Redefining Marriage, Part 5: The “No” of Marriage

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As Christians, we believe that the institution of marriage is a reflection the universal human vocation to love. It is a union of free and equal persons, a partnership ordered toward the perfection of the spouses. It is also a reflection of the divine romance, of God’s love for mankind and more particularly of Christ’s love for the Church. Within the Christian economy marriage has been elevated to the dignity of a sacrament.

All of these things are true, but none of them is the rationale for the institution of marriage as a civil reality recognized and regulated by the state. Certainly we have not yet touched on the essential reason why, as discussed in Part 4, marriage as the enduring union of a man and a woman is a socio-cultural constant found throughout all of human history, culture and civilization. Indeed, marriage as it has existed in many times and places wouldn’t especially suggest the description in that last paragraph at all. The notion of a “union of free and equal persons” is quite contrary to the reality of many patriarchal cultures, and the idea of a “universal human vocation to love” would be unknown in many times and places. Yet marriage itself as the union of a man and a woman is not likewise variable.

This suggests a fundamental social impetus for marriage that is not touched on above—some practical, naturalistic, even Darwinian reason why societies need marriage and will suffer without it. The obvious factor not addressed above is this: (a) Men and women engage in sexual relations, and (b) men and women having sexual relations is where babies come from. To these we may add a third: (c) Human babies are born helpless and require a long period of intensive care and education before they are ready to be self-sufficient.

It is no answer to this to object, as same-sex “marriage” advocates invariably do, that some married couples are infertile or sterile, or that post-fertile couples marry. It remains the case that if human young did not require such an enormous investment—if like the young of many species they were self-sufficient after a few months—or if, say, women became pregnant spontaneously without sexual relations with men, marriage as we know it would not exist. We could still imagine a universal vocation to love in such a world, and people might have reasons rooted in religion or tradition for forming special bonds or partnerships between persons, but such practices would likely be highly variable and in many cultures entirely unknown.

In a word, marriage as a social reality has existed throughout human history in order to to regulate sexual activity between men and women for the good of society and the next generation. For all of marriage’s glories and freedoms, marriage as a social reality is largely about society telling both married and unmarried men and women whom they may not have sex with. (Again, as discussed in Part 4, this is not to say that Christian ideals of chastity and monogamy are found in every culture; still, marriage is always the privileged place for socially sanctioned sexual relations, and outside of that context are significant if not always absolute proscriptions or taboos.)

From the dawn of human history, men have devoted enormous energy toward the goal having sex with women. In the absence of some sort of constraint, whether moral, social or prudential, few goals are more obviously attractive and rewarding for a typical healthy, unattached male than coupling with a suitable woman. Both consciously and subconsciously, he is highly motivated to pursue this goal, and to pursue it often.

In the absence of moral, social or prudential considerations, few men would be inclined to limit their pursuit of this goal to a single woman. Promiscuity, after all, can be a highly successful reproductive strategy for the individual male as well as a successful recreational one. A promiscuous male can potentially father many more children than a male who forms a stable partnership with one woman, because he can father multiple children simultaneously.

Such a man’s children may grow up comparatively disadvantaged, without the benefits of a present, involved father (see Part 3), but what his approach lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity. If, still prescinding from moral and social constraints, he can get children with a woman who happens already to have formed a stable partnership with a male who is likely to provide for the woman’s children, whether or not they are his (and especially if he doesn’t know), so much the better from the promiscuous father’s point of view.

The promiscuous man’s approach offers many advantages for him; it is notably less advantageous for the women who bear his children. Women have always had far more invested in a sexual encounter than men, and this inequality is heightened by promiscuity. That’s why on the whole women tend to be choosier about potential partners than men—and why parents tend to worry more about their daughters than their sons.

As that last point suggests, irresponsible male behavior isn’t only the woman’s problem. The support of those disadvantaged children tends to become society’s problem—the problem of the community upon whom the burden of the father’s abdicated responsibility falls, whether that community is an unattached woman’s parents or extended family, a cuckolded husband, or social welfare mechanisms and the society that supports them. Such children are a greater burden to raise and tend not to be as productive in adulthood, perhaps particularly in a developed society.

Society can partially mitigate such imbalances in various ways, for example with laws requiring paternal support. But there is no better equalizer, no more ideal scenario that serves children best and benefits society most, than a father and mother working together for the long haul to raise the children they bring into the world. This is not to say that a heroic single parent or a good adoptive family can’t also do a good job raising children, or that a troubled family can’t do a poor job. Nor is it to say that children cannot be successfully raised in other contexts, including step-families (a topic I will return to later). On the whole, though, father and mother working together to raise their biological children represents society’s best hope for the next generation.

There are many reasons for this. A father and mother who have brought children into the world are uniquely responsible for them—responsible for their very existence—and there is an innate tendency, rooted in biology, to embrace those children not only as their responsibility but also as their legacy, their posterity. A couple working together for their own biological offspring have a unique impetus to work and sacrifice for their children’s welfare and success. The sexual bond between the couple provides a foundation for a stable partnership, and if additional children come along this further reinforces and extends the partnership.

Unsurprisingly, since children being raised by their parents is the best and usual arrangement, children are well adapted to it. Children in a stable household founded on a stable marriage feel secure and thrive. The partnership of father and mother provides a foundation for their own future relationships. Fathers and mothers tend to parent differently, and children benefit from the diversity of the two. While children of both sexes benefit from both parents, a father is obviously an irreplaceable role model for a boy, and a mother is an irreplaceable role model for a girl.

More to come.

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