Beyond Marriage Equality
This sermon was a collaboration with my wife and life partner, Betsy. I'm grateful for her detailed research and her courage to ask the tough questions.
Dominance…. submission… love… sex… reproduction… property… companionship… passion… obedience… fidelity… God. All of these words at some time or another have been used to describe the institution of marriage throughout history. Some may still fit, while others have become woefully outdated.
What is the true definition of marriage? As with religion itself, the answers fall along predictable battle lines: the union of one man and one woman…a loving partnership between any two people. A debate has raged this summer throughout our country in the wake of the June Supreme Court decision upholding the right of same-sex couples to be wed in all states. And in that debate, it seems to be about whether the definition of traditional marriage, that is, holy matrimony between one man and one woman, sanctioned by God for the purpose of creating families, can possibly accommodate the concept of a same-sex couple.
Religious conservatives have cried foul, with GOP presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee formally pledging, quote: “We will not honor any decision by the Supreme Court which will force us to violate a clear Biblical understanding of marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman.”
But if you consult the Bible to try to find this “clear biblical understanding of marriage,” what do you find? Juan Ricardo Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan and a prominent blogger and essayist, catalogues the historical meaning of marriage for the ancient Hebrews and early Christians. Far from the blessed union of one man and one woman, we find …
Polygamy, complete with rules in Exodus on how the 2nd or 3rd wife should be supported…
Sex slavery: King Solomon, as described in the book of First Kings, had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.
A culture of dominance and submission: First Peter says, “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”
Polyamory, done badly: Abraham had his wife Sarah, and also had a relationship with her slave Hagar whom he gets pregnant but then abandons her to be mistreated by her owner, Sarah.
And let’s not forget the amply documented rights of husbands to inflict cruel punishment, even mutilation or honor killing, upon their misbehaving wives.
So if we, as most religious liberals, reject that marriage is about obedience to religious laws, or solely about procreation, or for the purpose of preserving property…and if we now accept that marriage doesn’t even have to be reserved for opposite-sex partners, then what IS the definition of marriage that makes sense for us in 2015 and beyond? Are we to believe, as some conservatives would have it, that marriage now has no meaning? If marriage is not the holy union of one man and one woman, then what is it?
For Betsy and me, the foundation of a successful marriage has four cornerstones: Choice, Freedom, Challenge and Commitment. We begin with Choice.
I am a child of divorce, so I did not grow up with many examples of happy marriage. And in my first job out of law school, I became an expert on Section 216 of the Immigration and Nationality Act for the US Department of Justice. Section 216 deals with marriage fraud – people marrying US citizens to get legal status in this country. [If you’ve seen the movie “Green Card”, you know exactly what I’m talking about.] What’s more, when George first started talking about us getting married, I said we didn’t need to be married. So with that personal history, I may be crazy to have the great respect and admiration that I do for marriage. But as a legal institution, marriage is unlike any other in our society, and I am a devoted fan.
From the Old Testament to the present day, legally speaking, marriage has always been about FAMILIES OF CHOICE. Under the law, marriage has traditionally conveyed rights normally reserved for blood relatives to someone who is not related by blood. It is our chance to choose something that we don’t normally get to choose: our family. So marriage and our definition of who can marry are hugely significant in a legal sense.
Until the 20th Century, one of the things that marriage did was to protect the family and to make sure that members of a family were provided for economically. As the poet Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Marriage was designed to protect the home and household as an economic and social unit, and specifically to protect the dependents (i.e. wife and children) from being abandoned or dispossessed.
In the last 100 years our ideas about women’s rights and economic independence have transformed society and have changed our laws about marriage and divorce significantly. They have also led us to uncouple the idea of financial responsibility from the idea of marriage somewhat…. by imposing a duty of economic support on a father even where there is no bond of marriage with the mother, for instance.
But when we create a family by marriage, we still entitle the partners in the marriage to economic support from each other during the relationship and even sometimes after the relationship is dissolved (think: alimony). By contrast, most states have denied those benefits to partners who choose to live together but not to marry, even if those partners spend half a century or more as a couple. Only California ever recognized the idea of “palimony”… and it hasn’t seemed to catch on.
To me, it is especially fitting that we honor the marriages of LGBT people. If marriage is about choosing to make a family, who knows more about that than people who in the past were often ostracized by their biological families? Things are changing for the better, but it wasn’t that long ago that the majority of LGBT people who “came out” to their families could expect to be met with hostility and often rejection. So LGBT people, by necessity, have been creating their own “families of choice” for decades. Frequently, however, when someone got seriously ill or died, it was the gay, lesbian or trans person’s family of origin who would be called in by a hospital or a court, because the person’s “family of choice” had no legal standing.
