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Marriage Alternatives in a Free Society
Steve Cobb and Debra Ricketts

What Is Marriage?

In many legal, spiritual, and practical ways, marriage creates a single super-organism from multiple individuals. In tying the knot and joining their lives, marriage partners bind themselves together in the tightest emotional and legal bonds in human society. This joining has its limits: the members of the collective still retain certain rights as individuals, for example, individuals can legally cause physical damage to themselves, but not to a spouse, who retains the sole property right in his or her own body until death or incapacitation. This suggests that marriage is a mingling of physical property rights, but only to a limited degree of rights in one's person.

A glance at a dictionary entry confirms that marriage is a difficult thing to define, but it is easy enough to describe. A number of features spring to mind:

Long-term commitment (infinite horizon) Cohabitation Sexual exclusivity (the mating game has ended)
Spiritual joining Children Public declaration
Love Common property Recognition by the community (e.g. marriage certificate)
Mutual loyalty Division of labor Primary "next of kin" status
Shared dreams, projects, interests, and values Rights of inheritance .
Mutual care and support . .

These familiar features of marriage fall into three broad categories: emotional, practical, and external. The latter category is the most interesting: marriage is important not just for who is in, but who is out, and that those on the outside recognize the marriage as a contract to be both respected and enforced. This probably explains why in all cultures the wedding ceremony is universally an extravagant public affair.

While none of the marriage features is itself either necessary or sufficient (we can easily imagine a marriage without any one of them) the more such features a relationship has, the closer it approaches the marriage ideal. The fewer it has, the less likely it is to be recognized as a marriage. Which actually are or should be included can be set by tradition, legislation, or contract, and they may change over time.

It is striking that none of the above-mentioned features depends much on either the sex or the number of the marriage participants. Homosexual spouses could always adopt children or have them biologically in various ways (same as do heterosexual couples where one of them is sterile). Polygamous or group marriages, while stretching the notion of sexual exclusivity, do not break it if the number of marriage partners remains relatively small.

Marriage Alternatives

The various marriage configurations vary along two dimensions: the number of males (zero, one, or many) and the number of females (zero, one, or many). Most importantly, they include:

    Heterosexual: one male and one female (M-F)
    Gay: one male and one male (M-M)
    Lesbian: one female and one female (F-F)
    Polygyny: one male and multiple females (M-nF)
    Polyandry: one female and multiple males (nM-F)
    Group Marriage: multiple females and multiple males (nM-nF)

In western societies, variations other than monogamous heterosexual are the subject of a fair amount of politicized debate. The two most important categories of marriage alternatives are homosexual and polygamous. Questions to ask about a marriage variation are:

    What are its relative advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses?
    Is there anything so wrong about a structure (i.e. it violates someone's rights) that it should be forbidden by law?

Comparing Marriage Alternatives

If the prevalence of a trait or strategy is any indication of its adaptiveness, then probably the most common form of marriage, heterosexual monogamy, is the strongest. But there are a lot of unhappy monogamous marriages, and presumably there are a lot of happy alternative marriages. One can assume that people generally act rationally in their own best interests, so that anyone choosing to voluntarily enter into an alternative form of marriage does so expecting more happiness than they would get in the standard arrangement. Almost any criticism that one could level at an alternative marriage would also apply to some monogamous marriages and, as mentioned above, there is no one component that is necessary for marriage. Based on the common desired features of marriage, one could compare the marriage alternatives according to several measures:

    Personal fulfillment
    Long-term commitment
    Welfare of children

Homosexual Marriage

One of the biggest challenges in a heterosexual marriage is that the partners come from different planets, Mars and Venus, and they frequently do not speak the same language or have similar goals and values. Homosexual marriages suffer less from that problem, which can still be difficult enough between any two individuals. But since men tend to be much more promiscuous than women, and generally attracted to youthful partners, M-M marriages should tend to be much less stable than M-F marriages, which in turn should be less stable than F-F marriages. But the more children in a family, the more likely the couple is to remain together, and homosexuals of either sex would be less likely to have children.

