Critics of Maine’s new same-sex marriage legislation, signed into law on May 6, fret that changing the traditional definition of marriage will not only violate the word of God but destabilize the family, the very foundation of society.

Yet marriage has proven a far more fluid and adaptable institution through history than opponents of the new law generally acknowledge, and its latest permutation – granting gays the right of wedlock – is unlikely to shake the pillars of family life any more than changing patterns of heterosexual marriage have already.

The religious and legal dimensions of the marital bond have evolved with shifting economic and social realities. Indeed, it’s hard to find a model of marriage that has remained immutable long enough to be called “traditional.”

Does the Bible present a formula for traditional marriage? Certainly none that would be widely accepted today.

Old Testament marriages often resembled business bargains, where labor or property, such as livestock, changed hands between families as the price of the deal. Genesis relates that Jacob worked for his father-in-law for 14 years to earn the hand of Leah and Rachel.

Nor was biblical marriage necessarily monogamous. Polygamy and concubinage were openly practiced. At the urging of his childless wife Sarah, Abraham bore a son with her maidservant. Jacob had his two wives, and King Solomon boasted a prodigious 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Religious laws regarding marriage, divorce and adultery set forth in Deuteronomy would be regarded as intolerably harsh in modern Western society. Some examples: A disenchanted husband could divorce his wife simply by handing her a written “bill of divorcement” and sending her away. The penalty for adultery between a man and a married woman (or, in some circumstances, a betrothed woman) was death by stoning. The same was true for a wife who concealed the fact she was not a virgin before marriage.

What about the idealized marriage of Victorian times so often portrayed by popular writers like Charles Dickens, characterized by probity, fidelity and tenderness? The concept was frequently more hypocritical façade than reality. Dickens himself separated from his wife and carried on a long running extra-marital affair.

Moreover, under 19th-century Anglo-American common law, married women were inferior in legal standing to their husbands, a situation most women would now find intolerable. They were not able to own property in their own name, sue or sign contracts. The law aside, their economic dependency practically bound them to their husbands. As late as 1900, they only comprised 20 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Some may see the 1950s as the golden era of traditional marriage and family life, a time when Rosie the Riveter returned to home and hearth to become June Cleaver, the chirpy suburban housewife and mother.

However, the ’50s also saw the early stirrings of the feminist movement, the invention of the contraceptive pill and the expansion of educational opportunities for women. Coupled with substantial increases in females entering the workforce in the following decades, these changes gave women the social, reproductive and economic freedom to attain status and independence outside the marital framework, lessening the necessity of their remaining trapped in abusive, unequal or unhappy marriages.

The result was a divorce rate by 1980 that was four times greater than in 1950. Most states, including Maine, amended their laws to reflect this new social reality by permitting “no-fault” divorces. Previously a spouse had to prove moral fault on the part of the other spouse, through conduct such as adultery, desertion, or cruel and abusive treatment, in order to get judicial approval for divorce. Now only irreconcilable differences were needed.

While the divorce rate has started to decline in recent years, an increasing number of couples (an estimated 8 percent of coupled households) have chosen to cohabit without the benefit of formal marriage. About 40 percent of these non-marital unions produce children.

Anyone who has worked in the divorce or custody field can attest to the kaleidoscopic nature of modern marriage and family. Serial marriages and co-habitational relationships, single-parent families, blended families combining the offspring of many different parents, children living with grandparents, and children splitting their time between divorced or estranged fathers and mothers are commonplace. It is estimated that only about 63 percent of children grow up under the same roof with both their biological parents.

The net result has been erosion in the stability of family life and of the supportive environment it once offered for children. But this phenomenon has cut across a wide band of society and can hardly be blamed on gays. Heterosexuals have been quite successful in mucking up the institutions of marriage and family on their own.

It’s time for gays to have their chance at marriage, just as they have already claimed their rightful place in politics, business and the professions. If the purpose of marriage is to create a measure of societal stability by getting people to take responsibility for one another’s long-term welfare, then why should the state bar a whole segment of the populace from the chance to do just that?

Apart from love and companionship, marriage entails assuming legal obligations for economic support which don’t exist when couples simply date or cohabit. In Maine, a spouse married for 10 years or more is liable to pay alimony in the event of a divorce. Property acquired during marriage is deemed marital property to be divided up at the time of divorce. By marrying, each spouse insures the other will receive at least a portion of his estate upon death.

By approving same-sex marriage, society is validating the commitment of many who are willing to take on the legal responsibility of caring for one another and of raising children.

In the last analysis, that may be what the essence of traditional marriage is really all about.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.