The Virginia Marriage Amendment and Polygamy

Last Sunday The Council for Social Justice of Congregation Beth Ahabah sponsored a panel discussion on the proposed Virginia marriage amendment. The panelists were uniformly impressive and the event was well attended.

However, I was troubled by Ms GastaƱaga’s, professional lobbyist for Equality Virginia, response to a question from the audience about polygamy. Her response that she didn’t think that there was a “slippery slope” was unconvincing. And I think in this debate it is much easier to construct talking points suggesting that gay marriage will open the door to a myriad of other relationships demanding equal recognition. I don’t have an easy answer either but I add an anecdote. I recently lived for six years in Riyadh and my best friend was a Saudi whose traditional father had two wives. I asked my friend Bandar many times about the experience of growing up in such a family and he consistently described it as a healthy and happy situation for all involved.

I do think that the issues can be separated. That the issue of one adult citizen being in love with another, and desiring to have the civil rights that government grants to two such citizens, is clearly distinct from polygamy. Support for this position may best be argued by the following that is taken from the book, Inside the American Couple, edited by Yalom and Carstensen:

"One of the most fundamental urges of human existence is to form a pair. Something in us calls for another—friend, lover, companion, spouse. Or perhaps it is something not in us, some lack, some deficit, that hungers for completion. In the Symposium, Plato fancifully expressed this craving by having Aristophanes contend that the first humans were unseparated twins who, once they were split apart, pined away for the missing half.

Sociobiologists assume that the search for a mate is propelled by an animal instinct to copulate. Human attachment theorists locate the source of adult pairing in the child-mother bond. Anthropologists look to the central importance of kinship systems in human cultures as an explanation for the universality of marriage. Political scientists understand marriage as an institutional means of assuring societal stability. Existentialists see the desire to merge with another as a way of attenuating a basic sense of isolation. Jews and Christians traditionally believe that marriage is ordained by God. Whether primacy is accorded to sexual, psychological, anthropological, political, existential, or religious factors, there is broad agreement that coupledom provides a viable answer to a basic human longing.

Here we are at the dawn of a new millennium still cherishing the belief that being part of a couple represents some central part of being human. Individuals, despite gender and sexual orientation, continue to search for soul mates, to move in together, to vow to love each other, and, when legally allowed, to enter into marriages. Despite myriad modern tendencies that could render long-term couplehood obsolete (such as casual sex, cohabitation, and increase in divorce and single parenting), more than 90 percent of Americans marry at some time during their lives. However anxious we may be as a society in the face of dissolving marriages and dysfunctional families, individuals continue to place their hopes in the marital bond. They exchange public promises to remain together—for better, for worse, for a lifetime. And among those who do not marry, partnering is still very widespread; few people live through adulthood without at least one lengthy, intimate relationship."


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