By Nathan Emmerich
Earlier this year the UK High Court rejected an appeal from Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld to be allowed to have a civil partnership. Whilst this opposite sex couple could get married – something that is now available to same sex couples in England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland – they and, it seems, many others do not wish to do so. They see marriage as an institution that has an inherently patriarchal dimension, and something that entails a certain degree of inequality. They therefore wish to become civil partners, an institution that is perceived as being free from – or, at least, less subject to – the history of marriage and its objectionable gender norms.
There is, of course, prima facie merit to the idea that restricting civil partnerships to same sex couples is discriminatory. There seems to be no justification for withholding access to civil partnerships on the basis of a couple’s gender. Indeed not only did the legalisation of same sex marriage result from similar arguments but the judgements rendered in Keidan and Steinfeld’s case appears to suggest the government ought to amend the law for this very reason. It seems likely, then, that the UK will soon follow the Isle of Man in making civil partnerships available to opposite sex couples. There is certainly a moral case to be made.
Putting such arguments to one side, the idea that a ‘civil partnership’ might be preferable to ‘marriage’ is consistent with recent socio-historical developments in the sphere of intimate relations. Writing in the early 1990’s the sociologist Anthony Giddens suggested that intimacy and, in particular, romantic love was being transformed and becoming democratised. He argued that marriage and long-term intimate relationships were moving away from apparently traditional and highly gendered notions of the nuclear family. Many developments can be understood as having contributed to these changes. These include the increasing number of women entering the workplace, the availability of contraception, the advent and destigmatisation of divorce, the decriminalisation and destigmatisation of homosexuality, and, insofar as it furthered the idea that sex, love and reproduction could be distinct phenomena, the development of IVF technology. However, it is also linked to developments in our socio-cultural understanding of what intimate relationships set out to be.
Arguably, the social and cultural norms that structure our intimate relationships continue to change and develop. The author of a recent article in the Guardian suggested that we should do more to distinguish sex and the kind of love that provides the basis for ‘life partnership’, for want of a better phrase. In the same paper, and in advance of a talk at the not particularly radical Hay Festival, Jeanette Winterson recently wrote about her own decision to marry. Towards the end of the article, she considers the way in which the gay community – or, perhaps more appositely, feminist scholars and the advent of ‘lesbian families’ – have previously critiqued marriage and its structural relation to gendered ideas of family orientated around a heterosexual couple, and the nuclear ‘ideal.’ In so far as gay marriage and civil partnerships are heteronormative, such notions are not subject to any direct challenge. Indeed, one could see them as inevitably reproducing such ideals or, at least, offering nothing in the way of an alternative vision for the kind of congenial communities Winterson fantasises about.
Such ideas would seem to indicate that our cultural conception of romance is being questioned, and possibly undergoing a significant shift, even if it has not yet become an outmoded idea(l). Consider the apparent decline in monogamy. Whilst one might consider if is it, or was, as prevalent as is commonly assumed there seems, at present, a move towards questioning its necessity. This can be seen in the increasing visibility of alternative sexual practices – including various forms of non-monogamy, hooking-up, swinging, group sex and a panoply of practices that can be placed under the label of ‘kink’ – as well as ideas around polyamory. At a time when a philosopher publishes a book entitled What Love Is: And What It Could Be and details the diversity of her own intimate relationshipsit seems that, two decades after the publication of The Ethical Slut, polyamory is having something of a cultural moment.
Of course, marriage does still have its defenders. Nevertheless, we might consider what the medium term social consequences of contemporary cultural changes could be. For example, it would seem that the idea of civil partnerships initially resulted from an attempt to accommodate both calls for gay rights and the concerns of social conservatives. Civil partnership legislation was an attempt to balance the socio-legal recognition of homosexual partnerships with the views of those who sought to maintain the idea of marriage as a heterosexual institution. However, one can also perceive it as a renewal of marriage, one that eliminated certain gendered prescriptions from the structure of the partnership. As such, we might think of it as a positive contribution and something that furthers the democratisation of intimacy. Civil partnerships create a space where, rather than as men and women, husband and wife, or, in the phraseology objected to by Keidan and Steinfeld, man and wife, individuals meet and move forward as equals.
