of marriage. Without the element of compulsion implicit in its earlier manifestations, marriage is now perceived primarily as a public statement of personal commitment between two people who love each other. None questions the validity of marriage between people beyond their child-bearing years or who cannot, or do not wish to, have children.This concept of marriage as primarily a loving commitment between two adults has become widely accepted, though there has been little public discussion of the implications of such a societal shift. The vote on marriage equality will be a vote for or against recognising this new reality – marriage is no longer primarily about creating an environment for the rearing of children, though for many people it will do this; it is now about adults making a public statement of their commitment to each other, regardless of their sexual orientation.