Saturday, May 16, 2009

What if the State Says You're Not Married?

A friend in France recently tried to update his passport.  The passport office asked for a certfication of his marriage which took place in Germany while he was on military duty. Germany has no record of his marriage license which was issued about 40 years and one child ago. My friend wrote me: Does this mean I'm not married?
His question was not meant in the legal sense. He was asking on the philosophical level -- what does it mean to be married?  Does _married_ mean you have a piece of paper on file with the government?  Is that it?
Some places have legal statutes that define common-law marriage, granting legal marital status to folks who live together without buying a marriage license. Does France? Does a common-law marriage qualify to update a passport? Does my friend have to buy a new marriage license in France?  Does he have to get all the blood tests? Exactly, what is marriage?
That's the question that keeps coming up.  What does it mean to be married?
My friend has shared his life with the woman he loves. He has raised a child with her. He and the woman he loves are now helping to raise their grandchildren, teaching them music, reading to them, taking them to parks. They have run and sold a business together. They have been through illness, fights, family problems, all the stuff that complicates life -- the stuff that makes marriage worthwhile.  But that is not what the passport office cares about. They want a piece of paper, that despite my friend's best efforts, does not exist.
Marriage, the stuff of romance, of practicality, of companionship and complexity, is not about humans, but about bureaucracy.  In my world, my friend is married because he wants to be. In France, his intent has no meaning at all. His marriage is just a piece of paper that does not exist. 

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