If you don’t recognize the reference, D-I-V-O-R-C-E, sung spelled-out with a powerful twang, was a country western song from my childhood. It dealt with the horrors of divorce as a sad lament. If you wonder what it has to do with science fiction or A Writing Life, hang on until I set the stage and I’ll tell you all about it.
I have been married forty-six years (so far) to the love of my life. My marriage is the most important thing to me – more than my writing, my education, or my teaching career.
I equally believe, firmly and unalterably, in the healing power of divorce.
I was twenty-one when we married. It was the end of the sixties. People were beginning to live together without marriage. If we had done that, we would still be together. We stayed together because we wanted to, not because we had to.
Marriage between the right two people is the greatest thing on Earth. Marriage between the wrong two people is sheer hell. I’m sure you’ve seen examples of both.
When the issue of gay marriage arose, I was largely unmoved. Of course I thought, “Yes!” It seemed inevitable and right. It reminded me of arguments about racially mixed marriages during the sixties and seventies. What was shocking then, goes unnoticed today.
However, in those states where gay couples had all meaningful rights except the name marriage, I had to shake my head at all uproar. Advocates of gay marriage and those opposed to gay marriage both seemed to be missing the point.
After gay marriage, then what? Triads? Quartets? Hockey teams?
And if marriage is a bond between one man and one woman, then what man and what woman? Siblings? First cousins? Second cousins? Blacks and whites? Catholics and protestants? Jews and Muslims? 49er fans and Raider fans?
The plain fact is that when any two people say marriage, chances are they are talking about two different institutions. Marriage is undefined – or rather, it has a thousand definitions.
It’s all about property . . . and children . . . and wills, and power of attorney , and hospital visitation and . . . and sex . . . and infidelity. It’s about growing old together . . . or not. It’s about financial rights while you’re married, and who get’s the dog when you divorce. Or who gets the kids. Or which kids inherit when you die. (Remember that old fashioned term illegitimate child?)
There are rules about this, but they vary from state to state and from decade to decade. When Heinlein and his wife-to-be Virginia were essentially married while waiting for his divorce from his previous wife, they had to hide out because it was illegal to have sex with someone you weren’t married to, and getting caught at it would have screwed up the divorce. This was not that long before Stranger in a Strange Land, the sixties, and free love.
Polygamy was once such a horror to “right thinking Americans” that the Mormon church removed it from its doctrines. Then the sixties came along and any number could play, as long as you didn’t get married.
Talk to any woman old enough to have fought her way through the feminist movement about what marriage meant in 1916. You will hear horror stories of domestic slavery, about an absence of financial rights, an absence of the rights to have or not have children, and about laws that did not consider forced sex to be rape, as long as it was done by the husband. The next time you hear the words traditional marriage, think back more than a decade or two.
Talk to any man who has divorced outside of a no-fault state, and he will tell you that marriage is still slavery of a financial kind. But don’t mention the word alimony.
There is an answer to all this confusion, but it doesn’t have emotional resonance, so it’s a hard sell. Marriage has two components. It has the deep seated comfort and life affirming excitement of loving people sharing their lives. And it has the rights and obligations that go along with the joy, which have to be spelled out during marriage, and litigated if the marriage ends. In my opinion, only the latter is the business of the government.
It’s time to stop pretending that one size fits all, that traditional marriage ever existed as a stable entity, or the the government can define the undefinable. Let there be contracts with choices of clauses to protect the rights of those involved. Let them be written down, debated, agreed to, and ultimately, signed or refused. Call them what you want, but don’t call them marriage.
Then let let every Baptist and Jew and Muslim and Catholic and unreconstituted hippie call whatever floats their boat marriage if they want to. Let them wrangle and argue to their heart’s content, but outside of the courts.
Do you think that will ever fly? I don’t. People would rather pretend that their answer is the answer, and force everyone else into their mold.
If it did fly, then two women, three men, and a transgender going either direction could write a contract that met their needs and call it marriage. Others could disagree as a loudly as they wanted. The Catholic church could excommunicate them, the Baptists could damn them to Hell, and it wouldn’t matter. The contract would go on independent of the in-fighting, spelling out and protecting the rights of those in the group.