Sunday, June 14, 2015

How marriage became a piece of paper, and what Christians could do to strengthen it

As my children get closer to the age where they might, some day, marry, I think about some of the objections I hear to marriage from their generation.

One of the objections against marriage these days is that it is "just a piece of paper". A genuinely Christian marriage is more than that. But legally, is there some truth to that charge? Under current law, it seems as though an apartment lease or home mortgage has more legal consequence and binding force than a marriage. Under the marriage laws where I live, if two people are married, one can leave the other for any reason at all -- even if the person being left has done nothing wrong, even if the reason for leaving is to run off with a new romantic interest -- and not only do they face no legal consequences for leaving, but can lay legal claim to half the other person's financial assets. With no-fault divorce, someone can leave a marriage without consequence, possibly even with financial gain, even if the other person has worked to hold up their end of the marriage. When marriage is no longer a vow, and not even legally binding to a large extent, that accusation "just a piece of paper" has some truth to it.

The marriage laws were, in earlier generations, a protection against that kind of injustice rather than an empowerment of it. There was a culture-wide agreement about what a marriage was, how it was built and strengthened, and that there were very few legitimate reasons to leave it. Those agreement were part of the law. In some times and places, the legitimate reasons to leave a marriage were limited to the insanity of the other person, or their unfaithfulness. Some consideration might be given for abandonment (where the other person has moved out). One of the additional reasons considered at various times was physical abuse. There is a lot of difference between that and a no-fault divorce. In a Christian marriage it might be permitted for the innocent party to divorce an adulterer, but it would not be permitted for the adulterer to divorce the innocent party and claim half their financial asset into the bargain. It is understandable that there are people who are skeptical of marriage. And those with financial assets to protect, these days, often have prenuptial agreements in recognition that current marriage laws provide little or no legal protection.

What if there was an agreed prenuptial agreement to strengthen the current marriage agreement into what previous generations would have recognized as a marriage? Would Christians consider signing prenuptial agreements that the marriage was not revocable by divorce except if there had been a violation of the marriage by the other party, with the specific circumstances described such as a diagnosed serious mental illness, adultery, abuse or abandonment? What if there was a provision that, if a court should overthrow the binding nature of the prenuptial agreement or that a divorce should somehow be attained outside of its provisions, that the party in violation of the agreement was, in that act, giving up all claim to the financial assets of the other? What kind of prenuptial agreement would it take for the next generation to be able to have the legal protections on their families that previous generations took for granted?


Martin LaBar said...

Prenuptial agreements to take the place of culture? Sounds like a good idea, but there probably won't be much enthusiasm for it.

Weekend Fisher said...

Many in our culture still have the more meaningful and lasting expectations of marriage. It might be something a church body would encourage, if they are going to perform a marriage then it is expected to be a binding marriage. It might also be an eye-opener for people going into a marriage, if they knew from the beginning whether they had the same expectations really, or if they had taken for granted that they had expectations in common.

Anna Ilona Mussmann said...

You've probably heard of "Covenant Marriages," a type of legal marriage offered in a few states (Louisiana, for instance) that's supposed to disallow no-fault divorce. It's hard to say what would happen legally if someone chose that option and then sued for a divorce, though.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi A.I.M. - I've actually never heard of "Covenant Marriages". It seems like only a few places offer them, and even where they are offered they seem almost unknown. It looks like "Covenant Marriages" are meant to make it closer to legally binding the intent: marriage is for life. I think some kind of lifelong commitment ("til death do us part" or "as long as we both shall live") is part of standard marriage vows still -- but it has no legal force. Kind of close to empty words in many cases. If a non-binding legal version is just a piece of paper, the spoken non-binding one is not even that, in the hands of someone who has no intention to stick with it.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

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