Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On "Not Just Roommates" by Elizabeth H. Pleck ***

Pleck wants cohabitors to have the same rights (and arguably obligations) as married folk. As she sees it, this is one of the last lines of civil rights that has not been fully fixed in the legal and government realm. Morality should have nothing to do with the law.

Many of these observations seem absurd to me. Why even have marriage if cohabitors have all the same rights (and obligations)? And what is the law other than our codified sense of morality?

The book is engaging, however, as an exploration of the history of cohabitation and of changing community standards. Sadly, laws against cohabitation have often been put in place or enforced, not primarily because they were meant to uphold marriage (the general excuse), but because they helped to foster other less worthy societal goals. For example, community officials, at various points in history, have "dropped in on" women who were on welfare. If a man was found living with the woman (or even if it was only suspected, because she had a boyfriend of sorts, live-in or not), then she was booted off the welfare roles, saving the government money. The object here was to save money rather than to actually help families. Likewise, cohabitation laws have also been used at times to prevent interracial relationships. Finding it illegal to marry, interracial couples also found it illegal to forge a live-in relationship outside of marriage. In other words, just plain illegal.

The latter is an issue that affects the gay and lesbian community now. And Pleck's chapter on that is rather fascinating from a legal standpoint. In times past, many gays and lesbians called into question the whole culture of marriage, seeing it as limiting to sexual freedom and as indoctrinating as to an old patriarchal view of society. However, gays and lesbians also found themselves out of luck when it comes to many of the rights granted to married couples (shared health insurance being a big one, various inheritance and estate issues as well), so a vast segment pushed to have those rights accorded to themselves also. Some communities reacted with domestic partnership laws that have benefited live-in romantic partners as well. But a domestic partnership isn't always recognized with the same legal force as marriage, and the difference--even in name--suggests that one form of relationship is more legitimate than another. Hence, a community that has often called into question the value of marriage ironically also has ended up pushing for the right to have marriage extended to itself.

Which gets back to the question of why accord the same rights and obligations to people living together as to those who marry? Why live together rather than marry, if all the same rules apply? And vice versa? Is it the government's job to encourage marriage or to be involved in the marriage business at all?

I can see where an argument can be made for simply letting every person, married or not, have the same tax benefits, visitation benefits, health-care benefits, be it that the partner is a spouse or not. But why stop there? Why not "just roommates"? After all, how fair is it to extend such rights to people who are in love versus to those of us--me for most of my life--who have not managed to find such love but who might have another person who might benefit from the same legal amenities?

In this case, maybe marriage should be left to our religious and other institutions. Attach no government policy to such a status whatsoever. After all, our government has made a mockery of it anyway, the way that couples can forge and unforge such pacts with such ease such that marriage often isn't any more than a contractual agreement to live together for a time anyway.

But then again, government does have a role to play in encouraging behaviors that contribute to the stabilization of society, and I would argue that marriage, when implemented in a proper way, does just that. Yes, children are resilient, as Pleck argues in the first chapter, but a child raised in the stable home of a married couple is generally going to end up having an easier go at adult life than one who is bounced from home to home, single parent to stepparent to single parent. In the end, on a social dynamic sphere, the institution of marriage is about the kids (more than the couple).

No comments: