Wars of the Ring


The familiar way of marriage as a 'bridge' between a man and woman is now the focus of intense legal scrutiny and controversy. An inevitable 'war of the ring' has been looming on the horizon for the last decade. Now the war has broken out; and those committed to the heterosexuality of the marriage bond appear to be confused, ill-prepared, and in retreat.

Reforming or Demolishing Marriage

In recent years there have been public advocates, even academics, willing to argue the case for marriage. But, for some reason, they have been fearful of exploring and putting forward strong arguments in defense of the precious heterosexual fabric of marriage. In the current cultural atmosphere such arguments seem offensive.

At the same time, those intent on demolishing the heterosexual definition of marriage have been busy arming themselves to the teeth with legal, historical, philosophical, psychological, theological, and emotive arguments.

And now, in Canada, as the battle is fully engaged, the well-armed are proving victorious. To the surprise and dismay of some, Canadian courts have been rising up to hammer marriage with the judicial gavel of "sexual orientation rights" and to demolish the definition of marriage as a "union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others." In Canada, the future of marriage as a heterosexual institution seems to be teetering on a precipice.

In the past two months both the Ontario and the Quebec Superior Courts have decided that the definition of marriage as a heterosexual form of life violates the fundamental rights of same-sex couples who wish to be married. The Ontario judges agreed with the gay and lesbian petitioners that the restriction of marriage to sex-inclusive unions is unjust since "'marriage' represents society's highest acceptance of the self-worth and the wholeness of a couple's relationship, and thus touches their sense of human dignity at its core."

The Hallmark sentiments that guided the Ontario decision seem almost disingenuous. They skew and distort contemporary cultural developments. Despite occasional spikes upwards, the so-called dignity and status of marriage has been steadily declining and its future seems uncertain. Fewer and fewer young people are marrying. Marriages are less stable. The internal meaning of marriage has been changing. It has been thinned out to a good committed close relationship.

Historically marriage earned public reverence and dignity because it had specific substance. It represented a decisive 'dedication' or covenant that bridged the sex divide. It earned respect because it involved, in Chesterton's words, real fidelity and demanding duties. The marriage vow was a public commitment to a dedicated and difficult monogamous journey. The vows publicly embraced the future suffering and sacrifices necessary to sustain this bond. The vows committed the couple to a resilient and stable form of life to meet the unique challenges of heterosexual bonding, procreation and child rearing. (Chesterton, 228-29)

But marriage has been subject to a considerable amount of legal and political manhandling over the past few decades: the establishment of no-fault divorce, the disconnect between marriage and procreation, the blurring of distinctions between marriage and cohabitation, liberalized abortion laws, and major reconfigurations of parent/child relationships.

These developments have had a considerable impact upon marriage. Since the 1950s divorce rates have soared, marriage rates have declined, birth rates have plummeted, cohabitation rates have increased, out of wedlock births have climbed, fewer and fewer children are reared from birth to adulthood by their biological parents, and there is a relentless movement to shift the nurturing of the critical stage of early childhood to agencies outside of the home.

In a sense, at each stage of the cultural debate a central pillar of the historic form of marriage has come under assault. Divorce reforms challenged the permanence of marriage, sexual liberation loosened the reigns of fidelity, abortion and contraception broke the connection between marriage and procreation, the push for career-centered marriages diminished the child-rearing functions of marriage.

The depth of the erosion of marriage is dramatically illustrated by the demographic shifts that have taken place in the province of Quebec over the last few decades. In the 1950s close to 100% of Quebecers were married by the age of 50. Today only 33% get married, nevertheless divorce rates are still spectacularly high. Close to 60% of all children are now born outside of wedlock. Our birth rates have dropped from one of the highest in the Western world in the 1930s to the lowest. The vast majority of children (67%) will grow up without one of their parents for some significant period of time. The erosion of long-term conjugal bonding has been deep and this has had a profound impact on spouses as well as children. Quebec family policy has collapsed into a one-dimensional strategy: a 1.5 billion dollar government investment in day-care.

