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Essay:What's Wrong With Changing the Definition of Marriage?

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One of the principle objections given by opponents of same-sex marriage (SSM) is that by allowing marriage between two individuals of the same sex, it would change the definition of marriage[1], which they state should be between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others. Aside from questions of the morality of homosexuality itself, this is one of the most common objections to SSM.

However, the question must be asked, is there a compelling reason not to change that definition? Is the modern definition of marriage, which opponents of SSM appear to defend, the actual traditional definition? Has the meaning of marriage changed in the past, and has that destroyed marriage itself? These are important questions that must be considered.

History of Marriage[edit]

Marriage itself far precedes Christianity, and was present in the earliest known civilizations[2] and quite possibly far into prehistory. It is clear that marriage in some form has existed as a part of the human condition not only for the entirety of its history, but across several disparate cultures.[3][4] Marriage, it is clear, may be seen as a near-universal concept. However, how closely does this concept of marriage match the modern conception of marriage?

Not very well, it appears, as most of the early marriage rites largely concerned themselves with lineages and property rights as well as religious observances, and had little to do with the feelings of the individuals involved. However, the ancient Romans did develop marriage rites that were very similar to those of the modern day, and the observance of the wedding ring arises from those customs.[5]

Over the centuries, as various cultures spread and retreated throughout the world, and in particular Europe, the institution of marriage changed as well, fluctuating and altering its earlier definitions. Polyamory was acceptable in some cases, but not in others — as were arranged marriages, child marriages, dowrys, marriage by capture and more, marriage to deity and more, all of which have been part of the "traditional" definition of marriage at one time or another.

Some of these elements have remained with the concept of marriage to the modern day. There are individuals still alive who recall the concept of a dowry, and in some cultures the arranged marriage still exists. In the United Kingdom, the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act[6] was passed in 1907, allowing a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife, another example of the fluid definition of marriage.

Civil Marriage[edit]

Throughout the centuries, sacred marriage has been common, but most marriages have been unofficial affairs, more akin to the modern common-law marriage.[7]. While sacred and civil marriages existed for the upper classes, the poor and underclass treated marriage in a much more casual manner, usually with not much more than a celebration among friends and neighbours.

The modern common-law marriage, growing from this tradition, is a simple matter indeed. In most jurisdictions in North America, although the practice exists elsewhere, all that is necessary is for a couple to live together as a couple for some length of time. Some jurisdictions accept this informal union the moment it is stated, some require cohabitation of a year or more. In many places, this loose marriage confers many of the same civil benefits as an official marriage.

In the modern day, the term "marriage" primarily refers to the civil institution of marriage. While religious rites are often performed, they are not essential, and otherwise identical marriages may be commenced without them, using civil authorities to officiate. Indeed, even religious rites, if they wish to be accepted in larger society as actual marriages, still require civil registration.

It may be that these informal and civil marriages underlie the proposed "civil union" status granted to same-sex marriages in many jurisdictions.

A Modest Proposal[edit]

As may be seen from the above, the use of the phrase "traditional definition of marriage" by opponents of SSM has little to do with actual tradition, given that the institution of marriage has been malleable over the centuries, and indeed across many cultures, and yet marriage still exists and many find it valuable.

One of the largest changes in modern culture over the past few generations has been the opening of indivual cultures to global influences. Ease of travel and communication has facilitated an unprecedented flow of ideas and cultural mores, triggering profound changes in many cultural institutions. Given its history, there is little good reason for marriage to remain immune to this force, particularly in a world which involves other worldviews than the Abrahamic religions so popular in the West.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to remove religion entirely from the marriage business. Modern culture has moved away in large part from the concept of church as civil authority, and more in the direction of marriage as civil institution, following the traditions already followed by commoners through much, if not all, of recorded history. This would free up the concept of marriage to simple changes of regulation, which would be resisted as at various times in the past by religious authorities[8], such as including same-sex unions. Far from changing the traditional definition of marriage, this would follow a long and rich tradition of marriage as a flexible institution, changing to fit the needs of the time, and available to all.

Churches, for their part, freed from the civil responsibility attached to official marriage ceremonies, would be able to perform their cultural rites with less civil interference, including practices many would see to be discriminatory.


  1. Reality Check: Marriage and Same-Sex Unions, Focus on the Family
  2. Review of Uri Yiftach-Firanko, Marriage and Marital Arrangements. A History of the Greek Marriage Document in Egypt. 4th century BCE - 4th century CE. Münchener Beiträge zur Papyrusforschung und antiken Rechtsgeschichte, 93. München: C.H. Beck, 2003. Pp. 388; pls. 4. ISBN 3-406-51167-8
  3. Jomon Period, Japanese Reference
  4. Marriage in Ancient India
  5. Marriage and Customs and Roman Women
  6. An Act to amend the Law relating to Marriage with a Deceased Wife’s Sister
  7. History of Civil Marriage
  8. The Reformation