The affidavit has lain on the corner of my desk for several weeks now, sparking mixed feelings of guilt and uncertainty every time I notice it. Even when I pile other papers and books on top of it, somehow this particular piece of paper manages to work its way back to the surface, reminding me again of what I have left undone. It should be so easy to complete, but each time I look at it, I find myself both reflecting upon and stymied by its key question:
I believe that these two people were married to one another for the following reasons.
That query seems at once obvious and absurd. It’s a question that few of us ever have to ask ourselves about any married couple, or even about our own marriages. How many of us have ever asked ourselves, “I believe I am married to my spouse because...”? But when the union has never been formalized with a wedding, but instead falls under the legal category of “common law,” finding answers to such a question may well become essential, particularly when such a marriage is challenged in a court of law. I did not witness these people exchange vows in a public ceremony, so what basis do I have for stating my belief?
I believe they were married because they spent the better part of the past fifteen years living together as a couple. I believe they were married because they came together to nearly every family gathering during that time. I believe they were married because they both invested their individual money into doing a thorough renovation of the house they shared. I believe they were married because of the annual winter trips they took together to warmer climes. I believe they were married because she gave birthday and Christmas gifts to his daughter and grandchildren, and he to hers. I believe they were married because she cared for him through several critical illnesses, including a grueling three-year bout that left him broken in body and spirit and finally claimed his life.
All those seem like valid reasons for my belief that these two loved ones should be considered husband and wife, yet something still prevents me from committing such thoughts to paper and having them notarized. I don’t have any doubts that they should in fact be considered married. Yet, at the same time, all these reasons seem inadequate to describing the realities of their lives and relationship. It’s not just that these statements are deceptively positive in their observations. I could just as easily add, I believe they were married because they fought just as much as my parents did or I believe they were married because she nagged him about household chores, and he tuned her out. For some, those statements might be even more convincing evidence of an authentic marriage.
But the truth is, the proof of any marriage is not easily quantifiable. A pastor friend of mine reminds couples who come to him for premarital counseling, “If you’re not married to one another before your wedding, the wedding itself isn’t going to change that.” Indeed, under that view, one might conclude that many couples do not become married to one another until sometime after their weddings, if ever. “Marriage” and “being married” are not necessarily synonymous. The former is a legal state of affairs that anyone can acknowledge, but the latter seems to imply a quality of relationship that is somehow recognizable to the partners and to others close to them that may yet resist legal description. Given that, I could also write, I believe that they were more married to one another than they were to either of their previous spouses, the mothers and fathers of their children.
Last month I attended for the first time a legal wedding for a same-gender couple. I had taken part in or had witnessed numerous gay and lesbian “blessing of relationship” ceremonies before, but, with the recent sanctioning of same-gender marriage in the District of Columbia, this was the first such ceremony to carry force of law, at least locally. These two men will now be legally recognized as spouses in their domicile and in a handful of states around the United States, though their marriage does not have any of the federal protections that opposite-gender marriages benefit from. And so, given the limited public goods that these men may enjoy, and the ongoing debate in our society on gay marriage, I glance at this same affidavit, lying next to the worship bulletin for this wedding, and the same question haunts me, I believe that these two people are married to one another for the following reasons.
Several weeks ago, Judge Vaughn Walker issued a ruling striking down California’s Proposition 8, a referendum passed two years ago that banned same-sex marriage in that state. In his decision (since stayed pending appeal), Walker wrote, “Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.” Most of the 136 pages of his decision lay out carefully the factual reasoning for this statement, including the following findings:
• “Marriage is the state recognition and approval of a couple’s choice to live with each other, to remain committed to one another and to form a household based on their own feelings about one another and to join in an economic partnership and support one another and any dependents.”
• “Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions. Like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples have happy, satisfying relationships and form deep emotional bonds and strong commitments to their partners. Standardized measures of relationship satisfaction, relationship adjustment and love do not differ depending on whether a couple is same-sex or opposite-sex.”
• “Same-sex couples receive the same tangible and intangible benefits from marriage that opposite-sex couples receive.”
• “The children of same-sex couples benefit when their parents can marry.”
I believe that these two people are married to one another because they have shared a household for nearly twenty years. I believe that these two people are married to one another because they have attended one another’s family gatherings together over the course of their life together. I believe that these two people are married to one another because they have renovated their home together. I believe that these two people are married to one another because they have helped one another through serious illness. I believe these two people are married to one another because they have adopted two sons and helped them make the journey from being labeled “at risk” and “special needs” to “gifted.”
I know that these two men are as married to one another as were the couple for whom I have been asked to submit an affidavit. And yet the reasons I can give for my understanding also seem equally insufficient. In both cases, using the words of Judge Walker’s ruling, I could bear witness to their “happy, satisfying relationships” and their “forming deep emotional bonds and strong commitments to their partners,” but I can’t quantify that according to any standardized measure. I simply must trust what I have witnessed and try to state that with equal confidence, as inadequate as it may seem.
Opponents of same-sex marriage are often as tongue-tied and ineloquent as I am in trying to explain the reasons for their convictions about what makes two people married. Their rationalization usually comes down to something like, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” as if that statement of faith were itself a proof of its truth. And even when they attempt a deeper explanation, it usually has to do with matters of procreation, of demonstrably questionable global and historical cultural practices, of sentimental notions of romantic love, all of which are intended to imply that the quality of the same-sex relationship is somehow inferior and therefore untrustworthy.
Yet, if mutual trust is one of the pillars of civil society, then it may be that these assertions of moral convictions or theological persuasions are in fact a subterfuge for what is a willful decision not to trust one’s fellow citizens. If that is true, then it is not the sanctioning of same-sex or common-law marriages that spurs the breakdown of civil society, but our refusal to affirm our trust in one another. As much as we value the current legal and religious formalities of marriage, and maintain that marriage is essential for society’s well-being, we know for certain that the bonds of trust are ultimately what hold all us together, married and unmarried, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Pressed to ask ourselves the question, I believe that these two people are married to one another for the following reasons, perhaps what our common life together requires of us is that we respond, I believe that these two people are married to one another because I trust them when they tell me they are. That may not satisfy our need for civic legitimacy or theological purity on matters of human sexuality, nor may it appeal to the human desire to celebrate love in all its forms. Indeed, it may seem like a weak witness to how two people live together as a committed couple, regardless of how we view these matters. But articulating how it is we know two people are married may simply defy all our legal definitions and theological musings. Certainly gender restrictions and the requirement of public vows are in themselves insufficient. It may be something we can only intuit. By placing trust at the center of our definition, we also appeal to the bedrock of all our relationships, however we define them. That is surely an affirmation to which we can affix our names.
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.