The sceptic’s Position: The distinction between being married and not being married is a sham, a fiction, not a real distinction. Perhaps this is what those who say “marriage is just a piece of paper” mean. Printing or not printing some claim on a piece of paper cannot determine whether the claim is true or not in reality (even if the paper purports to do just that). (Strictly speaking, it is not just a piece of paper, since the paper as a legal document does accord certain rights and protections.)

The sceptic’s Argument: Premise 1): All real distinctions have workable criteria to judge one side from the other. Premise 2): There are no workable criteria to judge being married from not being married. Therefore the supposed distinction is not real.

In support of Premise 1): Without workable criteria no one could tell when one side of the distinction applied rather than the other. For example, in our issue, no one could tell when 2 people were married or not married. All the criteria that have been proposed are seriously problematic, which is as Premise 2) would predict. So there is no real way to determine whether 2 people are married or not.

In support of Premise 2):

Marriage has nothing to do with the couple having the opinion that they are married. Two people in a mental institute could by coincidence share such a delusion.

Marriage has nothing to do with how long 2 people have been living together. (Living together for six months supposedly establishes common-law marriage.) If it really did, then some honeymooners would not yet be married; they’d have to wait, say, 6 months. If it really did, then fathers who sexually abuse their daughters for more than 6 months would actually be married to them. Certainly there is no great difference between living with someone one day less than 6 months and living with someone one day more than 6 months.

Marriage has nothing to do with having sex with someone. If it did, rape victims would be married to their rapists. If it did, then someone who dies after the ceremony but before the marriage bed would die unmarried and leave no widow or widower. Nor has it anything to do with the number of times one has had sex with someone.

Marriage has nothing to do with the right person pronouncing the couple to be man and wife. If it did, why can it be annulled if it wasn’t consummated? And if the priest was a fake, it does not make one any less married. Adam and Eve couldn’t have been married, if it did.

Marriage is not a matter of saying the right words (because they might not be meant). If it did, actors and actresses would end up married for playing the parts in a wedding scene

Marriage is not a matter of making the right promises because those may actually be made before the marriage, or they may be made without the intent of keeping them on the part of one partner, but the couple would still be regarded as married. Again, some regard themselves as married without making explicit promises.

Marriage is not a matter of some combination of these criteria, because this will exclude too many people.

Religious people may feel that this is not so. They might distinguish between being married in a strict sense and merely claiming to be married. Thus being married in a strict sense would involve making promises with true intent and being pronounced married by a priest or minister and consummating the marriage. Until all three criteria are met, the couple is not strictly speaking married, whatever they might think. And if the priest was a fake, they are not strictly speaking married. And should this fact one day come to light, they ought to get properly married. But do converts to Catholicism, or any other religion, have to get “remarried” to be properly married? No. But by the “strictly speaking” view, they should.

Thus marriage is a sham. It is a hollow attempt to provide social legitimacy to some sexual practices. But the plain truth is either those practices are happening or not. Nor can marriage really provide any security as one’s partner can leave or be unfaithful at any time, married or not. So why get married? Why participate in a sham? Why participate in a dishonest myth of security? There is no good reason to do so. And doing so is actually immoral, because by marrying you lend credibility to the deception that marriage is something real.

Response to the sceptic’s position

Because of the problems which have been shown to follow the lack of agreement about what marriage means or requires, a defence will require taking a stand on what marriage means or requires. Such a stand cannot please everyone. So any defence will start out in controversy. The best we can hope for is a most plausible meaning for marriage.

