Well, I saw myself in more of a … patriarchal sort of role. You know, lots of pointing and scowling.

2 February 2006


So there is a bit of a debate between Fiona from Mental Meanderings and United Irelander at, wel, United Irelander over an article written by Ronan Mullen in The Examiner. The article in question has to do with marriage, and gay rights, and conventional marriage and all that sort of stuff.

But while I was over at UI’s I started to wonder what exactly is a family?

Mullen says that a traditional marriage works best, that children raised by a mother and a father fair better.

There is a wealth of information and analysis out there to show that children do better with the traditional family model. That children should ideally enjoy the society of their biological father and biological mother throughout their formative years should not be seen as an outdated concept when study after study is bearing it out.

But you know what? This traditional family that is being mentioned, it isn’t really all that traditional at all. Does the average family of today resemble the family of 100 years ago? Or even 50?

Maybe on a superficial level, but is it the norm for the father to work, and the mother to stay at home, minding the kids, totally dependent on her spouse for everything?

Is it still okay for a man to demand his conjugal rights?

Are fathers still expectd to play no real role apart from that of enforcing discipline in the family?

After all those are all traditional values too aren’t they? Tradition doesn’t mean right, doesn’t even mean a good way to do things. All it means is that this is the way previous generations have done things.

But if you look closer you’ll see that maybe the previous few generations have acted that way, but before that things were different. It used to be traditional for three generations to live in the one house. In some cultures it is traditional for parents to arrange marriages.

As far as I’m concerned the limiting the definition of what a family is to the modern nuclear family is pointlessly restrictive. What about aunts, uncles, cousins, the extended family?
Family is what you make it. And that means you can’t legislate what a family is, and you certainly can’t legislate what a family isn’t.

Which brings me on to marriage, and what exactly marriage is for.

Is it a public declaration of love and faithfulness between two people? Or is it simply a legal way of ensuring who next of kin is, and all the rights married couples get? Or is it to provide a partnership to bring up children?

And no matter what your answer, why exactly does the sex of the people matter?

And, most important of all, why do I keep typing marraige when I mean marriage?

So many questions, I look forward to your answers.

ETA: participants in the debate: Progressive Ireland | Disullusioned Lefty | Sicilian Notes | For All We Know | Realitycheck(dot)ie

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8 Responses

  1. Fiona says:

    That's part of the problem isn't it? Family is what you make it, but because families are both important for society and places in which people can be particularly vulnerable to abuse etc… we need to define them in law. Your main point is dead on – family and our conception of family changes as society changes. That doesn't mean it gets better or worse, just that it changes. We have to keep up with that change, which is why I think the ECHR definition of family is actually really good – the existence of real close personal ties between people. It makes sense and doesn't put people in boxes.

    Good post, and good questions. I look forward to seeing the debate develop here in the comments

  2. Fence says:

    The law always creates problems with something that has so many variables, like people's feelings and wants.

  3. anne says:

    I'm having a very hard time forming a coherent comment on this, but rest assured that I do the 'marraige' thing too.

  4. The 1948 International Congress on Mental Health, London, ". . . the family is one of the major obstacles to improved mental health, and hence should be weakened, if possible, so as to free individuals and especially children from the coercion of family life."

    Now, I don't quite agree with that quote, but I use it as an illustration of why the antiquated notion of the 'nuclear' family can only do more harm than good. Every aspect of our lives is redefined by the onslaught of time, why should that of the family escape it? It isn't the gender or sexual orientation of the parents that counts, it's the manner in which they raise their children. Yes, there are certain social difficulties associated with certain types of parents (gay or lesbian for eg), but as long the child has been given the right tools and framework for which to approach life, these obstacles can be effectively dealt with. The important thing, I think, is to realise that 'family' is not a definition, but a grouping of both the defined and undefinable. Legislation should seek to uphold that which can be defined, such as the rights of children etc.
    Marriage is a decision between consenting adults, and I fail to see how the lifestyles of those adults should govern how society treats them.

  5. NineMoons says:

    Family is what you make it.
    Legally, the old definition of family and marriage are religious in origin. Redefinition is necessary.
    I reckon that separating civil marriage/partnership stuff from religious marriage stuff would be a good idea. Separate civil and religious ceremonies for ALL religions. And equality between same-sex and opposite sex civil marriages/partnerships/whatever – in terms of divorce, inheritance, adoption etc etc. And to make it possible for two people of the same sex to both be registered as the parents of a child.
    Having said that, I can see why the "traditional" model of the nuclear family is so theoretically popular. Same as having both boys and girls in a family – different perspectives and different ways of doing things, learning how both sides think etc etc. I kind of like the older multi-layered family stuff, with strong ties between the older and younger generations. As long as it's not my mother-in-law living under my room (or me under hers!) and her telling me how to raise my children…

  6. Kelly says:

    Wow, those are some thoughtful answers, and I agree with all you guys. Here're my two cents on marriage, which will reveal how shallow I am: Being married keeps me from bopping around from guy to guy. That stability (at least in the physical realm; we won't get into emotions, etc.) helps my kids feel more secure. I feel more secure, knowing Scott can't just up and leave without a lot of messy trouble. So, I believe in marriage. But I also believe it can take many, many forms, and I don't want somebody else telling me what form MINE should take. Grr.

  7. Fence says:

    Welcome Anne, join me in my world of mis-spelling :)
    FM, great quote, and I'd agree with everything you have to say.
    NM, so what you are saying is that "in theory the extended family is a good thing, in theory"
    Kelly, extra security in a relationship strikes me as good a reason for marriage as any. I suppose in a way that is what all marriage is really about, showing the other person how committed you are.

  8. Carl V. says:

    I just wanted to say that inventing your own spellings Fence is perfectly justifiable on your own site…keep it up!