(Used by permission)
by Edmund Bon
EDMUND BON, a lawyer and a human rights advocate, is a lover of life and liberal freedom. He believes that the struggle for true civil society is a struggle of ideologies rooted in questions of human dignity, rights, liberty and beer. He wants to give and receive love. He is also looking for a dog. Roses and brickbats are welcomed.
Athena lives in Romanceland. Tristan lives in Realand. They are both 29 and have been very much in love for five years now.
Athena believes in romance and being romanced – she wants nothing more than to settle down, to marry her first boyfriend, to only engage in a sexual relationship after marriage, to have four kids, to grow old together with her husband, and to look forward to grandchildren. She expects doors to be opened for her, the man to propose on his knees, to be wined and dined and sent flowers on expected occasions. She is passionate. She is ruled by her heart, stirred by her emotions and acts on her feelings. She wants to wake up everyday to the man she loves. Love to her is the feeling of being with someone she cannot be without.
Tristan believes in reality – it is enough for him to have a friend to talk to, to be with a companion who provides support, to have a sexual relationship without the ties of matrimony, to be independent and to advance his career. He wants a girlfriend and a stable relationship, yet, at the same time he also wants to be free to enjoy life as an individual. He wants to meet other people. He wants to travel the world. He is rational and reasoned, detached from affairs of the heart. Settling down is the last thing on his mind. If his relationship with Athena does not work out, he would move on to be with another person. Love to him is being with the "best" person at the present time, place and circumstances.
Athena wants to get married. Tristan does not. Athena will break–up with Tristan if they do not get married soon. What is my point? Before I get to it, let me explain a concept.
One common religious and cultural account of the genesis of the male–female relationship is found in the Bible. God took one of Man's ribs and created Woman therefrom: "she shall be called 'woman' for she was taken out of man. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." (Genesis 2:23–24). This view of the male–female relationship has three characteristics: (1) the 'leaving' of a man's father and mother which denotes the public manifestation of the relationship by way of marriage which includes the formal acts of solemnisation and registration – the social factor, (2) the 'unity' of man and woman which denotes the personal connection, the unity of mind and heart – the spiritual factor and (3) 'becoming one' denotes the physical, intimate and eros side of the relationship culminating in offspring – the sexual factor.
A relationship therefore, is not be solely represented by the facet of marriage. Yet, today, we live in a world which places undue emphasis and focus on marriage as the end result of all relationships. The unmarried are socially shunned and cohabitees are discriminated against legally. Children born out of wedlock are labelled bastards and are accorded no legal protection.
This position is reiterated in our law. The highest court of our land, the Federal Court, on Jan 29, 2004 in a landmark judgment interpreted the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, 1976 such that non–Muslim customary marriages after March 1, 1982 which were not registered will not be recognised under Malaysian law. The Court found that the customary marriage of Lau Yen Yoo and Leong Wen Shing according to Chinese rites on Nov 19, 1995 was invalid as it was not registered with the Registry of Marriages.
This decision reversed two previous decisions of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, both which held that notwithstanding non–registration, the act of printing and sending out wedding invitations, having friends and relatives witness the wedding, conducting the tea drinking ceremony and hosting a wedding dinner was sufficient to constitute a marriage. They reasoned that registration was only a formality and did not wish to create a community of sinners and render illegitimate children resulting from such customary marriages. The Federal Court on the other hand emphasised that the registration scheme was necessary to provide for the solemnisation of such marriages and to ensure monogamity.
Two comments quickly come to my mind. One, that the decision of the Federal Court may be seen as not being respectful or accepting of the unique and varied cultural practices of non–Muslims. This accelerates the death of such cultural practices when legislation steps in to impose homogeneity on non–Muslims. In this day and age, where there are already separate and different courts and laws for Muslims and non–Muslims, this enhanced dichotomy is unwarranted. But I will leave discussion of this issue for another day.