And now we have reached the next frontier in the marriage debate. Same-sex advocates would like to see heterosexuality deleted from the definition of marriage. Legal cases challenging the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage are now in Canadian courts. The Law Commission of Canada is proposing the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions. The Quebec government moved quickly to establish a parallel conjugal institution ('civil unions') that offers a 'matrimonial' relationship for same-sex couples that is identical to that of "marriage."

At each stage of our so-called marriage reforms, the experts have assured us that the changes will not affect marriage in any significant way. In the early years of the divorce debate, experts argued that legal reform would not actually increase divorce rates, it would only facilitate the process of dissolution for couples already on route to divorce. They were wrong. The cultural erosion of conjugal permanence proved to be quite profound and divorce rates rose far beyond anyone's expectations. The same story holds true for the disconnect between procreation and marriage, the transformation of child-rearing, and the expansion of single parenthood and cohabitation.

Over the last few decades the critical institutional bedposts of marriage have been loosened in order to accommodate adults who felt imposed upon by the constrictions of marriage, but still wanted to be married. Now heterosexuality itself is found to be too constricting for some, so once again we are being urged to hit the delete button. Once again, experts are arguing that the reform of marriage to include same-sex couples will not affect marriage in any major way. It is simply a small "add on." It will be, in effect, an expansion of marriage allowing more people to be involved in this venerable institution It will make no real difference for heterosexual couples; it will just help a few gay and lesbian folk. Heterosexual married folk will plod along as always. But will they?

Advocates of reform claim that these changes will expand marriage and broaden its appeal by creating a one-shoe-fits-all-sizes relationship. Yet, ironically, the reforms seem only to be diminishing not enhancing the meaning and significance of marriage. Marriage is less attractive. Fewer people are marrying, more people are divorcing, rates of cohabitation and single-parenthood are rising. Our new and improved versions of marriage seem to be less marketable, more prone to break-down, and less durable than the older clunkier models in vogue until the early 1960s.

Why have the experts been so wrong at each stage of our evolving cultural debate over marriage? Perhaps their basic premise is flawed. Reforms are predicated on making marriage more user-friendly, more tailored to the needs and wants of self-interested adults. The hard vows of the past have been transformed into sentimental exchanges of mutual affection. The cultural message embedded in these new developments is clear. Marriage has no essential relationship to long-term heterosexual bonding and children. Marriage is reduced to a cluster of extra perks and benefits for adults who happen to be in consensual sexual laisons. Marriage is reduced to public applause and legal approval for couples that can sustain a 'sexual relationship' for a few years.

Creating the New Marriage Market

In June 2002 Quebec's Civil Unions legislation, Bill 84, received unanimous approval by the Quebec National Assembly. The advent of government approved 'civil unions' inaugurates a new stage in the social evolution of Quebec. Civil unions are identical to marriage. They are performed by the same officials authorized to celebrate marriages. The rights and obligations of civil unions are the same as marriage, including full parental rights, rights to adoption and access to reproductive technologies. The fundamental difference between marriage and civil unions is that this new matrimonial institution is open to same-sex as well as heterosexual couples.

Professor Christopher Gray, an expert in legal theory, has pointed to a number of constitutional problems involved with this legislation. Minister Paul Bégin admitted that he would have preferred simply to have changed the definition of marriage in order to allow for "same-sex marriage." However, he was stymied by the fact that the definition of marriage lies within federal jurisdiction. He decided to swerve around this little constitutional obstacle with a little word play and stamped his newly created "same-sex marriage" with the "civil unions" label. This end-run around federal jurisdiction should raise some constitutional eyebrows.

Furthermore, civil unions will be an anomalous category for the rest of Canada. It will only be recognized in Quebec. Therefore, an individual can enter into a civil union in Quebec and then leave Quebec to marry another individual in Ontario. Since Quebec is required to recognize valid marriages in other provincial jurisdictions, individuals will be able to maneuver themselves into a legally recognized form of bigamy. However, in the broad scheme of things, these constitutional and legal problems are not the most significant dimensions of this new development.