A plausible meaning for marriage is: a public commitment between two persons to share their lives. Thus the exchange of such vows in a marriage ceremony makes a couple married. As expected this definition will not please all. Liberals will ask why must these commitments be public. Conservatives will ask why religion or at least a judge need not be involved. In response to the liberals, the commitments need to be public because in the event of a later dispute over whether the commitment really was undertaken by one of the parties, witnesses would be required. Likewise the need for legal or religious officials has to do with the witnesses. So in response to conservatives, only in large and complex societies will there be a real need to have an official acknowledge that commitments were exchanged. It would not be of much help to have some untraceable stranger be the witness for the larger society. But in smaller societies religious or legal representatives are not essential to marriage.
But why, the sceptic will ask, should anyone actually care whether the commitment was made at some point in the past (and thus why care to have witnesses who can back up the claim)? What disputes could actually be settled by establishing who made what commitment? If the relationship has soured, one cannot sweeten it by proving that the couple had committed to maintain it. Marriage cannot really provide any security as one’s partner can leave or be unfaithful at any time, married or not.
Part of the answer to the sceptic will be to acknowledge that in part the security provided by marriage is not intended to guaranty the future existence of the relationship, but to provide remedies for the failure of the relationship if that happens. In committing to share lives, people often make sacrifices and accept arrangements involving vulnerabilities that they would not normally make or accept. Marriage can provide compensation for sacrifices and abused vulnerabilities when the relationship breaks down, even though marriage cannot make someone continue to love you.

A more important part of the answer to the sceptic about marriage’s use for security runs in the opposite direction. For perhaps being married has held some worthwhile relationships together during temporary periods of dispute, anger or seemingly insurmountable problems of any kind. Sceptics have sneered at the idea of staying in a loveless relationship, because of its legal or social status. The idea of honouring one’s commitments without emotion or desire for the other person seems cold, empty and definitely unromantic. But the sceptic’s characterization of staying together for the sake of the marriage may be unfair.

The sceptic’s characterization is unfair because it treats as static elements of human psychology that are essentially dynamic, namely: emotions and desires. The sceptic’s characterization gains plausibility from the common acceptance of an ideal we might call “true love”. Supposedly true love is a love so overwhelming that one has an irresistible desire for the other person ever after, and one’s feelings for the other would be so passionate that they will never change or waver. If one experiences true love, then one would never have comparable feelings or desires for any third party, and thus one would have no doubts about the identity of one’s true love. This is the love of “happily ever after”. But this is a totally unrealistic picture of love or any human relationship.

Because human feelings and desires are dynamic no relationship can enjoy a 100% constant desire or passion. If you make this ideal the standard by which to decide whether your relationship is worth saving, then you doom your relationship, you set it up for failure. One is basically expecting one’s relationship to hold together by magic rather than by work and commitment. If “true love” is your standard then if you feel momentary affection towards a third party, this proves that the magic is not there (in the earlier relationship). A seeming advantage of the true love view is that one does not have to be responsible for their relationships. One does not control the presence or absence of this magic; one is simply overwhelmed by its presence when it is there, and when it is not, no one is to blame. To expect work and commitment to play a role in the relationship is already to admit that the magic is lacking, because in true love these feelings and desires will be automatic and uncontrollable.

On the other hand, if one admits that human feelings and desires are dynamic and not constant, one can prepare for the possible changes. One can acknowledge these changes without concluding that there is anything wrong with one’s relationship. One can accept responsibility for not letting desires and feelings for third parties overwhelm one, while acknowledging the existence of these desires and feelings, which allows one to deal with them honestly.

When the sceptic suggests that staying together because of past commitments made is cold, empty and unromantic, the sceptic is adopting the standard of “true love”. The sceptic is suggesting that if the relationship should temporarily lack the feelings of affection and the desire, it is not “true love” and so not worth maintaining. The absence of the magic cannot be fixed by clinging to commitments made in the past. The sceptic seems to make the mistake of thinking feelings will be static twice. First the sceptic expects that the initial intense feelings will be permanent and secondly assumes that the absence of feelings of affection must be permanent. Neither assumption is plausible. The idea of being trapped in a loveless marriage equally assumes that these feelings can’t change. But feelings and desires are constantly changing.

Variation of feelings and desires is normal. Using the commitment of marriage to maintain a relationship through the changes of feelings and desires is also normal and not a sign that the relationship is defective for not being true love. One cannot always choose the feelings and desires one experiences but one can choose to live up to one’s commitments or not. The point of making the commitment is to provide one with reason and incentive to live up to that commitment in the future. The existence of the commitment cannot guaranty the relationship forever, but so long as the partners choose to honour those commitments the relationship will continue through a wide variety of feelings and desires. Relationships that do not include commitment can endure only through chance.

Thus marriage is a kind of commitment and it is not a sham, it is not just a piece of paper, it is a realistic response to the real nature of human emotions and desires.