My second comment is that the approaches taken by the Court of Appeal and the High Court on the one hand and the Federal Court on the other exposes the opposing perceptions of marriage. In recognising the customary marriage (i.e. the 'leaving' aspect), the Court of Appeal and the High Court commendably took into account the personal relationship (i.e. the 'uniting' aspect) and the effect on the children of such marriage (i.e. the 'becoming one' aspect) in coming to its decision that registration is unnecessary and is merely a formality.
The Federal Court on the other hand, considered the matter purely on the registration of marriage (i.e. the 'leaving' aspect) and with one stroke, disregarded the relationship between the parties involved (i.e. both the 'uniting' aspect and the 'becoming one' aspect). Imagine being told in 2004 that you were never married to the man you were in love with in 1995 because you did not register the marriage. Is that how we wish to govern human relationships? Should the black letter of the law be allowed to dismiss the relationship between two people who love each other? Simply put, the Federal Court placed the form of marriage over the substance thereof in deciding the validity of the relationship.
Consider the Beckham saga. One of the main reasons Sarah Marbeck and Rebecca Loos were able to sell their stories at such ridiculous prices was because David Beckham is married with kids and he was the embodiment of a 'true' family man. This would not have been possible if Beckham was single. Does anyone care if an unmarried man slept around?
Marriage is overrated
And that is my point. Too much today rests on the idea that marriage represents all the good in a relationship and is the end–game for all relationships. Why do people actually want to get married? Being married in itself is not a bad thing, but nowadays, people get married for the wrong reasons as if marriage is an end in itself and is inevitable. Marriage viewed as such becomes a formality. It becomes an institution without value. It is overrated. And though everyday a good number of people get married, but the holistic concept of marriage as a personification of both the 'uniting' and 'becoming one' aspects of a relationship, is dying and it will soon be dead.
What is the effect of this loss – of the emphasis is on the form of marriage rather than the substance thereof? Young marriages. Rising divorce rates. It is a downward spiral – marriage is emphasised as the ultimate goal of a relationship. People get married without truly understanding or appreciating the relationship in an emotional or spiritual way, but that requirement can be sidelined anyway as it is not too difficult to get divorced these days, and so it continues. And when there are children involved, they are the ones who ultimately suffer no matter what is done to protect them. They were never part of the decision–making process of being conceived. They did not have the choice to say, "No, I don't want to come into this world". Yet, these innocents suffer due to this lack of understanding by their parents of marriage and what it truly entails.
So, what does marriage entail? Of course, there is no general list of dos and don'ts. But one thing is true. A marriage must be based on 'love', whatever that is, for no one really knows for sure. As such, my use of the word ‘love’ merely denotes my perception of it – there is no clear definition. But that doesn't matter. The point here is that the three aspects of a relationsip, 'leaving', 'uniting', and 'becoming one', all exist because of, and arise out of, love. Our focus should be on the heart and soul of the relationship – the substance – rather than the form it takes. And when you have that, marriage is merely a manifestation of that love. Marriage is the end of one's life in some ways to enable the meshing of one's life with another's. It should be when two become one. Marriage is a serious commitment and a heavy responsibility. To undertake such a commitment and responsibility, the 'uniting' aspect must be fully undertaken, each person in his/her own way. The essentiality of this cannot be over–emphasised. This message must be put across – one should not get married unless one is truly connected to the other such that the said commitment and responsibility can be shouldered and borne after marriage.
Until and unless the focus of society is shifted to re–educate and re–emphasise the value and substance of relationships rather than the form of marriage, this unhealthy trend of marrying for the sake of being married will persist. Starting with the schools, we must re–build racial, ethnic and gender ties based on the core principles of respect for each other and humanity. Segregation by gender, race or religion must be done away with. A good way to go about this would be to adopt the standards and practices of the various international human rights conventions as benchmarks.
Another way of looking at the issue at hand would be this: That the test of success of a relationship should not be measured by the culmination or otherwise in marriage but by what the individuals in a relationship derive therefrom. Many people are choosing to co–habitate. Why not? Why can't two people who love each other live together in love without ever getting married? If two individuals can stay together forever without getting married, then I truly think their relationship is special regardless of their unmarried status. If such a view of marriage is taken, the possibility of same sex marriages will be left open. And why not, if marriage is seen merely as a formality and less important than the substance and spirituality of the relationship?
