Justin Clardy: Marriage and Commitment

Emcee, philosopher, and doctoral student Justin Clardy talks polyamory, marriage, and commitment in new essay written especially for Ethnografis.

A lot of my friends have been getting married. You know, the icing on the cake. Doing your relationship the ultimate justice! But what concerns me most is that many are taking themselves to be doing their relationships justice without giving much thought to how much “justice” the institution of marriage can allow. For all of the joy and good cheer that marriage and weddings tend to bring, I hold that marriage, as it currently stands, is an unjust institution.

In America, we inhabit a culture that promotes the value of a particular kind of romantic relationship—namely, heterosexual dyads (one man and one woman that are usually sexually exclusive). The images of romantic couples that we find in marriage magazines, television shows, and other media reinforce this value. Marriage plays a role in this reinforcement as well because, for a long time, heterosexual dyads were the only types of romantic relationship that it promoted and protected. (Indeed this is still the case in a large number of states although some states have opened the institution as to include homosexual dyads.) As Elizabeth Brake points out in Minimizing Marriage, legal structures shape our choices by shaping our default expectations. However, heterosexual dyads are not the only types of romantic relationships that exist—for instance, despite their lack of equal representation in media, there exist such things as homosexual romantic relationships and well as polyamorus romantic relationships. Since this is so, one might wonder why the rights, privileges, and protections that are afforded to heterosexual dyads through marriage are not afforded to these alternative romantic relationship styles. What I have to say here can be applied to homosexual romantic relationships but I wish to focus on marriage and polyamorous relationships. (The act of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.)

Despite the fact that the institution of marriage existed as an exchange of property before the idea that marriage is essentially about love and caring relationships, we tend to think that marriage is about love. This thinking is problematic on two fronts. On the one hand, if marriage is not about love, the reason for privileging heterosexual dyads seems straightforwardly pointless. Certainly we have reason to think that marriage is not about love when we consider that not all couples who are currently married love one another—for instance, couples seeking divorce but who are not yet divorced or physically or emotionally abusive marriages. Marriage itself does not equal “good marriage.” On the other hand, if marriage is about love, then it would seem any that loving romantic relationship should be afforded the benefits of marriage no matter the style of that romantic relationship. This approach might provide grounds for not extending the benefits of marriage to polyamorous relationships if we can prove that polyamorous relationships cannot be loving romantic relationships. But can this be proven?

Many have tried to protect the traditional view of marriage by positing a connection between marriage and moral elements of romantic relationships such as promises or commitments. The thought here is that love involves commitment and marriage is the ultimate commitment one can make to they partner. However, marriage itself hardly seems necessary for such a commitment.

There is a distinction to be made between making a commitment and having a commitment. Having a commitment means to give someone or something deliberative priority. What this means is that a person’s—let’s call him Daniel—commitment to eating healthy, say, will influence his decision process whenever he is deciding what to eat. Making a commitment on the other hand, is an undertaking (publicly or privately) to have a commitment and can be done in many ways (for instance, stating a firm intention, assuring, or guaranteeing). Making a commitment and having a commitment are related in that making a commitment might express a person’s intention to have a commitment. But the two differ in that making a commitment is, itself, not enough for having a commitment. The point can be made clearer, consider a person who’s new year’s resolution is to work out (making a commitment) but actually does not go to the gym at all during that year. Thus we might say “Sure, Daniel made a commitment to working out, but is he really committed?” This question highlights the fact that having a commitment requires more than an expression of intention but instead requires a series of particular actions.

If we are merely making a commitment when we get married the expression of marrying loses a lot of its moral force given that making a commitment is not the same as having one. I mean, Jessica will be heartbroken after marrying Daniel if she finds that he has no commitment to her even though he made one to her at their wedding.

On the other hand, having a commitment is equally problematic for marriage because we can have commitments without knowing that we have them. Daniel may have a commitment without consciously deciding on it; Daniel may recognize, after the fact, that his pattern of intentions and choices has formed a commitment to continue down the same road. This is the case when, even without expressing his commitment to anyone (even himself), Daniel gets up every morning and goes to the gym to workout. As 3rd person viewers, we would find nothing problematic in attributing committedness to working out, onto Daniel. Additionally, we can also have conscious commitments without expressing them at all. That is to say that marriage itself does not make it the case that one has a commitment. This is evident in stable relationships where the parties to the relationship are not married—consider loving and stable homosexual relationships (in states where same-sex marriage is banned) and polyamorous relationships. Additionally, Daniel usually has a commitment to Jessica and to their romantic relationship already, before the two even wed.

So far I have shown that nothing about the essence of marriage involves commitment. However, even if we were to concede to the point that marriage is about commitment, it is still difficult to see why marriage rights should not be given to polyamorous relationships. The point here is that just because the commitments of polyamorists are different than that of monogamous dyads, it does not mean that there is no commitment in polyamorous relationships. Polyamorist triads or quads might have a commitment as to not include a fourth person (in the case of the triad) or a fifth person (in the case of the quad). Further, it is very difficult to see how these type of loving commitments might differ from the commitment by one parent to both (or all) of her children, or even the commitment by Daniel to his non-romantic friends. Given that these commitments are possible and generally accepted without calling in to question the love of the parent or Daniel’s love for his friends, one might wonder why the love of polyamorists is called in to question and discriminated against by the institution of marriage by not affording marriage rights to them but instead happily distributing those rights to their loving dyadic counterparts.

My discussion here has only considered a defense of marriage though the evocation of committedness. The focus on committedness here is warranted by the seemingly popular belief that marriage is about love which involves committedness and persons who have relationships with more than one person are not committed. I hope to have shown that at least this defense of marriage is particularly weak when considering why marriage rights should not be afforded to polyamorous relationships. Alternative defenses of dyadic marriage (such as defenses related to family structure) provide important insight that has not been included here; but even still these alternatives come up short. Unfortunately, I aint got the space here to consider all of these alternative defenses but I do hope to explore them in future work.

Justin Leonard Clardy

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