Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments"

Hoping to evade full legal equality for gays in the late 1990s, France instituted a form of civil union called PACS, but something funny happened on the way to separate-but-equal -- they forgot to make the new class unappealing enough:

For every two marriages in France, a PACS is celebrated, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSed couples, and the number is rising steadily ... the number of heterosexual men and women entering into a PACS agreement has grown from 42 percent of the total initially to 92 percent last year.
It turns out straight people like the idea as much as gay people do, since it provides most of the legal benefits of marriage without the religious trappings. It is also less encumbering:
But PACS unions are also seen as more appealing than marriage because they can be dissolved without costly divorce procedures. If one or both of the partners declares in writing to the court that he or she wants out, the PACS is ended, with neither partner having claim to the other's property or to alimony.
In view of this, Andrew Sullivan feels vindicated in his longstanding claim that nothing short of complete marriage equality can ever achieve the goal of "keeping society together."

He may be right, but it's worth pausing to consider what "keeping society together" really means. It sounds like it means, among other things, that it should be difficult and costly for couples to separate. Were I a divorce lawyer, I would be inclined to agree, and I might be recoiling alongside Sullivan at the specter of easily-dissolved pairings.

As it is, though -- and I say this with all apologies to the not-insubstantial portion of the gross domestic product that goes to court costs, hourly attorney fees, bridal gown pornography, and all the rest -- I am not quite persuaded that tying human pair bonds to the lead sinker of heavy-handed legal and financial encumbrances is really anything other than institutionalizing particular mass self-deceptions.

I think it's worth listening to the statement being made by French couples who, yes, want to recognize their coupling in public but who also want to be free. And as always, listening to the impulse to be free is not justified because its consequences are in all cases to the good (social, individual, other) but because curtailing this impulse tends to fail. So we pay it up front, honestly, or we pay it up behind the scenes, plus interest, in unexpected and almost always ugly ways.


Mike said...

As a veteran of two uncomplicated divorces who used the attorney-drawn papers from the first as a guide to drawing up and filing the second myself, I can confirm that the current system, at least in South Dakota, is a money tree for lawyers. It doesn't help that the most basic questions are considered "legal advice" and therefore unanswerable by the clerk of courts.

I recall reading an opinion that the best way to "save" marriage and lower the divorce rate would be to make it harder to get married in the first place, by requiring more extensive premarital counseling and general hoop jumping. This would theoretically result in more committed couples. I'm not sure how this would work in practice, but it might prevent a few mistakes.

Dale said...

Mike, thanks for the comment. I've heard your comment echoed so many times that I have absolutely no doubts of it.

I'm not sure what the right answer on all this is. I do know that I am very uneasy with the church-state mixture in the current system in the USA. And the "easy in, difficult out" nature of what we have now is rife with consequences.