In my years of practicing law, I knew several same-sex couples as clients and often had to help them try to find legal work-arounds to compensate for the fact that they had no legal standing as a family. One case in particular sticks with me. A gay man came to me for help when his partner of 32 years – let’s call the partner Mark – had died without a will. Marriage had not been an option for them, of course, but they had lived together in the same house for over 30 years when Mark had a serious car accident. After the accident, he could no longer work and became completely reliant on my client, who was working two jobs to cover all of the resulting medical expenses. Ultimately, after many months of being cared for by his partner, Mark died at a relatively young age from complications related to his injuries.
My client was grief-stricken but in those days was not able to be completely open about his loss. He was arranging Mark’s funeral when suddenly Mark’s sister stepped in. She had refused to have anything to do with her gay brother for the last 32 years, and she was not interested in the funeral arrangements, in which my client graciously offered to include her. Instead, she just wanted to stake her claim to all of Mark’s personal property as his next of kin. Fortunately, my client had bought the house they lived in before he met Mark, so Mark’s name was not on the title to the house. But everything else that Mark owned now belonged to her as his next of kin. Under the law at that time, the most I could do for my client was to argue that the funeral expenses should be paid out of Mark’s personal property before she took possession of the remainder of it. If they had been able to marry, my client would have been Mark’s next of kin. They would have been recognized as family.
On June 26 of this year, the US Supreme Court affirmed the right of same-sex couples to create families that our laws will honor and recognize in exactly the same way that it recognizes any other families. The case was called Obergefell v. Hodges. The lead plaintiff, James Obergefell, was suing the State of Ohio simply for the right to be listed as the surviving spouse on his husband’s death certificate. They had been legally married in another state, and Ohio refused to recognize the validity of their marriage.
“It is demeaning”, said the Court, “to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage. The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.” The Court went on to say, “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation. There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”
And so, with the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court struck down all of the laws across the country that deny same-sex couples an equal right to create legally-recognized families.
Once a union is freely chosen, the individual cannot, and must not, be sacrificed or sublimated. Contrary to traditional notions of duty, obligation, strict monogamy, and the Biblical notion that “two shall become one flesh,” we believe the successful marriage begins…and endures… with the voluntary joining of free individuals.
As we heard in the responsive reading today, which was also read at our wedding in September 1993, the poet describes this beautiful co-existence of two entwined, yet distinct, individuals.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls…
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup…
…Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart seems to have taken this sentiment to heart, as she carefully considered a proposal of marriage from George Putnam, the man who finally become her betrothed in 1931.
For Earhart, the preservation of her individuality and personal freedom was a prerequisite to acceptance of any marriage proposal. “I cannot guarantee,” she wrote, “to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.”
I think it’s worth quoting most of the full text of her brief letter to George Putnam in response to his sixth proposal of marriage. While it may not sound shocking to the 21st Century ear, it was remarkable for its day in its attempt to preserve the individual within the bounds of marriage:
There are some things which should be writ before we are married – things we have talked over before – most of them.
You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations but have no heart to look ahead.
On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any mediaeval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the difficulties which arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.
Please let us not interfere with the others’ work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage…
For Earheart, and I would hope for all who enter committed relationships, the need to maintain individuality is not incompatible with maintaining intimacy. In fact, I would argue that it is essential for a strong and healthy marriage: Without our intact individuality – what makes us laugh and cry, the passions we possess, and the unique talents we offer as gifts to the world – we have nothing much to offer our partners.
As for Betsy and me, her brother, upon first seeing us together as a couple before we were wed, called us two peas in a pod. That’s funny now that I think about it, since I feel we are not twins, but opposite in so many ways. In Meyers-Briggs terms, she is ISTJ, I am ENFP. We are protons and electrons, at once attracting and repelling each other, generating the hot cosmic energy that creates and sustains the universe. Or, rather than two peas, maybe we’re something more akin to interlocking puzzle pieces – a firm connection at the center where we meet, but on our outer edges, room for interests and connections that move outward in all directions, to create the bigger picture of our lives.
Yes, two individuals can come together, and even be anam cara, holding up mirrors to each others’ souls. But individuals grow and change throughout a lifetime. Betsy will now explore this challenging third component of a successful marriage.