Civil unions or domestic partnerships are clearly courting society into same-sex marriage. This is evident in recent decision by the Quebec Superior Court in favor of same-sex marriage. Justice Louise Lemelin correctly pointed out that the difference between marriage and civil unions is a difference "in name only." Justice Lemelin concluded that it made no sense to deny gay couples the "name" if they already have the substance of marriage.

And so we press on towards same-sex marriage. The conventional wisdom consoles us with the assurance that this "legal recognition for same-sex couples takes nothing away from "traditional marriage" (Andrea Zanin, president of Gay Line, Chronicles, May 29, 2002). But is this true? 'Civil unions' and their natural descendent, same-sex marriage, create a new 'marriage market' that may prove to be a more significant development than our current experts suspect.

During the hearings and debates on Quebec's civil unions legislation the most vocal and engaged participants were lesbian activists, not gays. In part, this is due to the fact that the social ramifications of civil unions are far more dramatic for lesbians than for gays. No doubt some gays will enter into civil unions. However, the likelihood of any major "marriage movement" among gays is slim. On the other hand, women, as child bearers, are much more serious folk when it comes to questions of parenting. The advent of a new type of conjugal union that supports a critical dimension of their lives and their bodies will get serious consideration.

In pure sociological terms lesbian parenting will have a lot going for it. Sociobiologists tell us that women instinctively look for strong mates capable of providing and protecting during the critical years of child bearing and child rearing. Now that the vital role of men in the reproductive process can be shrugged aside with the advent of sperm banks, there is no essential biological reason to "mate" men.

Recent reforms to the Quebec Civil Code have prepared the way for lesbian parenting by downplaying the role of the biological father. The biological father is now legally defined as the mere contributor of "genetic material." Initially these reforms aimed at shoring up the parental status of husbands who struggled with problems of fertility. Revised regulations were aimed at giving fuller recognition to the paternal status of a husband when his wife was forced to turn to assisted reproduction in order to conceive children

However, with Bill 84 the world of parenting suddenly changes. A whole new category, lesbian parenting, appears on the family map. With the arrival of this new category the provisions for assisted reproduction now assume a dramatically different significance. In the world of lesbian parenting, "the exception," assisted reproduction, now becomes the "rule". The male component of parenting disappears completely. The only legal significance of men for lesbian parents is their insignificant technical status as suppliers of "genetic material." Children are denied access to this "supplier." Quebec law stipulates that the male source of this "genetic material" must be concealed thus prohibiting children from knowing their "biological father." All of this is deemed to be in the "best interests of children."

And now these fatherless same-sex unions will receive full public support and recognition as equally viable conjugal options. This is bound to change the "marriage market." Experts tell us that women are more hard-headed and practical when it comes to mate selection. In the new marriage market, other women may prove to be better mating options on a variety of counts. Women are becoming exceptionally good providers. Indeed in this latest generation of young adults, far more women are attending university than men. Women are less prone to disease, alcoholism, and suicide. They live longer and demonstrate better child rearing capabilities. Furthermore, there is the problem of irresponsible males and the endless conflicts associated with relationships that try to bridge the male-female divide. Men are greater risks to both women and children. They are more prone to violence and abuse. For all these reasons, a good "career woman" may prove to be a much more attractive mating choice for another woman than the hazards associated with conjugal relationships with males.

With this legislation the fabric of the parental nest has been redesigned for future generations of spouses and children. In this world, the status of men as "fathers" of their biological sons and daughters dissipates into the thin irrelevant dust of "genetic material". The real potential for growth will be the free-standing lesbian family now freed of any paternal element shored up by formal public approbation and support.

There are good reasons to conclude that the civil unions arrangement may put Quebec on a path that will foster a growing sexual apartheid between men and women. Arguably, the wheels have already been in motion for some decades with the rise of single mothering. The civil unions legislation offers a huge encouragement to this development. The government approved same-sex union transforms the marriage market. Men will now have to compete against better-educated attractive women in the search for long-term spouses. On the other hand, an enthusiastic gay community will be raising the inevitable question, 'why bother?'. Gay lifestyles can offer an option more tailored to a freewheeling male sexuality unfettered by paternal obligations. Prominent sexual theorists such as Jeffrey Weeks and Kenneth Plummer maintain that our sexual desires and orientations are, in large part, socially constructed. If this is so then there is no good reason why our culture couldn't be nudged and tweaked towards a future where same-sex unions gradually occupy more and more space on our social map.

