Globe and Mail

Marriage is better than common-law

Saturday, May 22, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Now let gay people go all the way. Let them get married.

By ruling that same-sex couples have the same rights and obligations as common-law couples, the Supreme Court of Canada has gone half the distance. It declared on Thursday that when there is a relationship of both intimacy and economic dependence, the dependent partner is entitled to the same support someone of the opposite sex would get.

Common-law is better than nothing. But your mother was right. Marriage is better than common-law.

Why? Because a union recognized and sanctioned by society lasts longer. The marital unit is the bedrock of bourgeois society, and a flourishing bourgeois society is the greatest guarantor ever known of peace, order, good government and the maintenance of property values. Married couples save and invest. They buy RRSPs, mow their lawns, renovate their kitchens, pay their taxes on time, sacrifice to send their kids to college, and grow more conservative as they get older. They take out their garbage. They look after each other in sickness and old age, thereby diminishing claims on the public purse.

Married people are generally more contented and live longer than single people or even those who live common-law. They have higher incomes and lower unemployment. The marital state encourages stability, responsibility and continuity and inculcates the lessons of tolerance, temperance, forbearance, respect and mutual obligation.

Marriage, in short, is such a beneficial instrument of public policy that the state ought to provide large incentives to take the plunge, irrespective of gender orientation. If the Christian right, Real Women and the Family Action Coalition genuinely believe in family values, they will gladly pay for gay and lesbian weddings, and show up to throw the rice.

There are actually a few gay people here and there who dislike Thursday's Supreme Court ruling. In the gay community they're known as anti-assimilationists. They want the state to stay out of their bedrooms, and also out of their financial arrangements. They believe in rejecting stereotypical gender roles, not reinventing them, and they think the very idea that one person might owe another person something after they split up smacks of patriarchy. They want to have as little as possible to do with the straight world's bourgeois rules. They want to make their own.

I thought exactly the same way back in 1971. I thought women and men should unite as free spirits, no obligation, so long as it was groovy. Marriage was a ball and chain, not to mention a total failure of imagination. As it turned out, this concept of equal and unencumbered relationships wound up working better for some people (generally men) than for others (generally women), and it did not contemplate a time when free spirits would acquire houses, mutual funds, children, a complete set of Mikasa china from Ashley's, and other impedimenta.

"I'm a big believer in this ruling because it's meant to protect the more vulnerable person, no matter who that is," says Brian Berg, a gay lawyer who has been in a committed relationship for several years. "What's the difference between the wife who's kicked out after 20 years and the gay man in the same boat? You're 45, and you've forgone your career, and where are you?"

One gay friend told me she's convinced the Supreme Court decision will make some gays and lesbians less cavalier about love. "I'll get in trouble for saying this, but a lot of gay people enter relationships quite lightly. Maybe it's because they're not sanctioned by straight society. Now they'll have to think a lot harder. What the court's saying is that if you want to be an equal member of society, that equality comes with obligations as well as rights."

Not that it's always easy. Some gay people I know are just a little disconcerted by the new dilemmas they face. Should they insist on a cohabitation agreement before they move in together? Will mentioning the subject put a big chill on the romance? "It's not politically correct to say this," says one person darkly, "but there are gold-diggers in all colours of the rainbow." Will the new law inspire a gusher of palimony suits? Will there be a thousand more Brian Orsers?

"I've got a lot more money than he does," says another person about a flourishing new relationship. "We're in love. But I'm not sure how I feel about supporting his kid."

Let them get married. Chances are, like Mom said, it will last longer if they can. And two parents are better than one.


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