Tuesday, 30 April 2013

On Marriage, Civil Partnerships & Polygamy

On Sunday the BBC’s The Big Questions featured a debate about heterosexual civil partnerships, and why they should be the next step in legislation.  The logic is straightforward – if gay couples shouldn’t be discriminated against by being excluded from the right to marry, then heterosexual couples shouldn’t be discriminated against by being excluded from the right to be in a civil partnership.  No problem there, with a system that includes both marriage and civil partnerships for anyone that wants them (whether gay, straight, religious or non-religious), everyone’s preferences are catered for. 

Give it a few decades - once this has become the cultural norm - and I predict that gay people will choose marriage or a civil partnership depending on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and more and more heterosexual non-religious couples will choose a civil partnership over marriage in church, making church marriages predominantly favoured by religious people.  Everyone will be able to have a formal union with their beloved based on their beliefs and preferences – and that can only be a good thing. 

One contributor on the show, a woman from Catholic voices, objected that if we let it get that far then you’ll have people campaigning for polygamy to be legal, and goodness knows what else.  Yes it is true that that future populations may well be into things that we at present would find extreme and unlikely (don’t forget gay marriage would have seemed extreme and unlikely to our progenitors) – I hear polyamory (having multiple sexual relationships by mutual consent) is on the increase.  But I think she is wrong in fearing that we’ll one day be rooting for polygamy.  Here’s what she's missing.

Most people seem to object to polygamy on the grounds that it is bad for women (particularly given that men would be much more inclined towards multiple wives than women would multiple husbands).  They have a picture of horny men with four or five wives at their disposal, all feeling threatened and jealous of the other wives, bringing about mass insecurity and a diminishing of the traditional family unit.  This is true – but it misses a key point – polygamy is bad for women, but it is bad for men too.  It isn’t just bad for men and women because most individuals prefer to have one beloved and be in a monogamous relationship – it is bad because in a society in which a lot of men have four or five wives, there will be a lot of lonely and frustrated men with no wives at all.  This means that wives in polygamous marriages will have less reason to be faithful to their husband, because the competition is heightened by the increased number of single men out there.  So not only would you have a society full of threatened, jealous and insecure women, you’d have a society full of threatened, jealous and insecure men too. 

That’s why I think the woman from Catholic voices is wrong – if the vote for the legalisation of polygamy was on the agenda, most men and most women would vote against it.  Even if polygamy became legal, I still think for reasons already alluded to, most individuals would still opt for a monogamous relationship with one beloved.  In that case, you may ask, why not make it legal to cater for the minority that do want to be in a polygamous relationship, and leave the majority to their monogamous preferences?  That can’t do any harm can it – after all, isn’t choice always a good thing?  No, I think sometimes we humans need reining in – and this is one of those times, because I think the option of legalised polygamy would make monogamous couples much less happy and secure. 

The reason is as follows; as far as the law goes, at the moment you and your husband or wife have roughly equal strength on your side; if you are arguing lots, or if you’re going through a bad patch, your marriage is closed to the rest of the community, giving you the capacity to work through it as husband and wife (or as civil partners).  But if polygamy became legal, your husband or wife could leave and marry Alice, Jemma and John down the road – or they could invite Lucy and Kate into your marriage – and this would only increase the tension in marriages (and that’s to say nothing of the increase in legal complications).  That’s why having legalised polygamy as an option is bad, and why, if anything is going to be a preferred alternative to marriage and civil partnerships, I think it will be polyamory not polygamy – with the majority still preferring a monogamous marriage or civil partnership.