Children tend to be better cared for by their natural parents (child abuse occurs most commonly between stepfathers and stepdaughters), but we would not expect to see worse treatment of children by homosexual adoptive parents than heterosexual ones (assuming that homosexuality does not correlate with pedophilia or other child abuse, and we believe that it does not).

If, as commonly is said, homosexuals have a higher average income than heterosexuals, children in such a family would tend to be materially better off. Extending the benefits of marriage to homosexuals would give them the same advantages of security and shared rights as enjoyed now by heterosexuals.

Polygamous Marriage

Perhaps the most common form of polygamy is polygyny: multiple women married to a single man. In most Western countries, this setup has been decried by all but a few as manipulative and demeaning to women. But here's a trick question: who benefits from polygyny, males or females?

Obviously those who voluntarily enter into it see some benefit, but who are they? Males with enough money or status to attract and support multiple females, and females whose other alternatives are inferior or otherwise unsatisfactory men or perhaps no one at all if for whatever reason (insufficient competition?) men in the environment are not pursuing long-term mating strategies. The losers in a polygyny-permitting society are the opposite counterparts: low-status males (known in fact as "losers") and attractive women.

It is hard to imagine that M-nF marriages are ideal, assuming that women do not like to share a man's attention (unless they prefer to share the burden of the man's attentions), but for a given woman it may be the best option. For support of the resulting children, polygyny demands strong contract enforcement against deadbeat dads, and probably increased life insurance. There seems little difference between polygyny and serial monogamy, except that the father is still around.

Besides polygyny, there are the other, less common versions of polygamy, including group marriage. This latter version of marriage gained significant press in the United States during the 1960's era of "free love". Author Robert Heinlein - well-known among both libertarians and science fiction afficiados - was a vocal advocate of alternative marriages structures, developing such concepts as "line marriages" in his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

A more recent - and perhaps more surprising - advocate for polygamy came in the form of the National Organization of Women. Luci Malin, Vice-Chairman of the Utah chapter of NOW, recently stated that polygamy can be a solution for the problems of working mothers. "It seems like a pretty good idea for professional women, who can proceed with their careers and have someone at home they can trust to watch their children. It solves the day care problem," she said.

Other practical advantages of polygamy include:

    Greater economic power (multiple breadwinners, single mortgage)
    Death of a parent less likely to result in poverty or destitution for the remaining family members
    Common household tasks spread among more people
    More personal time available to all members, without depriving children of attention
    Potentially more enjoyable sex life without the risk of venereal disease
    Less likelihood of being left for another man/woman

It should be noted, however, that polygamy has one major drawback - very often individuals simply do not wish to share their partner with another person, no matter how close. This jealously factor is highly significant and should not be dismissed lightly; polygamy can only work with full, enthusiastic consent of all involved. Relationships that require heavy persuasion of one's spouse are surely doomed to fail.

External Recognition of Marriage

In the same way that free individuals can freely enter into a contract and call it "marriage" (or whatever else they want), in a free society, other people would be free to respond to that contract as they wish, their only moral obligation being to not induce one of the marriage participants to break the contract. For example, employers would be free to grant various benefits to spouses, or not. They might extend medical coverage to the first wife or husband, but not any additional spouses. As with marriage itself, relations would be governed by the freedom of association and contract.

The Advantage of a Free State

In a libertarian society, in which all relationships are based on mutual consent, and all relationships based on mutual consent are legitimate, anyone could "design their own marriage" based on contract according to their own needs and values. Given the traditionally left-wing leanings of homosexuals, and right-wing religious leanings of polygamists, one could expect some conflict between the two groups, but those who want freedom for themselves should be willing to accept it for others.

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About the Authors:

Steve Cobb, Secretary for the Free State Project, is a barstool psychologist with minimal experience or formal education in the law or psychology of marriage. He is acquainted with few homosexuals and no polygamists, has never actually met anyone in an alternative marriage, has never been married himself, and is generally unqualified to discuss this subject. Feedback would be welcome from those with a more informed opinion.

Debra Ricketts, Treasurer of the Free State Project, is married and the mother of two teenagers.

Reprinted with permission.


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