In short, there are a whole set of difficult questions that have been begged in current debates. Will publicly approved same-sex unions change the demographics of the marriage market? Will men and women begin to cluster and gravitate into separate sexual spheres? Will the industry of assisted reproduction have to be cranked up and subsidized by government? There are good reasons to suspect that this type of social evolution will be the inevitable outcome of these new reforms in social policy.

Our political elites assure us that government approved same-sex unions won't affect very much; they will just make it easier for same-sex couples to live out their lives. But we all know the value of political assurances. But each time politicians have tinkered with marriage the experts have promised us that the impact would be minimal. They comfort us with the hope that heterosexual bonding is too tough, too pervasive, too biologically entrenched to be affected by these political interventions. They have been consistently wrong.

Are we losing something of significance in this social shuffle? One of the critical and unique social functions of marriage has been to provide a form of life that bridges the sexual divide between men and women. Marriage sets in motion a deep and permanent sexual bond between one man and one woman. It is a life-long, complex, intimate, cohabitational, day-to-day, bonding of two sex-opposite lives. Marriage is tailored to the complex challenges and struggles of long-term heterosexual bonding and rearing of biological offspring.

Heterosexual bonding is a massive fact of human sexual ecology. It has unique struggles and needs. Men and women can never really know each other's sexuality. We can only encounter it. Heterosexual acts are unique types of sexual acts. Despite the striking differences between these two distinct sexualities, nevertheless they have the remarkable ability of uniting and bearing offspring through the fusion of our genetic identities. Heterosexual acts generate heterosexual procreation. Heterosexual marriage weaves men, women and offspring together into thick and complex genealogical histories and kinship ties.

Social policy is transforming marriage by making it genealogically thinner, more sexually uniform (male-male, female-female), and more tailored to the immediate needs and interests of consenting adults. Our latest academic fashions seem oblivious to the critical role of marriage as a unique form of life serving the struggles and challenges of heterosexual bonding. Quebec political leaders are now celebrating their wonderful accomplishment in bringing about the advent of these new government approved same-sex unions. Minister Bégin shed big happy tears at his press conference announcing the reforms. Our legislators and jurists want to use marriage to demonstrate their generous patronage, to sprinkle the nice Hallmark sentiments of 'marriage culture' all around, to have their names linked to some significant legal 'reform' of marriage. In the current political context, the unique social sexual ecology of heterosexual bonding sparks no serious discussion. Our political and academic elites seem quite willing to let heterosexual marriage continue its steep social decline.

The Poverty of Discourse on Marriage

In a recent symposium at McGill University (Wars of the Ring: Revisioning Marriage in Postmodern Culture, March 22-23) academics and public policy experts from very diverse perspectives shared a common concern that something is missing in our discourse on marriage both in popular culture and academic theory. We now seem to be at a loss in effectively articulating the distinctiveness and significance of marriage as a unique social frame that serves the world of heterosexual love, bonding, procreation, and family.

The recent Report of the Law Commission of Canada on Close Personal Adult Relationships to the Canadian Parliament is a striking symptom of this problem. The Law Commission proposes a complete restructuring of Canadian law on the basis of a recently developed model of human relationships known as "close personal relationship theory". This theory originated in American academic circles during the late 1970s and early 80s. It argues that all intimate relationships between two persons, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are basically cut from the same cloth. They operate according to the same dynamics and meet similar needs, therefore they should be treated the same in law. This flatfooted academic argument runs roughshod over any distinction between homosexual and heterosexual bonding in its effort to create a one-shoe-fits-all-sizes category. It demolishes any meaningful recognition of difference. Legal experts have now come up with the bright idea of completely restructuring Canadian law and marriage on the basis of this skewed academic theory of human relationships.

Our social and legal theorists are now applying very narrow and distorting conceptual frameworks such as "close relationship theory" and "social constructivism" to the discussion of marriage and sexual intimacy. These mind-sets simply do not do justice to, or make sense of, the deep social ecology of male/female bonding. They do not, and probably cannot, explain the role of marriage as a unique cultural context for the multi-layered dimensions of heterosexual bonding.

