Redefining Marriage, Part 6: The “Yes” of Marriage

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How have societies gone about producing the type of long-term father-mother partnerships discussed in Part 5? In particular, how does society elicit this investment from men in spite of what would seem to be a strong natural inducement toward promiscuity?

Throughout history, societies have done this by creating cultural milieux in which, to varying degrees, sex outside of a sanctioned, enduring relationship is discouraged (forbidden, taboo and/or punishable) and comparatively hard to get, while such sanctioned, enduring relationships are the expected and respectable norm. Once again, I’m not saying that the Christian ideals of chastity, monogomay and fidelity have always been the ideal in theory or in practice, but a convergence of sexual ethics across cultures tending in this direction can certainly be observed.

The tart idiom “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” expresses tolerably well both the man’s natural disposition and the community’s interest in ensuring that he is not free to indulge himself as he sees fit. “Getting the milk for free” must be discouraged—and it must be discouraged across the board. The virtue of half the women in a community is undermined if the other half are reliably wanton. Communities therefore have historically shamed wanton behavior, and shamed the families in which it occurs.

Too often this has been taken to grotesque and tragic extremes, up to and including honor killings. Too often, too, the burden and consequences of social stigma have fallen disproportionately or entirely on women, who already bear all the physical difficulties of procreation (and precisely because of that fact). Even so, in principle the shame mechanism and other forms of stigma have a clear benefit for society. (“Buying the cow” is obviously a demeaning metaphor, intentionally so, since the expression itself has a shaming function and is only cited by way of criticizing wanton behavior. It’s only when the milk is free that the cow metaphor is used.)

The health of marriage as a social institution is directly related to this social mechanism of problematizing sex outside of marriage. As noted in Part 5, marriage as a social institution has always existed to regulate sexual activity between men and women for the good of society and the next generation. In a society that imposes no meaningful obstacles to or consequences for sexual irresponsibility, or that imposes only weak obstacles or consequences, marriage cannot perform this essential function. A culture that cannot clearly affirm the “No” of marriage is a society in which the “Yes” of marriage loses its meaning.

In such a culture, responsible behavior will become the exception rather than the rule. Some men and women will still form faithful, long-term relationships, partly because of the natural advantages of this type of behavior and partly because psychologically and spiritually we are made for love and virtue. But marriage as an institution cannot thrive in such a culture, and the culture itself will suffer for it, as in fact our culture is suffering from increasingly absentee fatherhood (see Part 3).

It has never been the case, of course, that all children enjoy the benefits of being raised by their biological father and mother. A parent may be abandoned or widowed and left to raise the children alone. A single parent may partner with grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives; they may rely on neighbors, nurses, nannies, babysitters or daycare services. (Any of these extramarital sources of support may also be involved, of course, where there is an intact marriage.)

Additionally, a single parent may go on to marry someone else, forming a step-family. Only in this case, though, has the new domestic arrangement been regarded as a marriage. If a divorced mother and widowed grandmother are raising a child together, their partnership may be as vital to that child’s well-being as that of a father and mother. Yet in no society in the world would they ever have been married.

It could be objected that marriage is for creating kinship, and since the mother and grandmother are already family, marriage would be redundant. In our society, though, a “marriage” would allow, for example, the grandmother to benefit from the working mother’s work-provided benefits. Beyond that, we could imagine a divorced mother living with a widowed neighbor instead of her own mother. In that case, there would be no kinship bond.

None of this changes the fundamental reality, noted in Part 5, that marriage as a social institution exists to regulate sexual activity between men and women for the good of society and the next generation. That is why a divorced mother who marries a new husband is recognized as marrying him—not because they will be partnering to care for children who have come into the world by some means, but because she is a woman and he is a man, and marriage exists to regulate sexual activity between men and women, which is where babies come from in the first place.

It is no objection to this to note, as same-sex “marriage” advocates constantly do, that some married couples are infecund. The large majority of marriages in history have necessarily been contracted in the absence of any knowledge of the partners’ fecundity. Moreover, while it has always been possible for fecundity to be definitively established, infecundity has historically been and largely remains elusive. A couple many be childless for many years and suddenly be surprised with a pregnancy. Communities have never had the leisure of marrying only those men and women who can and will bear children. The safest and best course for society is to treat every pairing of a man and a woman as potentially fruitful.

It even serves the social good of marriage to treat men and women who partner after normal childbearing years in the same way. That is the other favorite example of same-sex “marriage” advocates: If marriage is all about procreation, why should aged couples be allowed to marry? What this really means, I suppose, is why should women well past menopause be allowed to marry, since for male fertility there is a decline but no definitive end. (Even with female fertility there is a gradual transition rather than an abrupt cessation, and surprises can still happen for some time.)

Part of the answer, of course, is that elderly couples can obviously be married, because every married couple reaches old age unless one is prematurely bereaved of the other. A marriage of elderly people is in keeping with the institution of marriage. Beyond that, society’s vested interest in regulating sexual relations between men and women extends even to those beyond childbearing years. While unregulated or unsanctioned relations between men and women past childbearing years might not result in children born out of wedlock, it still tends to undermine the social ethic regarding marriage as the privileged context for socially sanctioned sexual relations between men and women.

A rule that applies to older members of the community as well as younger ones is stronger for it; indeed, particularly in societies with a healthy respect for elders, the natural authority of older members of the community strengthens the rule. Younger people often feel freer to disregard rules that they see their elders disregarding. As noted above, “free milk” must be discouraged across the board to keep the premium as healthy as possible. Communities would gain nothing, and would stand to erode the moral force of marriage, by adding riders such as “Women well past menopause are free to shack up or fool around,” etc.

In short, the more closely and firmly a culture adheres to a simple, strong and clear rule like “Men and women must be married to sleep together,” the healthier marriage as a social institution is likely to be in that culture. Not only does the absolute rule correspond to the reality that we are made for love and virtue and that promiscuity is spiritually and psychologically unhealthy, it also serves the community’s interest in regulating sexual relations between men and women as well.

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