Giddens saw the democratisation of intimacy as an indication that marriage and life-partnerships were taking on new meanings and purpose. Prior to this democratisation, marriage can primarily be seen as providing an institutional and emotional context for sex, reproduction and raising children. These are all things that, particularly since the late 19th and early 20th century, have been framed by romantic love. Not least because of its gendered connotations, the notion of romance, its relation to intimate partnerships, has been undergoing a profound shift. However, more recent developments have involved a move away from highly gendered ideals about romantic love towards less gendered conceptions of equality, towards what Giddens’ termed the pure relationship. Whilst Giddens did not suggest that the pure relationship was becoming disassociated from sex and reproduction, he saw no necessary or obvious connection. Furthermore, such activities could be recast and compared to or placed alongside other kinds of modern undertakings, including (mutual) personal development, the fashioning of the self, and the pursuit of careers. In short, sex, reproduction and the raising children is one of a range of ‘life projects.’ Whilst such projects are often pursued within the context of a pure relationship they are not, socio-culturally speaking, restricted to them in the way they once were.
An example of these developments can be seen in the emergence of platonic parenting, something that we might connect to the sharing of parental responsibilities between biological and non-biological parents. Following the advent and destigmatisation of divorce such arrangements – the heterosexual ‘step’ or ‘blended’ family – have become common. We might also relate ideas about platonic parenting to the varying levels of involvement that known biological fathers have with children being raised by lesbian couples, as well as the involvement of birth mothers with gay male couples. If we take raising children as a paradigm example of a life project, then this would seem to indicate that whilst intimate relationships are closely associated with the way we pursue meaningful lives, projects of personal significance and meaning can, at the very least, include those with whom we are not sexually intimate. Indeed, given the numbers of single parent families, perhaps it would be better to acknowledge that it can be pursued entirely beyond the confines of such relationships.
Consider, for example, the advent of co-parenting, an idea that is closely related to that of platonic parenting. These are cases where individuals who are not romantically or sexually involved elect to raise a child, or children, together. Indeed, in such cases, it may or may not be that the individuals involved are sexually compatible. Thus, two women who are not and have never been in a sexual relationship were recently recognised as co-parents by a Canadian court. It seems, then, that the matter of the parents’ sexuality or sexual involvement is largely irrelevant to the life project of raising children or parenting. All that matters is that they have elected to care for a child, and to do so together. Furthermore, this is something that might involve broader decisions. It may not just be about individual parents and their children but concern decisions to live within or create particular kinds of community, possibly of the kind Winterson asks us to imagine. Which is to say, ones that involve “moving beyond both marriage and the binary oppressions of gender” and, one might add, sexuality. Alternatively we might whether the modern family could become a team effort?
Changes and developments in existing socio-cultural norms raise questions about the socio-political function of both marriage and civil partnerships. If we take it that they involve the expression of romantic love alone, what purpose might any official sanction be thought to have? Of necessity family law has generated ways to address, recognise and accommodate relationships between children and parents in a range of circumstances, including when parents are not married, following a divorce, in the context of remarriage, in cases of IVF, gamete donation, and surrogacy. The fact is that the law can go some way to addressing such issues in the context of a recent court decision in the USA, which ordered a tri-custody arrangement for the child of a former polyamorous trio. Thus whilst monogamous intimate relationships may still be seen as the socio-culturally normative context for having and raising children, it is nevertheless clear that an increasing number of individuals are now actively pursuing arrangements that go beyond its strictures.
Given these developments, the notional basis for marriage or a civil partnership might be understood as largely economic. If so then we might again wonder why it should be restricted to couples that proclaim themselves romantically entangled and are presumed to be sexually intimate with one another whilst also being monogamous. One might, of course, respond with the thought that such restrictions are only apparent, and largely a matter of empty rhetoric. It would seem that no one challenges those who seek to get married – or to become civil partners – as to their emotional connection or the nature of their sexual practices. It may seem, then, that those who choose to lead their lives together in the context of a platonic relationship are free to enter into such arrangements.