The most bizarre thing is that Canadians are being asked, once again, to tamper with the core bonds of marriage in order to reconfigure marriage to fit the narrow conceptual frameworks now popular in current intellectual circles. The shoe should be on the other foot. Canadians should be demanding that our social policy experts and legal theorists go back to the drawing board and do their homework. They need to develop language and concepts strong enough, and rich enough, to begin to get at the significance of marriage; not to deconstruct marriage in order to fit into the crippled and one-dimensional views of human relationships that happen to be in intellectual fashion.

At each stage of the "reforms" to marriage and family life the communities and individuals sympathetic to the core bonds that sustain marriage were typically disorganized and confused. There were vague warnings about potential problems accompanied by pleas to stick with the tried and true. The response was tentative, frustrated, poorly argued, and poorly communicated. There was no real investment in the debate and little in the way of consolidated intellectual effort. This embarrassing performance left the field clear for advocates of reform who had done their homework to press forward.

In North America one of the few articulate pro-marriage positions to be put forward has been the "case for marriage" argument. Over the past ten years a number of prominent social scientists have come to the defense of marriage arguing that it scores better on a whole set of statistical indicators such as relationship stability, emotional well-being, health, longevity, and financial success. The 'case for marriage' argument attempts to provide a more robust account of the "perks and benefits" of marriage. However, this line of argument does not offer any coherent defense of the heterosexuality of marriage. In fact, the 'case for marriage' argument provides additional ammunition for same-sex advocates who wish to document the substantive benefits denied to homosexual couples by their exclusion from marriage.

Should liberals and conservatives who share a visceral sense of the importance of marriage be concerned about this latest stage of debate? Should they work to resist the same-sex reconfiguration of marriage? Will this 'reform' really make much of a difference to them? Contemporary sexual theorists, including gay and lesbian theorists, suggest that it probably will. Current theory maintains that human sexual identity is formed by social relationships and interactions. (Padgug 1999; Simon and Gagnon 1999; Weeks 1984; McWhorter, 1999) Thus to tamper with these relationships, to deconstruct and reconstruct them in fundamental ways, must have an impact on identity. On all sides of this debate, marriage is widely recognized as an absolutely crucial institution for heterosexual identity. One may not agree or identify with "the conjugal self" of marriage, nevertheless it is an immensely important sexual construction of self that has been central to most religious and cultural traditions throughout human history.

One may want to put forward alternative visions of sexual identity and to develop alternative communities and structures to sustain that identity. That is certainly a valid option within a pluralistic community. However, these alternative constructions should not be predicated on deconstructions or reconstructions of institutions central to the sexual identity and life of other citizens. Heterosexual Canadians happen to constitute the vast majority of our citizens. They have a right to preserve and protect institutions central to their identity. Attempts to use legal or political mechanisms to hack into an institution (marriage) vital to the 'conjugal identity' of heterosexual Canadians and to reconfigure that institution to serve a very different type of sexual identity, puts forward an aggressive claim that goes far beyond concerns for tolerance and respect.

The proposal to delete the binary code of heterosexuality from marriage is not merely an innocent "add on" for a small minority of gay and lesbian folk who want to be "married." It clearly changes the internal meaning of the institution of marriage and inevitably affects the identity of heterosexuals who are affirmed and sustained by this institution. Thoughtful gay and lesbian theorists recognize this fact. Ladell McWhorter puts it well. She points out that if gay people are "allowed to participate as gay people in the communities and institutions they [heterosexuals] claim as theirs, our presence will change those institutions and practices enough to undermine their preferred version of heterosexuality and, in turn, they themselves will not be the same. They [heterosexuals] are right, for example, that if same-sex couples get legally married, the institution of marriage will change, and since marriage is one of the institutions that supports heterosexuality and heterosexual identities, heterosexuality and heterosexuals will change as well." (McWhorter 1999. 125)

Persons of diverse sexual identities and communities have a right to fight for tolerance and respect. However, persons of heterosexual identity also have rights to respect and recognition. They also have the right to maintain and foster their own unique institutions. And no institution is more central, more vital, to heterosexual identity than marriage. This point is conceded on all sides of the debate.