As American author James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Marriage is, above all, about love. But it takes a certain kind of love to sustain a marriage over the long term. The quotation printed in the order of service today continues with these words: “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy – but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
There is no reason I can think of to define love within a marriage any differently from that universal vision of love, and yet somehow we expect it to be different. Society’s familiar view of romantic love usually doesn’t extend much farther than the honeymoon, or maybe even the wedding. What happens next? It is pretty hard to find instructions for or even detailed descriptions of the “happily ever after” period of married life, even though that is the part that is supposed to last for decades. Peter Rubinstein is a prominent rabbi in New York City who teaches at Manhattanville College and has written several books; he has also been married for over 40 years to his wife Kerry. About marriage, he has observed, “We talk about falling in love, as though it were an accidental event. We can’t control the fall. The problem is, once we get our bearings, we can climb back out of it, and that’s just what many people do. When you take the element of VOLITION out of the picture, the significance of love is diminished.” I interpret his words to mean that it’s what happens after the fall – and after you’ve regained your bearings – that defines your marriage and enables it to endure.
One of the stumbling blocks in our way stems from the very real desire to find COMFORT in marriage. Let’s face it – one of the most appealing things about the idea of being married is the prospect of basking in the security of someone else’s unconditional love for the rest of your days. If that isn’t comforting, I don’t know what is. It is also empowering and important. But of course the other side of that equation is providing that same unconditional love to your spouse. Ah, there’s the rub.
The longer you know and love someone, the closer you become to him or her, the easier it is to confuse love with a sense of entitlement, or what a Buddhist might describe as attachment. We become attached to the version of our partner that we fell in love with, and we don’t want to think about the fact that our loved one is inevitably going to grow and change and morph into someone else over the next 20 or 30 or 40 years. Loving one version of our partner does not give us the right to tell him or her to stay that way, or to restrict the ways in which our partner will change, or to claim all of our partner’s energy or attention or enthusiasm or even love for the rest of our lives. The challenge is to love whatever comes.
A blogger named Anne Branigin put it this way recently:
We say to the ones we love: “You’ve awakened me. You’ve added dimension to my life. You’ve made the present something bright and bursting. You’ve brought me deeper into being. Now, continue to be these things — but for me alone.” In this way we diminish with entitlement the very people who set us free. And we dare to call that love. If we were to be really honest with ourselves, we would see that love and comfort are two very separate concepts whose edges we blur all the time. So we say to love …Fit here. Fit in this tiny space. Where we may keep you. Where we may like you. Where we may understand.
Feeling that we completely understand our partner and know all there is to know can be comforting, but it eventually becomes limiting and can make us devalue our partner. And the thing is, that belief is ALWAYS WRONG.
Think of your partner as a building – when you first make an intimate connection with that person, you are invited in and find your way around the entryway and into the finished parts of the building. Meanwhile, your partner is busy growing and adding rooms on in other parts of the house that you haven’t even seen yet. There may be rooms in that building that your partner hasn’t explored, much less shown to you! Maybe your partner doesn’t want to go there…. Or doesn’t want to go there with YOU… And so relationships may reach limits beyond which the people in them are not willing to go. But it is impossible to say you have learned all there is to know another person. If you continue to share true intimacy, you will never be done exploring.
And that is where the idea of the anam cara (or soul friend) comes in, as was mentioned in the reading this morning. I brought a book with me today called “Portrait of a Marriage.” The subjects of the book were English aristocrats Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West. What makes their marriage interesting, but not unique, is that it was what in today’s terminology we would call a mixed-orientation marriage. That is, Vita was bisexual, and Harold was gay. Despite their incompatible sexual orientations, they raised 2 children and lived together for 49 years. Their son Nigel wrote “Portrait of a Marriage,” which he based on a diary Vita had written as a young woman and left in a place where her family would inevitably discover it after her death. In the first page of her confessional, Vita wrote:
“There is no living soul who knows the complete truth… Having written it down I shall be able to trust no one to read it; there is only one person in whom I have such utter confidence that I would give every line of this confession into his hands, knowing… that after wading through it all he would hold his estimate of me steadfast.”
The diary was her son Nigel’s first inkling that his parents’ marriage had almost ended when he was 3 – that she had fallen in love with a woman and had seriously considered leaving her husband and children. The facts of the story contrasted starkly with his memories of his parents’ marriage and with the public’s image of it. However, Nigel decided to publish the book because, he says, the diary describes “one of the strangest and most successful unions that two gifted people have ever enjoyed.” In his words, “it is the story of two people who married for love and whose love deepened with every passing year, although each was constantly and by mutual consent unfaithful to the other. Both loved people of their own sex, but not exclusively. Their marriage not only survived infidelity, sexual incompatibility and long absences, [it] became stronger and finer as a result.”
I can’t possibly do justice to the story of Vita and Harold’s remarkable marriage in just a paragraph. But I think their relationship points up a few of the fallacies in our common view of the “transcendent purposes of marriage.” For instance, despite all of the controversy around allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry, it is striking how rarely sexual intimacy or sexual compatibility, sexual infidelity or even sexual orientation determine the success or failure of a marriage. Emotional intimacy and compatibility, mutual respect, and trust turn out to be much more important factors in the survival of a relationship long term.
