How Society Could Accommodate Multi-Partner Marriages
Ways to arrange marriage in a changing era
Posted Jul 20, 2015
In my last blog I explained why the sky would not fall even if legal recognition of same-sex marriage sets the stage for plural marriage as well. For this blog, I examine the ways in which marriages might flex to fit families as they really are, including multiple-partner relationships. With almost half of all US marriages ending in divorce, single-parenthood evident in even the most conservative social circles, and cohabitation prior to or instead of marriage a norm for everyone since Generation X, same-sex marriage is merely the next step in the legal architecture catching up a little bit with the social reality. The last 30 years have definitively demonstrated that one form of marriage does not fit all, just as one form of family does not fit all.
What Marriage Does
Marriage is a social contract that was originally made between families, their communities, and religious institutions. For centuries this contract served to solidify alliances and business arrangements or secure control over property transmission from a man to his biological male heirs. Only later did marriage come under state or government control, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that marriage licenses became commonplace in the US. Currently, marriage acts as the gatekeeper for 1,138 benefits, rights, and protections in US federal laws.
What Family Does
Families function to provide members with physical, financial, practical, and emotional support. When you are sick, hurt, broke, or stranded, family is who comes to your aid. Families socialize children, tend to elders, and care for members’ daily needs. In many cultures, families also regulate sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) and provide people with an anchor in society.
It is important to note that marriage is related to some of these functions, but not all of them. In fact, there are now and have always been families that do not include marriage at all. There are myriad ways to constitute families, and various ways to distribute rights and privileges that do not have to depend on familial status.
We could arrange families the same way we arrange businesses -- through negotiating specialized contracts. Businesses can take a wide range of forms: sole proprietor, partnership, limited liability corporation, or non-profit, among others. When entering in to a business, people negotiate who will do what (job descriptions), what happens with assets, who is in charge of this or that (specialized hierarchy), and what happens with breach of contract.
Families could come together in much the same way -- decide what form they want and hammer out the details much in the same way some people already do with prenuptual agreements. This process would not only allow people to craft families to fit their real lives, but also also preclude young women from being bartered to much older men, because a 14 year-old can not sign a contract without supervision, and the state would have compelling interest in making sure this type of contract was not coercive. Authorities could use the same system to protect kids from forced marriage that they use to protect kids whose parents want them to donate organs to a sibling -- a panel of experts and mental health professionals who evaluate the fitness of the decision and the impact on the child independent of parental desires.
Disconnect Rights and Privileges from Family Status
Alternately, we could eliminate government involvement in sanctioning family completely. Religious marriages could still exist as separate religious contracts between the married individuals and their faith communities. Non-religous matters like health-care, tax-status, education, and other social rights and privileges could be distributed on an individual basis, regardless of family status.
Impacts on Society
Some people fear that legal recognition of same-sex marriage will change society so much that we do not know what society will look like any more, it will just be a free for all with no more social constraint what so ever – the quintessential slippery slope argument. While families are becoming more diverse, that does not mean that heterosexuality and monogamy will disappear or that society will descend in to chaos. If monogamous, heterosexual families continue to meet people’s needs and fit with their lives, then that family form will continue. Same-sex and multiple-partner families are not for everyone, in large part because most people are heterosexual and multiple-partner families can be complex to maintain. Simply having diverse family forms as options will not suddenly make real heterosexuals turn gay or force people who want monogamous families to suddenly start having sex with multiple partners.
A shift to more conscious marriage negotiation could have a number of benefits. Divorce rates would go down because it would be more difficult for everyone to marry. Having to intentionally choose a form and negotiate the contract would make people talk about religion, children, money, division of domestic labor, and all sorts of things that can lead to divorce when people are on wildly different pages and do not realize it until they are already married.
It is important to note that the existence of choices does not mandate that people elect to act on those choices, and people who prefer customary religious compacts could continue to use them as contracts. Others can customize their agreements to fit their own needs. When relationships are no longer serving the needs of the people involved, they can be renegotiated to better fit evolving lives and changing situations. This can all make marriage deliberate and resilient, because people could change their marriages rather than ending them.
Would it be difficult? Yes. Might we make some horrible mistakes on the way to figuring it out? Absolutely. If monogamy were working perfectly for everyone then it might even be simpler to avoid the whole issue and draw the line at two partners. But it is abundantly clear that monogamy is not working for everyone, and that many people who profess monogamy do not actually practice it. People already have multiple-partner marriages, and at some point the law might catch up with the social reality.