A woman emerges from a failed relationship of two years’ duration.  Despondent over the relationship’s demise, she laments that family, friends, and work colleagues do not seem to grasp the depth of her despair. “It’s like a divorce!” she grieves. Except it isn’t.  She and her male partner were never married. They were merely cohabiting.

The shift toward private, contractual ordering of romantic and familial relationships in recent years has prompted such confusions.  The proliferation of a plethora of possible familial arrangements, including traditional marriage, open marriage, same-sex marriage, polygamy, polyamory, cohabitation, nonmarriage, and others has raised new questions about the nature (and future) of marriage vis-à-vis its myriad alternatives.

It is tempting to view this array of alternatives as yet another manifestation of what eminent sociologist, Robert Bellah, and his colleagues famously identified as the “expressive individualism” of contemporary life.  Individuals increasingly see relationships, even intimate romantic and familial ones, as venues for self-expression and self-constitution of identity.  This is consistent with our culture’s reigning philosophy of political liberalism, with its emphasis on autonomy, privacy, and choice.

But relationships do not form or exist in a vacuum.  Self-expression requires an audience. Relationships require recognition.  They are usually based on longstanding social scripts, or what some might call “tradition.” The decision to marry indicates a certain level of commitment with which partners enter the relationship.  If and when that relationship ends, a loss is seen to have occurred.  To take the example with which these reflections began, the demise of a serious relationship often earns one a higher permissibility of grief and entitlement to social sympathy than the termination of a more transient relationship.

The significance of recognition also seems to underlie the arguments of the plaintiffs and the judgment of the court in the recent decision by the Supreme Court of California upholding same-sex marriage.  Therein the California court focused expansively not only on the right to same-sex marriage, but also on the crucial forms of recognition that accompany that right.  It returned over and over to the question of whether the state’s statutory scheme gives both heterosexual and same-sex couples the right to enter into an “officially recognized family relationship,” a phrase that echoes like a mantra throughout the decision.  It determined that a schema that would officially designate heterosexual relationships as “marriages” and same-sex relationships as “domestic partnerships” violated the California Constitution.

Words like “official” and “designation” are consummately bureaucratic terms.  But substitute “recognition” and “naming” in their place—“a rose by any other name”—and the weight and significance are more apparent.  Naming is definition.  The power to name is the power to norm.  And recognition is a relationship, not only between individuals and the state, but among people in society.

It would seem that it was with such concerns in mind that the Court insisted over and over on the legal and social significance, as well as the respect and dignity, of the “officially recognized and protected family,” affirming the validity of the gay and lesbian plaintiffs’ insistence on “marriage,” as opposed to “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships,” or some other statutory designation.  Even though the Court declined, in discussing the various “distinction[s] in nomenclature,” to rule outright “whether the name ‘marriage’ is invariably a core element of the state constitutional right to marry,” its repeated emphasis on the “official recognition” of families as a means of conferring dignity, respect, and equality upon them inclines in that direction. Ultimately, the Court stood wholesale for the right to marry as the “right of an individual to establish a legally recognized family with the person of one’s choice, and, as such, is of fundamental significance both to society and to the individual.”

At times it has been noted that same-sex partners seeking marriage are playing the role of “new traditionalists.” Not all gays and lesbians want to be married—nor do all heterosexuals for that matter.  Again, to take up the opening example, there having been no rings on fingers or wedding invitations, the friends and family of the woman in question may simply have assumed that the relationship was of a casual nature.  In fact, some of the most interesting recent arguments in family law have had to do with proposals to treat relationships that “walk and talk” like a marriage as marriages in ways that risk imposing on those relationships more social assumptions and legal obligations than the partners themselves might wish to bear.  Sharing a bed is one thing, sharing student loan or credit card debts is quite another.

So when we talk about relationships, we need also to talk about recognition.  Relationships may be crucial to our individual identities.  They may, indeed, be arenas of self-expression.  But when relationships demand something of the society beyond the couple—legal validity, religious blessing, economic benefits, or social niceties—we need to take into account not only the individual intentions and expressive capacities of the parties, but also their need for recognition and the inclination and capacity of the wider society to provide it.  Individuals may seek to privately order their relationships in all sorts of ways, but absent social scripts and frameworks to recognize those orderings, the response from the wider society from whom recognition is sought might be, to paraphrase the query from actor Robert De Niro’s famous mirror soliloquy as the character Travis Bickle, in the movie “Taxi Driver”: You talkin’ to us?