Why shouldn’t three people get married?

The Guardian (UK) 30 August 2012
Jean Hannah Edelstein

Three Brazilians in love have their nation up in arms over whether their relationship, now enshrined in a three-way marriage, is legal. The public notary who conducted their marriage says there’s no reason the threesome – or “thruple”, as the internet has charmingly labelled it – shouldn’t enjoy the same kinds of rights imparted upon two people who get hitched. But traditionalists are not impressed: lawyer Regina Beatriz Tavares da Silva, of the Commission for the Rights of the Family, has it “absurd and totally illegal”.

Speaking of absurd, shall we take a moment to consider traditional marriage? We do adore it: in the UK, just under half the population has chosen to pledge to love another person as long as they both shall live, or as long as they don’t get divorced. And yet as we shoehorn ourselves into two-by-two formation, we’re not that good at keeping our promises: as Helen Croydon has pointed out, breaking the boundaries of monogamy is far from unusual. Plenty of marriages have three people in them. They’re just not legal ones.

A good old-fashioned monogamous marriage works beautifully for some. But even the most successful marriages are special and unique and incredibly weird. For much as we have a sweet collective imagining of what a happy union entails, the reality is that they all deviate from the fantasy norm, pretty much from the time that the certificate is signed, the chicken is noshed and the bouquet is chucked. The government can dictate that two people should be in a marriage, but it can’t legislate what will make them feel happy or stable or emotionally complete together. And if we accept that, as we do every time we allow anyone the freedom to make a decision about who they’ll marry, and furthermore allow them the freedom to call each other by execrable pet names in public, then does it not begin to seem strange, just a bit, that we do allow the government to dictate how many people are allowed to pledge to be together forever? Perhaps even as strange as it is for government to dictate who can do it based on their gender?

This is not about the advocacy of patriarchal polygamy that regards wives as unequal to, or property of, their husbands. But if three, or four, or 17 people want to marry each other simultaneously and equally, why should they not be granted the same status as two people who want to become a legal family? Without reverting to religious arguments, or logistical ones (does Ikea manufacture a big enough bed to accommodate this union?), it begins to feel a bit illiberal.

Is it possible that if we allowed more people to marry simultaneously that more marriages might be successful? Fewer breakups over infidelity might occur, for example, if those who found themselves in love with more than one person didn’t have to choose or conceal their feelings. And relaxing the expectation that one partner should fulfil all of one’s needs – good sex, complementary taste in television and shared preference for dogs over cats may just be too much to ask for – might mean that people who opt for a portfolio of other halves (or thirds) could outdo the rest of us in happiness.

Legalisation wouldn’t send stampedes of people to the registry office in five-aside squads; for many of us, monogamy does feel the most comfortable option, whether it’s because our brains aren’t wired to love more than one person or because the prospect of making multiple people happy is too complex. But three’s not a crowd for everyone. And as long as everyone is entering a marriage equally, as long as everyone is really going to make an effort to be open and honest to everyone else, it’s probably not the government’s job to tell them how many of them there should be.

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