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Marriage, European style

By Greg Strange
web posted September 26, 2005

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage,
This I tell ya brother, you can't have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
It's an institute you can't disparage,
Ask the local gentry, and they'll say it's element'ry.

Lyrics from the song "Love and Marriage," written
by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.

The song was a big hit for Frank Sinatra in 1955, but could never be a hit now, contemporary sensibilities being what they are. Whimsical pieces about the undisparagable institution of marriage just don't make it any more in a pop culture whose rhythms and images are so often immersed in immodesty, vulgarity and hedonistic promiscuity. Love and marriage, horse and carriage? It's all so last century.

But if love and marriage did, once upon a time, go together like a horse and carriage, at least within the context of whimsical song craft, in-laws did not. What I mean by that has nothing to do with the usual squabbling that goes on between in-laws, but rather with in-laws who fall in love and want to get married after the dissolution of the marriage that made them in-laws in the first place.

Confused? Okay, let's say that Nigel marries Elizabeth and that at some point in the future, either during the marriage or after its dissolution, Elizabeth and Nigel's father, Howard, fall in love and decide they want to get married. That's what I mean by in-laws not usually going together like a horse and carriage.

Well, sure, of course not, you say. The whole idea is creepy. So why make an issue out of the obvious? Because in jolly old England -- which heretofore never allowed such intra-in-law jolliness to be consummated in marriage -- the winds of change are blowing, and they're coming from the direction of the continent that looms just across the Channel.

It has been determined by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, that England's prohibition on marriages between parents-in-law and their children-in-law is a breach of human rights as laid out in something called the Convention On Human Rights. Of course, the European Court of Human Rights is not to be confused with the European Court of Justice which is headquartered in Luxembourg and serves as the court of the European Union, which is not to be confused with the Council of Europe, which is an international organization of 46 member states in the European region and whose adjudications on questions of human rights take place in the European Court of Human Rights, which brings us back full circle.

Yes, it all gets a bit confusing, but not nearly as confusing as British family life may get if the idea of intimate in-laws ever gets popular and goes beyond a handful of self-absorbed oddballs with no impulse control, sense of propriety or concern for the emotional damage to others.

The ruling came in a case brought by a couple who were refused the right to marry in Britain because the man, aged 59, was the father-in-law of the woman, more than 20 years his junior. The British government had argued that the existing ban on in-law marriages protected the family and morality, prevented sexual competition between parents and children, and shielded children from confusion, anxiety and harm.

Laudable goals, the European Court agreed, but bloody tough luck, old chaps. Such goals simply can't be allowed to trump "human rights," and when it comes to marriage, the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is a signatory, states very specifically: "Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right." And since neither incest nor any other criminal laws would be violated by in-law marriages, score another one for "human rights."

While the concept of in-laws marrying isn't exactly the same, it reminds one of Woody Allen and what he said in response to criticism after he married the adopted daughter of his longtime lover, Mia Farrow: "The heart wants what it wants." You know, like, end of story, get off my back? Apparently, in Woody's mind, the key exculpatory word in that terse and dismissive six-word declaration was "heart." In other words, since the heart itself is perceived as good, then if we're talking about something the heart wants, how can that possibly be a bad thing?

Well, gee, I don't know, Woody, maybe because if the heart gets any and everything it wants, it can do devastating damage to the hearts of others involved, like Mia, your former girl friend and adoptive mother of your child bride. What do you suppose their relationship is going to be like for the rest of their lives?

But hey, the "heart wants what it wants" and since there was no blood relationship, it wasn't illegal for Woody to marry the adopted daughter of his girl friend -- it was merely shameful. And it's the same basic logic behind the European Court's ruling with in-laws: they aren't related by blood, so why shouldn't they be allowed to get married?

The court might ask itself, however, in view of most of Western Europe's current death-spiral demographics, why legalize something that could do damage to what's left of the traditional family unit and from which no good can come (unless you count the indulgence of impulsive and shameless oddballs)? But we're not likely to see any globally simulcast, star-studded rock concerts for the cause of preserving the traditional family unit, are we?

Maybe in postmodern, post-Christian Europe the traditional family unit is destined to become as quaint and outdated as the horse and carriage, in which case those arguing for the British government and the continuance of the in-law marriage ban were nothing more than a bunch of broke-down old nags and neigh-sayers. Looks like on this matter, they got put out to pasture.

Greg Strange's web site can be found at http://www.greg-strange.com. (c) 2005 Greg Strange

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