Some say marriage gives protection – claims over assets upon divorce, custody of children, maintenance, etc. Well, the Federal Court on April 9, 2004 has recently diluted this protection to an extent. It decided that a divorced father need not make maintenance payments for three of his children above the age of 18 to fund their tertiary education. Indirectly, this decision again upholds the form of marriage above its substance, and the innocent children are the ones who suffer. Besides, to receive protection by way of getting married is a wrong reason to get married.
Some say because having children is the ultimate desire and/or age is catching up, marriage is necessary. If those are the reasons for getting married, then there should be a re–think. The belief that marriage as a must in order to have children is a social construct of society. It is linked to the reason some give that social, religious, cultural, family or peer pressures insist on marriage taking place. It is precisely these same pressures which results in children born out of wedlock being shunned, and unmarried couples cohabiting secretly.
Some say marriage is the next stage in the relationship, that they do not want to lose each other. Yes, such a reason is acceptable but only if as stated above, the 'uniting' aspect has been fully achieved. Don't get married just because there is no one better at the moment, or to have sex regularly, or just because there is nothing else in your life to do or achieve. Those who get married for the last reason do not see life as an adventure – they do not seek to enjoy it beyond the confines of what surrounds them, they do not reach out to seize each day, they do not seek to suck the marrow of life, pleasures are received and not sought, they are contented and comfortable. Hence marriage is probably the most exciting undertaking for them. It is getting married by default. I do not mean this in a denigrating or insulting way. Everyone is entitled to their own way of life. But I personally hold that this is not a good reason to be married.
What is love?
Some say that they are in love. This is a valid reason but one should ensure that there is no confusion between love, lust, like, boredom or familiarity. Feelings of lust, like, boredom, and familiarity are not love. What's my point? That you must truly consider and discover the real reasons behind your feelings for someone before deciding that it is love.
So hold on to the rationale that it is better to stay unmarried than to get married for the wrong reasons or to the wrong person. Live life to the fullest. Look at the world around you. The best way to decide on who, when and whether to marry is to meet as many people as possible, experience all that life has to offer, all the feelings of joy and sorrow, ups and downs of relationships. After all, it was Kahlil Gibran who said: "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked….The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you contain….When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight….But I say unto you, they are inseparable." Settle down only when you have found your love. Make the wedding vow based on an informed, exhaustive choice. Do not get married because you are tired or curious.
The bottom line, the way I see it, is that the myriad of reasons frequently given for marriage do not live up to what marriage was originally made out or intended to be.
And that is probably the essential paradox of marriage. Love as a human emotion is a creature unto itself, indescribable, indestructible, enduring, imperishable and uncontrollable. It cannot be legislated. Being in love is probably the greatest feeling one will ever know and the sorrow caused by love gone wrong is probably the most devastating feeling one will ever endure. Marriage, as a form to encapsulate love is neither sufficient nor complete.
So what is love? I do not know. A close friend described it as such: "Love is something that hits you when you are not looking, an entity that brings you to the heights of Mount Everest to the borders of hell's mouth, all in a swag of a cycle. I suppose the true test of love is whether you are able to or rather, want to stomach the ups and downs of the unpredictable journey ahead."
Perhaps it is best defined as the 'X' factor. That something that hits you like a thunder bolt when you meet someone. You never forget it. You do not understand it. It is getting all tingly and warm when you hug and kiss. It is wanting to wake up everyday with that person beside you. It is greeting everyday all energized by the thought of being with that person. Compliments by that person still make you blush. If it means meeting up when you have had only four hours of sleep. If it means talking on the phone for four hours when you are extremely tired, you do it. And it does not mean giving up your goals and career – all it means is pushing yourself a little harder for each other.
Khalil Gibran wrote: "Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed. For love is sufficient unto love.…And think not you can direct the course of love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.…To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly and joyfully. To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving; To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy; To return home at eventide with gratitude; And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips."
Athena and Tristan marry.
(Used by permission)