In the late nineteenth century, a new category of law—‘the family’—spread across and beyond Europe via new legal codes and scholarship. These made explicit the relationship between marriage, the family and the state and emphasised the interiority of the family as a ‘protective’ enclave. Yet the incoherence of this position as it played out in legislative debate is often overlooked. This article examines parliamentary debates over mixed marriages in Hungary, as an interesting window on the state’s inability to clarify political priorities vis-a`-vis the family. Catholic factions and anti-clerical opposition alike were troubled by the idea of state intervention in any form, in a century characterised by a general tendency towards state legislation as a primary source of law. This ambiguity revealed itself as a series of oscillations that were located squarely within the deep ambiguities of modern European legal culture concerning the family as a site of cultural freedom and as a (necessary) target of state intervention. These oscillations undermined what might be described as a straightforward patriarchal approach to gender order in family law.