Even some gay advocates are beginning to challenge the "one shoe fits all sizes" approach to the marriage question. They argue that the push for gay marriage is problematic. The implacably heterosexual character of the marital bond may distort the evolving culture of gay relationships. Eleanor Brown, a gay-issues journalist, resists the blind push for gay marriage: "I would prefer that gay men and lesbians not get married because it's a heterosexual institution. We have our own culture, and we need to keep it strong and healthy in this day of increasing assimilation… Our relationships come with different understandings."

Historically marriage has provided a unique social form for heterosexual life. It is an erotic bond that bridges the sexual divide within the human species. It is a bonding that sinks its roots into primordial and powerful heterosexual instincts and orientations within human society. It is a procreative bond that generates human life through the biological fusion of male and female flesh. It is a bond that insists on the rights of offspring to a stable relationship with their biological parents. It is a genealogical bond that reaches back into time through its ancestors and forward to the future through its descendants. It fosters rich and complex lines of kinship that weave through human community.

Legal and political proposals to fundamentally redefine an institution so central to the sexual identity and life of so many citizens do not represent the inevitable progress of fundamental human rights. These proposals are based upon a particular construction of rights designed to promote an illiberal agenda. Many Canadians feel a deep unease about current developments. There is a commitment to nurture respect and tolerance for homosexuals. However many are troubled by the push for same-sex marriage. They may not be able to clearly articulate clear reasons why they are so uneasy about this social revolution, but it seems to spring from a visceral sense that marriage is critical to their life and their identity.

There are very few in the academic and media elite willing to work at spelling out these concerns more clearly. Furthermore, those who do try to initiate a discussion on marriage typically find themselves targeted by the morally-loaded labels of homophobia and heterosexism. This language has been constructed in a way that denounces attempts to defend the heterosexuality of marriage as inherently "hateful" to gays. The language of homophobia can work to stigmatize and stereotype those who would like to engage a serious and substantive public debate about sexual issues.

Legal moves are being made to force closure on certain areas of debate. A private member's bill in the Canadian Parliament by Svend Robinson proposes to add certain forms of discourse on sexual orientation to the category of "hate speech". Questions have been raised whether this legislation could threaten to criminalize public dissent to beliefs or claims made put forward by members of the gay community. The Gay Prom case in Ontario pitted the convictions of gay advocates against the teaching of the Catholic Church. The decision by the Ontario court demonstrated the willingness of judges to run roughshod over deeply held convictions of a faith community about appropriate sexual conduct in public settings in order to enforce acceptance of a particular form of gay conduct on a reluctant community.

The current context of public debate admonishes those concerned with marriage to sit still and quietly endure this next painful procedure. Once again we are positioning ourselves to dismantle a fundamental pillar of marriage. Once again our courts and our legislatures are being urged to move fast. Once again the advocates of "reform" assure us that these changes are only intended to help a few hurting people. Once again we are reassured that 'traditional' marriage will continue to go on its own merry way. Once again we are told that the reforms will actually enhance marriage, not diminish it. We have heard this tired old speech trotted out before. It is riddled with the usual political mix of faulty logic and ideological badgering, but it does seem to be working.

Future Deconstructions of Marriage: Demolishing Dyadism?

Does the deletion of sex inclusiveness, the male-female heterosexual nature of the marriage bond, represent the last stage in our cultural demolition of marriage? Probably not. There is at least one more pillar that needs demolishing, the dyadic nature of marriage, that is, marriage as a bond between "the two." Why the restriction of marriage to the arbitrary number of two? What is the psychological, social, or philosophical justification for this restriction? Why discriminate against multiple-partner close relationships?

Even pro-marriage conservative gay theorists such as Andrew Sullivan have warned that the dyadic restriction inevitably does discriminate against the multiple partnership forms of sexual bonding that are popular in gay communities. Eleanor Brown makes the same point. She points out that whenever marriage is debated in gay circles, "We immediately discuss issues like monogamy — yes or no? — which boggles the minds of many heterosexuals."

