JULIET: What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?For the most part, marriage is like death or pregnancy, a status with no gray areas. Either you are married or you aren't. But when you really look into the technicalities, it turns out that marriage isn't quite so simple. Because it is a conglomeration of a social status, a religious rite, and a legal status, there are exceptional cases where people are married legally but not religiously, or religiously but not legally. One case where church and state diverge is with religions that prohibit divorce. Thus someone married in the Catholic church might get a legal divorce, making them single legally, but still married as far as the church is concerned. Those divorcees may even marry again, creating marriages that are recognized by the state, but not by their church. Less well known, some people choose to get married religiously but not legally. In his remarks at our wedding seven years ago, our pastor commented on vows before God versus vows before man, and observed that several times a year he would be approached by seniors in his congregation who had lost previous spouses and found a new partner to share the rest of their lives. Because of legal ramifications of wills, trusts, children and inheritances, they did not want legal marriage, but they did wish to be married before God.
ROMEO: The exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine.
JULIET: I gave thee mine before thou didst request it: And yet I would it were to give again.
ROMEO: Wouldst thou withdraw it? for what purpose, love?
JULIET: But to be frank, and give it thee again.
For same-sex couples, we get the complexities of the legal vs religious vs social aspects of marriage, compounded by the complexities of legal recognition being afforded by degrees and in different times and places. If a same-sex couple marries in Canada or Massachusetts but then moves to another state, are they no longer married? (For that matter, if they even visit another state, does their marriage legally go on hiatus for the length of their vacation?) Then there are the same-sex couples who married in San Francisco in 2004, whose marriages were ultimately annulled. And those of us who are marrying in California now, whose status will be quite murky if Proposition 8 passes in November. So it's not always clear who may obtain a marriage license now, since you can't get a marriage license if you already are married. I think the official position is that if a same-sex couple were married in Canada or Massachusetts, they can't get married in California because they already are married. However, those who married in San Francisco, since those were officially voided, can now marry. In fact, we attended a marriage ceremony in June for some friends who had married in San Francisco. Legally speaking, they were marrying for the first time. Again.
In the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, she teases him that she can't give him a vow that she has already given. My husband and I now face that puzzlement for real. Seven years ago, we were married in a wonderful wedding ceremony, exchanging vows of lifelong loving commitment before God, family, and friends, but not the state. This has left us in one of those gray areas I spoke of. Whenever I am asked if I am married, I do my best to assess the context of the question, and give my best honest answer, which may be "yes", "no", or "it depends why you're asking". Socially, the answer is an unequivocal "yes". Legally, the answer is pretty clearly "no". Although even then, in the interest of full disclosure, I sometimes put an asterisk, since if the concern is e.g., mutual responsibility for debts, we have that as legally registered domestic partners. But the complexity of our status makes it feel strange to be marrying again. In our hearts and minds, we'll be simply renewing our vows. But for our upcoming legal ceremony, we need to exchange new vows, entering lawful wedlock for the first time.
The way I make sense of this is to realize that marriage is more than an agreement between two people. An essential aspect of marriage has always been that the vows are public (if not openly public, always attestable by a witness), because the agreement also involves a larger third party: God, family, society, and/or the state. In our original wedding ceremony, we explicitly incorporated the role of the assembled family and friends, asking them to give a "we do" in a vow to uphold and support us as a married couple. They agreed to do that essentially in exchange for our vows to each other. Those who love us give their support and recognition not simply because they love us, but because they are counting on us to uphold our vows, to take care of one another in sickness, to support one another in hardship. And those are the same sort of reasons that a state is legitimately involved in marriage. The state is the "safety net of last resort" for those who become unemployed, indigent, or too sick to care for themselves. In our society, families are the safety net of first resort, and the state counts on the formation of families by marriage to weave those safety nets. The state accords married couples certain "rights" because we promise to be there for one another in the face of hardships, one another's "first responders", rather than just being disconnected individuals depending on the state.
Our original vows were made before God, family and society, but not the state. Thus, we need to make new vows, similar in content, but with legal recognition and ramifications that make them distinct from the previous vows, and more importantly, for a different third party -- the state. To take up the terminology of the revised marriage licenses, you could say that our two marriages will involve the same "party A" and "party B", but a different "party C". When not being so philosophically analytical about it, I simply say this: we will be renewing our vows for the benefit of the State, who wasn't able to attend the first time.
We can suffer the giving and re-giving of vows, puzzling whether we can re-give a vow already given, because I trust my husband knows that the love that gives breath and life to the vows knows no such obstacles. As Juliet continued:
But to be frank, and give it thee again.
And yet I wish but for the thing I have:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.