I hate to break it to Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, but the biggest threat to so-called traditional marriage isn't gay marriage. It's love, actually. And economics.

As someone who's been married to the same person for nearly 30 years (sometimes through gritted teeth), I'm obviously on the side of marriage.

I'm also Pacific Island-born and partial to the Bible, which some say should pit me against the evils of same-sex marriage. Except it doesn't. I have one thing in common with Mangere MP Sua William Sio, though. I'd rather be talking about economic justice.

I've no doubt the disquiet Sua's heard among his conservative churchgoing Pacific constituents is real enough, even though a 2011 Research New Zealand poll found Maori and Pacific people were actually more in favour of same-sex marriage than Pakeha.


But I wish Sua had thought to point out that Pacific people should be the last to deny another minority group a human right.

According to Colin Craig, marriage isn't really a right, gay marriage threatens "traditional" marriage, and Governments shouldn't be in the business of defining marriage because marriage pre-dates government. Actually, Governments have been doing precisely that for hundreds of years.

As for "traditional" marriage, what exactly does that look like? Is it polygyny (where a man can have multiple wives), the marriage form found in more places and at more times than any other, and which was acceptable in biblical times?

Does it include the beating of wives, once lawful in "traditional" marriages? Or the prohibition against mixed-race marriages, which not so long ago in many parts of the US made it illegal for whites to marry blacks (as well as a bunch of alien "others")?

As the American historian Stephanie Coontz argues in her fascinating 2005 book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, what we think of as traditional are actually relatively recent innovations.

For example, the "tradition" that marriage has to be licensed by the state or sanctioned by the church.

"In Ancient Rome the difference between cohabitation and legal marriage depended solely upon the partners' intent. Even the Catholic Church long held that if a man and woman said they had privately agreed to marry ... they were in fact married. For more than 1000 years the church just took their word for it."

In most parts of the globe, the real traditional marriage was about economic and political gain. The love-based marriage (and the 1950s male breadwinner ideal) is a relatively new thing.


"Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love. For thousands of years the theme song for most weddings could have been What's Love Got to Do with It?

It wasn't until the eighteenth century that " ... people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love".

But romantic as the love-match was, it was also a more unstable model than its pragmatic forerunners. If love and self-fulfillment were the foundations of marriage, then people were entitled not to marry, or to leave a marriage, if it didn't meet their needs.

"No sooner had the ideal of the love match and lifelong intimacy taken hold than people began to demand the right to divorce. No sooner did people agree that families should serve children's needs than they began to find the legal penalties for illegitimacy inhumane. Some people demanded equal rights for women so they could survive economically without having to enter loveless marriages."

As well as changing attitudes and expectations, marriage was transformed by a "perfect storm" of legal, political and economic forces in the 80s and 90s.

"[Women] had access to legal rights, education, birth control, and decent jobs. Suddenly, divorce was easy to get. At the same time, traditional family arrangements became more difficult to sustain in the new economy.

"And the new sexual mores, growing tolerance for out-of-wedlock births, and rising aspirations for self-fulfillment changed the cultural milieu in which people made decisions about their personal relationships."

The demand for same-sex marriage was "an inevitable result of the previous revolution in heterosexual marriage". But it isn't the threat its opponents claim it to be.

Divorce, single parenthood, and cohabitation among heterosexuals, among other things, had "already reshaped the role of marriage in society and its meaning in people's lives".

Marriage isn't doomed, writes Coontz. It remains "the highest expression of commitment in our culture, and comes packaged with exacting expectations and responsibility, fidelity, and intimacy".

And while marriage has become "more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history", it has also become "more optional and more brittle. These two strands cannot be disentangled."

Debate on this article is now closed.