So let’s start with the fundamental question: What is marriage—and what do we want it to be? Is marriage a government program, meant to incentivize certain social goods? Is it a religious institution that should be separated from the state entirely? Is it a personal romantic choice?
In response to these questions, an alternative suggestion has emerged from an unlikely alliance between the far right and far left: Why not take the government out of marriage entirely? The list of people who have called for marriage privatization is long: libertarians David Boaz and Larry Elder, feminist Wendy McElroy, legal scholars Alan Dershowitz and Colin P.A. Jones, and leaders from Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and other religious streams.
And they make a compelling case. Private marriage contracts, like private business contracts, could be established according to each family’s orientation and preference: heterosexual, homosexual, monogamous, polyamorous, or whatever. Religious marriage contracts could be established by the various religions—Catholic contracts, for example, might prohibit divorce, while fundamentalist Mormon and Islamic contracts could permit polygyny. (“Polygamy,” by the way, is technically a gender-neutral term that includes all plural marriages, regardless of the gender breakdown.)
Progressive and secular organizations could embrace a more inclusive definition of marriage without needing to campaign for government approval first. (And just to be totally clear, Twitterverse: Children, animals, and objects cannot sign any contracts and therefore could not sign private marriage contracts, either. OK?) Private marriage contracts, like business contracts, would be registered, recognized, and arbitrated by the state, but the families and nongovernmental organizations involved would be the only ones to set the specific contractual terms. Love, commitment, and family would define “marriage”—not the government.
To be fair, private marriage has its disadvantages. Many people argue that monogamous marriage is a social good, which the government should promote and incentivize with benefits. And there is a fair case that government marriage, albeit imperfect, is actually more egalitarian than private marriage would be, since a private system would empower religious and secular organizations, including ones that choose to discriminate. Finally, the legal institution of marriage arguably protects children (although government laws, such as child support, also protect nonmarital children) and it would be nearly impossible to fully privatize acrimonious divorce.
The privatization of marriage is especially controversial insofar as it relates to children. Government recognition of certain marriages is one of the ways the government endorses and promotes the monogamous (and, in some states, heterosexual) family structure it believes is best for children. But studies have found that diverse parenting environments, including polyamorous ones, aren’t necessarily better or worse for the children involved. In fact, children in some plural families can actually benefit from the increased resources, care, and flexibility that additional adults provide. From a global and historical perspective, the phenomenon of the two-parent nuclear family is relatively new, and not the only environment that can be healthy for children. The happiness and well-being of kids in all kinds of families (monogamous, polyamorous, heterosexual, homosexual, or single-parent) depend far more on things like stability, boundaries, support, and love—not on the private, responsibly conducted sex lives of the adults involved.
“I’m not his dad, I’m his Artie,” said Arthur, a 32-year-old polyamorist who has lived with his girlfriend, her husband, and their son for the past eight years. “But from the outside, you wouldn’t see a difference. When he was born, all three of us were there. When he cries in the middle of the night, all three of us are there. We’re as much of a family as anyone, just without the legal status.”
In either a public or private marital system, extending marriage access to plural families would obviously be very complicated. Why should we even care? Polyamorists are a minority, and they, unlike same-sex couples, arguably choose their lifestyle. It’s easy to ignore or marginalize them. But their families raise fundamental questions about how our government interacts with our sexual and romantic lives. Is marital status the best standard by which to determine access to government benefits, or could we find a better way through marriage privatization? If not, should we wrestle with the implications of government marriage until we find a public solution that is fair to everyone? Whatever the answer, conversations about widespread marriage equality are worth the legal, emotional, and intellectual work it takes to have them.
“Our lifestyle isn’t for everybody, but this is what works for us,” said Vicki. “We consider ourselves married. We consider ourselves a family. Sometimes love catches you by surprise. Why do we want to put boundaries around that?”