When we use words there are meanings, interpretations and images attached. In this part of the world words like Protestant, Catholic, Unionist, Republican, Loyalist and Nationalist all mean significant things but if you stopped several people in the street and asked them what they thought they meant I know you would get several different answers. Similarly when an individual and family receive a diagnosis of cancer from a doctor; meanings, fears and thoughts will rush into their heads whatever the type, treatment, stage the cancer is based on their knowledge, experiences and emotions at the time. This is because the ‘C’ word carries symbolism and meaning.
Marriage similarly carries symbolism and meaning, on a number of levels and these meanings and symbols have changed over time and across cultures. Marriage means different things to different people. Thinking about Western culture for the purposes of this series, although we may return to other cultures somewhere else, here are a few flippant mixed with serious meanings & symbols of marriage in our culture:
- Off the shelf, saved from singeldom/spinsterhood
- Stable, committed relationship
- Less and/or boring and/or better sex
- Settling down, getting a house, having children, a dog and a caravan
- Financial security/stabiliy
- Good for society
- Domestic violence
- Union of a man and a woman
- Monogamy & fidelity
- Social acceptance & welcome
Ask someone who got married young, someone who got married when they were older, ask someone who is unhappy in their marriage, ask someone who is happy, ask someone who would like to get married but can’t… what does marriage mean? Different things to different people in different communities, times, places and cultures. I’m trying to do two things here; one is to highlight the reality of different meaning and experience, and two is to to talk about why marriage means something to people who are not allowed to get married and want to.
I would suggest that marriage has good and bad meanings for different people, and marriage has good and bad meanings culturally too. But we have to acknowledge a certain status dynamic at play here; in our Western society civil partnership legislation afforded/affords same sex couples legal rights and recognition in the way that marriage does for opposite sex couples. But if we turn the lens round for a moment the meaning, weight and symbolism of the word ‘civil’ and the word ‘partnership’ is vastly different in comparison to ‘marriage’. The ‘M’ word and it’s meaning is important because it carries a certain esteem, dignity, cultural depth and recognition in a way that the ‘civil partnership’ label or dare I say “legal provision” does not. The word is important because we are hearing a lot about the importance of definitions these days.
(As I said in my previous post, I think there is and should be choice for both for all couples and I am in no way trying to disrespect or diminish civil partnerships here, they carry a special and unique meaning of their own in many ways)
So when we hear people asking for equality, fighting for it, challenging discrimination and also, from the other side, challenging that this is even a matter of equality we have to highlight that it’s not just about what you get for the legal transaction but about the meaning, status, symbolism and experience. These are the kinds of words and meanings that people who are positive about marriage, those who work at and for marriage, those who defend marriage (including those who oppose equal marriage) use when talking about marriage, this is what we are asking for; that whilst our experiences and meanings may be different, our access is the same, our choice and our opportunity is the same.
More to come about my experience and meaning and wider thoughts; marriage as institution, vows, divorce for trans* people and the religious rights discourse.