The dyadic nature of marriage represents a normative hangover from the heterosexual definition of marriage as a procreative dynamism that consisted of two bonding reproductive units (male and female). Once the link between procreation and marriage is broken and assisted reproduction becomes accepted as normative, then the dyadic nature of the reproductive bond appears as a fairly arbitrary restriction that seems to lack any meaningful rationale. Sullivan suggests that this restriction needs to be the next marriage pillar targeted for demolition once heterosexuality is deleted and same-sex marriage successfully entrenched.

All of the arguments that were invoked in the recent legal decision for same-sex marriage can be invoked for multiple partner or polygamous marriages. First, there are massive historical precedents for multiple partner marriages. There is no question that the historical evidence for the normative nature of such arrangements is far stronger than the evidence for publicly approved same-sex unions. The claim by gay theorists such as John Boswell and Eskridge that same-sex "marriages" have existed in previous societies rests on questionable historical evidence driven by an agenda-loaded ideological interpretation. Many serious historians dismiss these inflated claims. However, no serious scholar would question the existence of polygamy. Polygamy has been socially approved in many cultures throughout history and continues to receive social approval in Islamic and African societies.

Secondly, the restriction of the marriage arrangement to two can be seen as arbitrary and discriminatory. A third party in a sexually-bonded close personal relationship will be legally excluded from the full rights and benefits of marriage simply by the fact that he or she is a "third" party. The arbitrary legal restriction of marriage to "the two" imposes a dyadic gridlock on multiple partner relationships that forces one or more of the partners to be the "third-man-out." These third parties in a close personal relationships become "victims" of the dyadic restriction. They are systematically excluded, penalized and marginalized.

Third, the restriction of sexually bonded relationships to "couples" will be seen as a violation of choice. The recent report of the Law Commission of Canada, Beyond Conjugality, is already proposing that their new legal category of 'close personal relationship' should not be "limited to two people." They argue that, "the values and principles of autonomy and state neutrality require that people be free to choose the form and nature of their close personal adult relationships."

Fourth, the "best interests" of children argument will meet the same fate as it meets in the same-sex debate. The burden of the proof is no longer on advocates of change to prove that it is "safe" for children. It is on those who would suggest that it may cause harm to children. Who can argue that multiple partner parenting really harms children? How do we prove or disprove this thesis? All kinds of arguments can be generated to suggest the beneficial nature of multiple partner parenting. If two parents are good, then three are better. It takes a village to raise a child. Diversity of parenting styles and input can only enhance the child's development.

Fifth, it will be argued that the diversity of adult sexual and emotional needs can be met more creatively in multiple partner arrangements. Laura Kripnis argues that the ideology of "coupledom" is highly regulated and restrictive form of sexual bonding based on the radically flawed premise that our deep seated, tangled, and gnarled personal needs must be "met by one person." "Question this," she writes, "and you question the very foundations of the institution." (Kipnis 2001: 101)

Finally, there will be the predictable dismissive shrug to the general sense of public uncomfortability with the push for multiple partner relationships. There will be a gracious acknowledgement that most individuals will probably prefer dyadic unions. However, it will be argued that this personal "sexual preference" on the part of the majority should not place prohibitions on the sexual preferences of those who may prefer multiple-partner arrangements.

Will our political and legal elites resist the push for a restoration of some form of polygamy? Probably not. It is highly unlikely that they will put up much of a fight especially since elite classes will the direct beneficiaries from such arrangements. Historically, polygamous marriage and legal concubinage have always been in the interests of the elites and moves to prohibit such arrangements have met with vigorous resistance. Dominant males, and dominant females, command power and resources to attract mates. They can use their status to great effect in a de-regulated marriage market in order to acquire more attractive partners.

Dyadic coupling represents a democratization of the marriage market and a restriction on the power of elites to use their power to dominate the marriage market. Expect our elites to be favourably open to any proposals for more de-regulation of the marriage market. Stable marriages and families are a central pillar of life and freedom for ordinary folk. Richer folk (our well-to-do baby boomers) can maximize their "freedom" in sexual relationships and still hope to buy their way out of some of the nasty problems associated with a de-regulated and destabilized marriage culture.

