Shelley Bridgeman 's Opinion

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Can you kiss your cousin?

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Don't be worried, in NZ you can kiss your cousin.Photo / Thinkstock
Don't be worried, in NZ you can kiss your cousin.Photo / Thinkstock

There's an enduring misconception that it is not lawful to marry one's cousin.

Thirty-two examples of "Forbidden marriages" are listed on the Notice of Intended Marriage certificate. People you are not permitted to marry include: your grandmother or grandfather, your stepmother or stepfather, your sister or brother, your sister's daughter or sister's son, your grandson's civil union partner or granddaughter's civil union partner, your civil union partner's granddaughter or grandson - and plenty more besides.

There are all sorts of convoluted relationships that are officially deemed taboo yet cousins are most definitely not on the list. There is nothing in New Zealand law to prevent first cousins (or, indeed, any cousins) from entering into a relationship, getting married and having children.

Yet society displays some sort of inbuilt aversion to such a union. People express reticence, disapproval and even revulsion at the prospect of kissing cousins. There's a sense in some quarters that it's a relationship akin to incest and should be discouraged at all costs. A few years ago I was asked by a magazine to write a feature about married cousins but none of the subjects I contacted agreed to be interviewed. Most cited the associated stigma as the reason for this reluctance.

A website called CousinCouples tries to demystify such unions by listing famous people who have married their cousin. Charles Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood. HG Wells married his first cousin, Isabel Mary Wells. Greta Scacchi had a child with her first cousin, Carlo Mantegazza.

The United States takes a hard-line on first cousins marrying. According to Keeping Marriage in the Family it is prohibited in 24 states and restricted to couples unable to reproduce in a handful of other states.

Potential genetic problems with any resultant offspring is the most often cited practical reason why such pairings are not desirable.

"Perhaps the most pervasive, and unmerited, argument regarding cousin marriages is that the children born to such couples will have mental or physical disabilities, which become a burden on society in terms of tax dollars," says CousinCouples.

"The facts show that first cousins have the same increased risk of having a baby with birth defects as a woman over 30 or 35."

My cousin, my love - which states that "Britain has an established tradition of cousin couples ... Traditionally they married to keep wealth in the family" - reports that "the chance of a child inheriting genetic disorders rises from around 2 per cent in the general population to 4% if the parents are cousins. In other words, cousins have a 96 per cent chance of producing a normal baby."

But even the experts disagree about the significance of this. In Row over health risk to cousins who marry it was reported that scientists and health experts were to meet to discuss "the controversial subject of marriages between cousins and their impact on health in Britain." Some researchers say "inter-cousin unions ... have led to a striking rise in the incidence of rare recessive disorders" while others believe the increased risk of birth defects lies within reasonable limits.

Attitudinally, the continued disapproval towards cousin couples seems out of step with our increasingly liberal outlooks on other once frowned upon relationships. When considered in light of growing widespread acceptance of, for example, gay marriage, any reluctance to afford loved-up cousins a similar respect seems ill-considered and hypocritical.

What's your view on cousins marrying? If you disapprove, what exactly is your concern with such a relationship? And, if you have married your cousin, have your faced any strange reactions from others?

Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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