Such notions are, however, belied by the fact that many would perceive it to be inappropriate for individuals in a platonic relationship to get married or have a civil partnership. Similarly, when one considers the difficulties faced by those whose relationships cross national borders then it would seem that, as well as financially rewarding employment and a minimum bank balance being a prerequisite for a spousal visa, there is also an active presupposition that the relationship has romantic and sexual basis. Nevertheless, even if they intended to spend their lives together, marrying one’s best friend in order to secure an immigration visa does not appear to be a legally sanctioned course of action. As such, there seems to be something decidedly non-platonic at the heart of marriage and civil partnerships. Yet how can we distinguish such case from couples that may well be engaged in an intimate partnership but do not wish to co-habit?
Whilst it may not been entirely normalised, presumptions about the sex and gender of those involved have been eliminated from the definition of intimate relationships, at least in the West. Whilst we might therefore consider the gender norms that inform such relationships to be increasingly fluid, it remains the case that such relationships are constructed as being essentially monogamous. We could then reflect on how long it might be before those involved in a polyamorous relationship will pursue the official recognition of their relationships. It may be that such calls will be accompanied by related demands from those whose relationship does not have a sexual component, but who are intimate insofar as they share a large proportion of their lives or who are engaged in a shared project such as raising children. As seems to be happening in the case of plural marriageand beyond, we might consider what our response might be.
Given our present cultural norms, and the diversity outlined above, one might perceive the need for intimate relationships to be the subject of formal recognition to be increasingly irrelevant, at least for the relationships themselves. Nevertheless, there are important legal and economic implications. Arguably implications of this kind have always been at the heart of marriage. It is, after all, an institution that secures both paternity and inheritance, and the notion of a dowry demonstrates the inherently transactional nature of the institution, at least historically. Whilst marriage no longer attracts the tax allowances that were once common, it and civil partnerships continue to provide significant economic benefits. Death taxes, for example, do not apply to spousal assets and a pension built up over a lifetime may be designed to provide support to individuals or to spousal couples.
The removal of the presumptive sexual nature of intimate relationships and challenging the idea that such relationships are restricted to couples raise legal and economic questions, questions that did not arise in the course of affording recognition to homosexual relationships, but are highly likely to arise in the context of plural marriage. It is far from clear that either platonic or polyamorous relationships can be appropriately accommodated without creating a system that is inherently open to manipulation and the avoidance of tax. The work of the sociologist Eva Illouz suggests that the 20th century idea(l) of romantic love is intimately linked to contemporary capitalism. The same kind of thinking can be levelled at the pure relationship; it can also be seen as reflecting psycho-therapeutic discourses as well as reinforcing the contemporary socio-political norms of consumerism. Even under a predominantly liberal political framework, the inherent individualism of late modern capitalism may well conflict with the kinds of intimacies that now appear to be emerging. As the same time, the kind of emotional self management that polyamorous relationships seem to require seems deeply entangled with a style of self-relation that serves the ends of corporate capitalism.
Something of this can, arguable, be seen in the emerging trend towards co-ownership of properties. As with sex and raising children, home ownership could be seen as being primarily associated with married couples, at least until recently. Furthermore, particularly insofar as it involves the creation of a home, one might consider the ownership of property in terms of a life project. At least some co-ownership arrangements might therefore be considered as counterparts to platonic parenting. Such arrangements reflect lives being shared and entail the mutual investment of emotion and meaning. Such changes are, of course, also being accompanied by developments that reflect the degree to which modern living is being individualised, at least for some. Nevertheless, if recent developments in housing policy reflect the end of the home owning democracy then perhaps future developments in intimate relationships will bring an end to monogamy, as least as a basic socio-political structure. What we might be left with is, however, more difficult to see. Nevertheless, one thing is clear. Our intimate relationships are structured by the socio-economic reality we inhabit. The question is whether our intimate relationships, and the pursuit of our life projects, can make a sufficient contribution to the restructuring of our socio-economic reality, and do so in such a way that the supporting political changes and developments can occur.
Nathan Emmerich is a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Ethics at Dublin City University. He holds a visiting research fellowship at Queen’s University Belfast. He tweets @BioethicsUK.