Will the destruction of the "dyadic pillar" be a long drawn-out struggle? Probably not. Once the heterosexuality of marriage is demolished, the demolition of the couple-character of marriage may be little more than a "mopping-up operation." Legal experts, such as the authors of the Law Commission's Beyond Conjugality report, are already busy laying out preparatory argumentation.

Wars of the Ring

We are living through an historic cultural drama: the melting and re-forging of the marriage 'ring'. But what kind of ring are we forging? What kind of ring are we passing on to our children? There is a deep subtext in Tolkein's classic tale, Lord of the Rings. The story pits two cultures against one another, the culture of Mordor and the culture of the Shire. Mordor is a world devoid of marriage culture, a world devoid of conjugal ties between men and women, a world devoid of deep attachments to parental offspring, a world devoid of kinship ties between generations, a world devoid of domestic life, a world without homes and families, a world of cloned and artificially conceived people. The Shire is thick with marriage culture, the simple joys of conjugal life, kinship relationships, friendships, domesticity, the healthy autonomy of the home life.

The ring of Mordor is not a marriage ring. It is not a ring that binds through ties of conjugality. It is a ring that binds through demolishing the kind of culture that the Shire represents. It is a ring that empowers through invisibility, screening out the thick and textured life of embodied existence. It is a ring that strips the land of the rich local traditions and customs that constitute the bulwark of domestic life. It is a ring that leaves individuals increasingly alone and unprotected before the great global movements of power and politics.

Tolkein's great and good book does have a profoundly significant conjugal and familial sub-text. Beneath the epic struggles and wars lies the ordinary life of the Shire. It is the Shire from which the journey begins. It is the Shire to which the heroes return. It is this "safe and comfortable" place, this "ancient" and "unobtrusive" world, a world of "peace and quiet and good tilled earth" that forms the deep good earth from which this story unfolds. (Lord of the Rings 61 ). It is a world shaped by marriage and family life. It is a world that sustains the healthy independence of ordinary familial life. The Shire, Tolkein tells us, "had hardly any 'government'…Families for the most part managed their own affairs." (Lord of the Rings 9)

The great adventure ends with the return of Sam to the Shire. The Shire was saved and a place for the simple goodness of conjugal life was secured. The very last lines of this monumental epic depicts a quiet unassuming scene that signals the depth of the victory that had been attained. After many battles Sam finally reaches home, his dear wife Rose, and his child Elanor. We are given a brief reverent glimpse of Sam's return to his family: "And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said." (Lord of the Rings 1008)

There are times when the quiet unspeakable goodness of ordinary life must be defended through struggle and sacrifice. Times such as these.


Brown, Eleanor, 2002. "Why Be Wedded to Gay Marriage?" Globe and Mail Aug 8.

Chesterton, G.K. 1990. Brave New Family Ignatius Press.

Kipnis, Laura, 2001. "Against Love: A Treatise on the Tyranny of the Two" The New York Times Magazine Oct. 14, pp.98-102.

McWhorter, Ladelle, 1999. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Padgug, Robert A. 1999. "Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History" (1979) in Culture, Society and Sexuality. Edited by Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton. London: UCL Press. 15-28.

Simon, William and John H. Gagnon, "Sexual Scripts" (1984) in Culture, Society and Sexuality. Edited by Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton. London: UCL Press. 29-38.

Weeks, Jeffrey. 1995, "History, Desire, and Identities," in Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World. edited by John H. Gagnon and Richard G. Parker, New York: Routledge 33-50.

J.R.R. Tolkein 1990 The Lord of the Rings, Harper and Collins.


Daniel Cere. "Wars of the Ring." The Newman Rambler 6 no. 2 (Summer, 2002): 1-8.

This article has been reprinted with permission from Daniel Cere and The Newman Rambler.


Daniel Cere is Director of the Newman Institute of Catholic Studies and a contributing editor of The Newman Rambler.

Copyright © 2002 The Newman Rambler

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.