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Society: The Third Marriage Partner


Marriage is increasingly being treated as little more than a loosely-binding legal contract between two people. As a result, society is losing benefits it used to enjoy from family contracts with more-binding social, religious, and legal obligations, and it is bearing new social and financial costs as a direct result of the creeping redefinition of marriage.

Originally published in The National Post. Republished with permission.


William D. Gairdner

 Author Notes

Author and columnist, founding president of the Canadian conservative society Civitas, chairman of the world-leading medical research foundation The Gairdner Foundation, doctor of literature, former Olympic athlete. Author or editor of The Trouble With Canada, Canada's Founding Debates, After Liberalism, The Trouble with Democracy (2001) and other works. Dr. Gairdner has a web site offering more information about his work.

Books by William D. Gairdner
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After Liberalism: Essays in Search of Freedom, Virtue, and Order (1998)
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Canada's Founding Debates: A Conversation With The Founders (1999)
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On Higher Ground: Reclaiming a Civil Society (1996)
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The Trouble with Democracy
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Trouble with Canada, The: A Citizen Speaks Out (1990)

War Against the Family: A Parent Speaks Out (1993)
 Essay - 4/9/1999

In times past, if you wanted to understand the mysteries of human life it was sufficient to plunge both hands into the warm gut of a sacrificial goat and read the entrails.

Now we have to read the desiccated entrails of Supreme Court judgments such as the recent Bracklow case, which startled a lot of people by saying something everyone used to take for granted. Namely, that "when two spouses are married they owe each other a mutual duty of support," a duty that (in some cases, at least) arises "from the marriage relationship itself."

Unlike my more libertarian colleagues, I was cheered a bit by the idea that after decades of marriage-devaluation by the courts there comes a hint that marriage might have some reason and purpose greater than economics or than the sum of the two spouseís intentions. The struggle to redefine marriage boils down to this: is it just a deal between two people, or between two people and society at large?

The marriage lingo of courts and commentators across the country has pointed to the former for too long. It is mostly about "support" and "compensation" and "contract" and economic "factors," or - yuck! - about "partners" in a "joint venture." And through it all we are assured that the law wants to encourage "the self-sufficiency of each spouse" when "breakdown" happens to "happen." Decoded, this means that spouses are not responsible, society could care less, and the last shred of nobility for the law is to ensure we are all eating well.

Well it's time to get a grip. Until very recently the natural family - a married mother and father living with their dependent children - was considered the very foundation and living model for a healthy and free society. Not the only way to live, of course, but the best social arrangement. The main aim of marriage was not primarily to please the "partners" but to ensure that society could provide a morally and economically stable private environment for the rearing of its millions of children, and a haven for the care and feeding of millions more - such as aging parents and infirm spouses - who are no longer "self-sufficient."

Originally, freedom-loving people in the West insisted on this moral idea of marriage as a religious, or at least a social sacrament, largely because they did not want human life secularized and controlled by the state. So in contrast to todayís pathetic notion, the promises made by bride and groom were understood as made not merely to each other, but to society as a whole, and not as a joke - a so-called "contract" unilaterally dissolvable by the first disgruntled party - but as a serious compact with procreative society itself. Dissolution, if permitted at all, required the consent of both parties and of society. It was a good method for keeping parents and their children out of the hands of the state, and a powerful warning to let society do the job of organizing itself.

Thatís why the radicals of Western civilization from Plato, to Rousseau, to Marx and modern feminists, have expressly hated this idea of marriage and the family. They know it engenders overwhelming loyalty to a free society, to home, hearth, and blood relations instead of to the state, and even worse for them, it diverts wealth to private purposes instead of public coffers. So Plato proposed removing all children from parents at birth to be raised in national daycare; Marx and Engels ditto. The humanity-lover Rousseau, a self-styled "child of Plato," gave his five kids up to an orphanage where they all promptly died. Radical feminists have always wanted the rest of us to look after their children so they can duke it out with men in the market.

So it was that the chief social challenge for the ideological juggernaut that rolled over this century under the flag of collectivism was to get rid of all competition for loyalty. The state must be the only family. The social prestige of the private family would be ended by removing its traditional legal and tax privileges and scoffing the moral and religious appeal of marital union. Stripped of all sacramental or transcendent purpose it would then be just a pragmatic, even temporary sexual and economic deal between autonomous individuals for mutual convenience.

What is so disturbing about the bevy of redefinitions of marriage in our so-called liberal democracies in recent years, however, is the terrible irony that we are very busy bringing about the same social breakdown as did the collectivist states, but this time through a species of hyper-individualist freedom talk that reduces traditional social commitments to a toothless personal contract. The language of modern democracy, of rights, freedom, and choice are used everywhere to justify dissolving the bonds of traditional society in favour of individual claims and appetites as if private human behaviour is without public consequence. The freedom lovers have thus unwittingly joined the collectivists as architects of social breakdown. They have played into the hands of the state because as marriage and the family are eroded in the name of a personal, a-social freedom, pathology skyrockets and the state and its agencies step in to assume formerly private responsibilities with public funds; pro-actively under collectivism, retro-actively in free societies.

In commercial and many other matters, contract is vital, of course. But to reduce something as important for society as procreative union to mere contractual considerations, to speak of a right to escape oneís marital and family commitments because of a spouseís "inability to perform," or to permit a louse of a spouse to abandon marital vows whenever he or she sees illness coming, is a great folly and sadly exposes every marriage, especially those of the old or infirm who are failing by nature, to a charge of non-performance. Imagine millions of aging, Nike-clad Don Juans on Viagra hormonally prompted to demand that because their wives canít keep up now they want out. Hot younger babes in search of support and a handsome Will, are just waiting in the wings.

Sadly, however, we have even sunk beneath contract. For a deal such as modern marriage, dissolvable by either party, is no contract at all. A true contract means two must agree to make it, and two to break it, or pay a stiff penalty. But modern vows are just so much unenforceable pre-nuptial salesmanship. Alas, marriage has become a blatantly inadequate protection for the honourable partner upholding the vows and for the children increasingly exposed to the home-smashing whims of an unsatisfied spouse. Both must therefore be represented and protected by society and by laws holding the parties in marriage to a standard higher, broader, and deeper than their own expressed intent. It is a standard we can only recover by resocializing marriage. That is, by restoring it to a three-way contract, not between the couple and the state as in collectivist regimes, but between the couple and a decent society.

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