In today’s equal marriage debate, everyone’s favourite conservative foghorn Nadine Dorries, argued against the equal marriage bill because it does not contain a provision for adultery. She believes if a marriage contract does not contain a fidelity clause it cannot be a real marriage.
Now, putting aside how galling it is to be lectured on marital morality from someone accused of being a homewrecker, Dorries interpretation of what marriage is, is laughably out of date.
Ever since the Divorce Reform Act in 1969, it became possible for couples to go their separate ways without having to demonstrate infidelity (or even fake it in the most absurd circumstances), marriage has slowly evolved into a much more fluid entity.
In truth, despite what some backbenchers and the Coalition For Marriage say, the definition of marriage, like other British ‘institutions’, has never been static.
As Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, explained effectively in the Commons today, marriage has always been a socially developed institution with religious overtones occasionally attached. Nearly every human conurbation in history has had some sort of ceremony destined to recognise not coital or romantic union. Whether its polygamous or monogamous, whether its gay or straight, whether its for life or until the ink on the divorce papers are dry was irrelevant.
Time passes, but from the Ancient world into the Christian medieval world, marriage was never viewed as a sacrament ordained by the church. Indeed, in the eyes of the Catholic Church it still isn’t. Villeins, yeomen and the everymen and women of medieval England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could be married by their local lord in a civil cermony that had little to do with their local church.
It was only during the Protestant Reformation that marriage became a sacrament in the eyes of the Church as way to distinguish themselves from Catholicism and prevent the build up of monasteries swimming in wealth and cut off from the rest of the world. Up until 1753 you didn’t even need a formal ceremony to be declared married. This is the status quo favored by ‘traditionalists’ but it was effectively ended by the Civil Marriages Act in 1836 which allowed civil services in registry offices.
In 1858, divorce was allowed via legal process rather than the 300 divorces which were granted through act of parliament. This was around the time when ‘marrying for love’ became in vogue for Victorian Britain. Eventually, this led to nascent women’s rights with the Married Women’s Act of 1882 which allowed women to own their own property.
This paved the way for women’s rights and the suffragette movement. When they were granted the right to vote on equal terms to men in 1929, the reform of marriage really started. This culminated in 1991 when rape in marriage was finally recognised a crime.
This brief history of marriage shows there is no ‘default setting’ for the institution. The only constant of marriage is that it is whatever the participants want to be with the according legal rights. Whether is a purely economic transaction, a gesture of platonic companionship or romantic union, a married couple decide the parameters of what is and is not acceptable in their marriage.
The adultery principle is therefore not valid. Every marriage is different. Some are open, some are closed. Some are destined for children, some are not. The purpose of a marriage is to build a secure, happy home. If that includes two men, two women or multiple men and women so be it. Comedian Sharon Horgan recently had a programme on Channel 4 about modern marriages. Some were weird, some were traditional but all of them seemed, at least on the surface, to be working.
Who says marriage has to be for life? Who says marriage can only be for two people at a time? Who says marriage should be for children? Marriage is a legal and an expression of love; beyond that everything else is semantics.
Therefore there is no grounds for the delusion it is only between a man and a woman.