In fact, I would suggest that the biggest challenges we face in sustaining a loving relationship over decades are actually challenges within us as individuals, not between us as partners. Our very human desires for comfort and security make us resist change; we need to make peace with the inevitability of change in all of our relationships. As the story of Vita and Harold suggests, we become scared of what we will find if we keep exploring, or what the other person will find out about us if they do. Instead, we need to have faith in the infinite nature of the other person and in our own infinite potential to love and accept, and we need to find the courage to keep going. There is always more there, and there are also the beautiful memories of the road we have already traveled. That, to me, is the irreplaceable beauty of a long and good marriage.
The final cornerstone of successful marriage that we will explore today is perhaps the most obvious, yet most difficult: That of Commitment. It’s a very scary idea to make a commitment “forever” – till death do us part. Because, as Betsy described, we are always growing and changing, trying to perfect love, the idea of making a lifetime commitment often sends partners in one of two directions: Either we enter into commitment, resigned to endure, accepting the cage that Earhart spoke of. Or we speak our vows boldly while keeping our fingers crossed behind our backs, thinking there’s always an out if things don’t work out – like signing up for the free trial subscription with the notion that it can always be canceled.
Commitment is hard. Think of all the commitments we fail at – that new year’s resolution, a decision to stop drinking, that financial pledge at canvas time that we couldn’t quite live up to…. And then factor in that the person we are committing to is not the same person we married, and is not the same person we will spend our last days with. British playwright, novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.”
To be sure, there are always perfectly good reasons to end a marriage, or any relationship, when there is genuine incompatibility, or unhealthy dynamics that are harming one or both partners, keeping each from reaching his or her full potential. But more often than not, the biggest hurdle is simply choosing to commit – and then equipping oneself with the tools and habits necessary to maintain that commitment.
Perhaps there is no larger challenge to commitment than the experience of sexual infidelity. Is it possible to continue a marriage when either partner has been intimate with someone outside the marriage, or wants to be? And beyond that, is it possible to have a successful marriage that is open to outside sexual relationships?
Belgian therapist and marriage counselor Esther Perel works with many couples who are seeking to recover from a crisis of infidelity. Successful couples use the experience as an opportunity to deepen their relationship and reinvent it.
Couples who can successfully recover from an infidelity often display a significant shift in language: From “you” and “me” to “our,” from “when you did this to me” to “this was an event in our life.” They talk about “When we had our crisis,” recounting a shared experience. Now they’re joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.
The ongoing commitment to each other becomes one based on sharing thoughts and feelings, and looking to the process and the journey of working on the relationship, rather than looking for any clear-cut answers. The healing comes from discussing the betrayal openly and allowing themselves to feel and express the hot and painful emotions that it triggers. She writes:
They find out that infidelity doesn’t necessarily point to flaws in the relationship. Such partners see the affair as less a statement about the marriage than a statement about themselves. When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner we’re turning away from, but the person we ourselves have become. We’re seeking not another partner, but another self.
The upshot is that commitment is redefined in a way that the couple never would have thought possible: as a pledge to walk together, to be open, to explore new realms, and to share all of those experiences even when it’s painful. Perel concludes:
While by no means giving up on the idea of commitment, they learn to redefine it in a way that will prevent the recurrence of secret affairs and betrayals. For them, monogamy means mutual emotional loyalty, fidelity, and commitment in a primary relationship, even if, for some, it doesn’t necessarily mean sexual exclusiveness.
So what do these four cornerstones of a successful marriage really amount to? And why does this blend of open individuality combined with commitment resonate for Betsy and me? I think it has a lot to do with our take on religion – with the perspective of Unitarian-Universalism as it applies to individual relationships.
When you step back and look at it, the principles of choice, individual freedom, the challenge to grow and perfect love, and the pledge of commitment are actually a pretty good definition of “Covenant.” It’s much the same as the way we have chosen to walk together as a religious community.
Like with a successful marriage, a successful religious community is designed to be flexible and durable, full of optimism and possibilities, rather than confined to a narrow, dogmatic set of fixed beliefs. The community, like the strong marriage, becomes like the elegant St. Louis arch – designed to be flexible in the face of strong winds and earthquakes, reaching to the sky yet firmly rooted in two places, so that it bends yet never breaks.
This kind of enduring commitment, to me, is the very definition of love. It’s the highest and most noble kind of love, that is entered into freely, without fear and without regret.
And so may it be our relationships, in this church, and in the wider world rich with new possibilities. Amen.
George and Betsy Grimm-Howell
August 23, 2015
Delivered at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis